With a muzzy shake of his head, the gentleman twitched at the damp greatcoat draped over his shoulders. No, he decided, that was not quite an apt description of his current mood. At the moment, it was more of a viscous black. Blacker than the squalling night that had forced him to put up at the ramshackle inn for the night. And likely to bleed into a deep, brooding claret after he polished off the two bottles of wine that had just been set down before him.
At the heavy thump of pewter tankards upon a nearby table, the throbbing at his temples grew more pronounced. His surroundings, hazed with the fumes of cheap ale, raw tobacco and labored sweat, only served to further darken his spirits.
It had been nearly a year since that very painful period in his life when disappointment and disfigurement had him seeking solace in the oblivion of alcohol. Since then, he had managed enough of a recovery from old wounds to keep his personal demons at bay. But the letter tucked away in his pocket had reawakened a whole regiment of devils in his head. Given its contents, he supposed he might be forgiven for turning back to the strategy of trying to drown the enemy in a surfeit of spirits.
He shifted his bleary gaze, somehow knocking his empty glass to the floor as he squinted through the swirls of smoke. Had that been his fourth brandy? Or fifth? He had lost count.
One thing seemed certain enough -- the red-headed barmaid, who mouthed an airy kiss as their gazes met, seemed quite willing to overlook his jugbitten condition. On delivering his latest round of drinks, she had rubbed up against his thigh, then brushed her hand across the front of his breeches while apologizing for an errant spill.
The parted lips, ripe with hints of promised pleasures, had been inviting. He had not objected when, on shifting her tray, she contrived to tumble into his lap.
"It'll be another hour 'til I get off work, luv," she murmured, ignoring the jeers of the neighboring patrons. "The old goat kicks up a dust if we ain't running ragged right up to closing. But have no fear, I'll have plenty o' legs left ta please a fine gentleman like yerself." Her gaze slid from the creased collar of his coat to the tips of his muddy Hessians, and her smile broadened. Despite the travel-worn state of his dress, its quality was unmistakable. "By the by, what shall I call ye?"
"Just...Max," answered Viscount Davenport, seeing no need to mention his title, or his full name -- Maxwell James Prescott Bingham.
"Now that's a right 'andsome name fer a right 'andsome feller." She traced a finger along his cheek. "A jealous husband?"
"A French dragoon. And as you can see, one who was a good deal more skilled at trying to put a period to my existence than any Town cuckold."
It was said with a sardonic drawl, but Davenport stiffened at the barmaid's touch. A special salve had worked miracles in reducing the once ugly gash near his eye to naught but a faint scar. Still, he was self-conscious of its existence. In truth, he felt flawed enough inside without being reminded of his other imperfections.
Sensing her flirtations had struck a raw nerve, the barmaid moved quickly to assuage the damage. "Well, it makes ye appear real rakish. An' a little bit dangerous." Her hand wove a sensuous trail through his tawny locks. "An' very, very sexy." Tilting his head back, she ran her tongue over his lower lip.
"Janey!" A bellow came from behind the taps. "The gennulmun may be paying ye te lift yer skirts, but I ain't! There's other customers wot need te be serviced."
A chorus of ribald comments rang out in agreement.
"Hold yer water," she shouted in reply.
"I will if ye hold me pego," called one wag.
Amid shouts of laughter, she gave a coy flounce of her curls, then one last caress to the viscount's chin. "I can't linger any longer, Max. But I'll come back soon."
Davenport grimaced as she sauntered off to mock applause. Lud, it had been an age since he had been with a woman! Perhaps he should consider the offer. He was not, by nature, a man of ungoverned passions. He prided himself on keeping his feelings well disciplined -- like the troops he had commanded under Wellington, they had been drilled to march in orderly ranks, unbending to urge or whim. To surrender even the smallest measure of control had always seemed a dereliction of duty.
Tonight, it was tempting to forget about duty and honor. About past mistakes. And lingering regrets. Staring morosely into the depths of his claret, the viscount rubbed at the thin white scar on his cheek. Perhaps the saucy wench might provide enough of a distraction to keep his mind off a certain other female.
The truth of the matter was, a lady had nearly as much to do with his current state of malaise as the paper crumpled in his waistcoat. No matter how hard he attempted to banish her from his head, she had bedeviled his dreams for nearly a year.
The Lady in Red.
Sizzling beauty. Fiery spirit. Was it any wonder that Olivia Marquand had burned an indelible image in his brain?
The viscount winced as his nails dug a bit too deeply into the old wound.
And yet, he had allowed her to sail back to India without so much as a simple goodbye.
It had been a wise decision, he assured himself.
Women were naught but trouble -- Sirens in silk who lured gentlemen to their doom. Once, in his youthful folly, he had allowed himself to be seduced by a blond beauty's song. Too naive to listen to the warnings of his friends, he had sailed headlong onto the rocks. The temptress had, of course, been quick to jilt him as soon as a more attractive prospect appeared on the horizon. The other fellow had lacked Davenport's pedigree, but possessed a great deal more poise and polish than a reserved young lord with little experience in Town.
Not to speak of a great deal more money.
And so he had been left to founder, his heart battered and bruised among the splintered wreckage. The pain had dulled over time to no more than an intermittent ache, but he had no intention of ever making himself so vulnerable again.
Only a bloody fool made the same mistake twice.
Quickly draining the last drops from the first bottle, the viscount started in on the second.
It was not that Olivia was anything like Arabella, he admitted. Like many Diamonds of the First Water, his former fiancée was spoiled, vain, and manipulative, intent on selling her striking looks to the highest bidder. In all fairness, he supposed she could hardly be blamed for her shallowness. Highborn young ladies were trained to think of aught else but making an advantageous match.
Olivia, on the other hand, coolly refused to submit to the tyranny of the ton. Though the daughter of an earl, she had chosen to run away from her domineering father rather than be forced into a marriage of convenience. Through a heady combination of brains and pluck, she had dared to break all the rules and create a new life for herself. One in which she controlled her own destiny -- not to speak of a vast spice empire and shipping company.
Davenport forced a frown. The irony was that if she were a man they would likely be friends. He admired her for such strength of character and gritty courage, no matter that Society did not look at all favorably upon such traits in a female. And she possessed the same sort of loyalty and resilience that he valued in his male comrades. And yet, he reminded himself roughly, it would be foolhardy to allow his feelings to grow into anything other than grudging respect. Their differences were too great -- she was rich and supremely self-assured, while he lived on a marginal income and was still battling an army of self-doubts.
Friends? Never. How absurd to imagine he could ever be friends with such a female. Duty would require him to seek a bride at some point, but she would be a quiet, biddable young lady who would never question a command, not an unflinching female who spoke her mind as if she were an equal.
The viscount's mouth thinned to a taut line. To say the least, Olivia's cool self-confidence was damned unnerving! During their short acquaintance -- a time when both of them had been involved in helping the Earl of Branford track down a traitor to the Crown -- she had not only questioned his authority, but had possessed the audacity to disobey several direct orders -- something not one of the seasoned soldiers of the Peninsular campaigns had ever dared.
The last of those occasions had turned out to be the final time he had seen her. He had thought about paying her a visit during the weeks that followed. It would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, considering all the risks they had braved together. But, for some inexplicable reason he had kept putting it off.
And then, suddenly it had been too late. She had left for India on one of her own merchant ships, no doubt to resume the running of her spice empire.
Well, it was all for the good that she had sailed out of his life, he assured himself.
Like her costly blends of rare peppers and piquant curries, Olivia Marquand was much too hot and exotic for his taste. What with her streak of fiery independence, spark of keen intelligence, and flashes of cynical wit, each encounter with the lady had left him feeling rather singed around the edges.
And then, of course, there was her smoldering sensuality. Jet-black hair that looked as shimmeringly soft as the silks she wore. Flawless complexion as lappingly inviting as a mouthful of Devonshire cream. Sinful body with curves...
The room suddenly seemed hellishly hot, and the wine like fire on his tongue. Shoving aside his glass, Davenport began to tug at the knot of his cravat, only to find his fingers replaced by a softer touch.
"Warm down here, ain't it, Max?" Having loosened the length of linen, the barmaid started on the fastenings of his shirt. "I promise ye, it will get even hotter if we was te go upstairs te yer room."
Maybe the only way to fight fire was with fire.
Thrusting himself up from his chair, Davenport caught her laughing face between his hands and covered her mouth with his. The touch of her lips, warm and pliant, set off a flare of burning need. He was achingly aware of a desperate craving to hold and be held. To feel flesh against flesh, thigh against thigh, tongues entwined. Two as one -- the pure, primal act of coupling would, for a fleeting moment of ecstasy, surely fill the raw void of emptiness.
The tips of his fingers slid down to trace the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck, the swell of her bosom. "Lud," he groaned, his hands closing over her breasts. They felt heavy and ripe beneath the thin muslin.
The barmaid arched eagerly into his embrace, her hips swaying back and forth across the front of his breeches, her nipples pressing hard against his palms. "Max." The word trailed off in a seductive sigh as she teased a lapping kiss along the length of his scar. "Come now, a man like you ain't made to be spending the night alone."
Stumbling slightly, he groped for his coat.
In the haste to turn for the stairs, her hair ribbons came undone. Burying his face in the tumble of tresses, the viscount fisted a handful of curling strands across his stubbled cheeks, breathing in the earthy muskiness. It was nothing like the subtle scent of florals and spice that perfumed his memory....
He forced his eyes open, determined to focus on the present and not the past. But in the guttering light of the candles, the coppery highlights of the barmaid's hair appeared a vivid red.
Damn the color.
In an instant, the fire went out, leaving naught but ashes. Davenport stepped back, the faint crackle of paper a further reminder that duty must always vanquish desire. Gently freeing himself from her grasp, he pressed a coin into her hand and quickly turned away, his boots sounding a staccato tattoo as he climbed the stairs alone.
"This is a delicious blend of tea, my dear Cara," exclaimed the dowager Countess Ranley. Turning from her hostess to the lady seated at her left, she raised the delicate Sevres cup. "Do you not agree?"
Seeing as it was a creation of her own company -- and a highly profitable one at that -- Lady Olivia Marquand allowed a small twitch of her lips. "Indeed," she murmured. "Quite...unique."
"It is the toast of the Town," added Lord Henniger. "And more costly than champagne."
"You don't say?" she replied blandly, wondering just what the gentleman's reaction would be if he knew all those guineas were going straight into her own coffers.
No doubt he would be shocked beyond expression. But then, she had grown well-used to the notion that most people would find her activities quite beyond the pale. Few things were as odious to the ton as "engaging in trade." And she had certainly broken that rule -- in spades. Or spices, to be more precise. Unbeknownst to all but a handful of people in England, she was sole owner of a trading company, controlling a fleet of merchant ships that commerced in exotic spices, as well as flavored teas. In India, where she had lived for the past seven years, the strictures of society were a good deal more relaxed and she had been accorded more freedom to go about her business as she pleased.
But here in London?
Despite feeling the naughty urge to stir things up a bit, Olivia added nothing but a cool smile as she raised her own cup to her lips. Now that she had returned to England for good, she must remember to behave like a proper lady, no matter how...boring.
Boring. The taste of the tea lost a bit of its spice. It was true that her life had been a trifle flat since she arrived back in London. She still made all the important decisions concerning Grenville and Company, but much of the day-to-day running of the business had, for practical reasons, been delegated to her longtime man of affairs. It was, in many ways, an ideal arrangement, yet even with her frequent visits to the office, her role did not bring quite the same thrum to her blood as being able to play an active role in negotiations. However, the ton would quickly ostracize any female who presumed to preside over the arrangement of shipping schedules and bills of lading rather than tea trays and plates of pastries.
A laugh from across the breakfast table recalled her from her reveries. The conversation had shifted to a new topic, though in truth, she didn't expect the day's activities to be any more adventurous than a discussion on tea.
However, Olivia was quick to remind herself that one of the reasons she had accepted the invitation to the country estate was to enjoy just such an interlude of rural peace and quiet. On the surface, life in London was far more placid than in Bombay, and yet, the subtle undercurrents of all its rules and regulations made it rather treacherous to navigate. She had suddenly felt the need to escape from the glittering ballrooms, the crush of curious callers, and the attentions of would-be suitors while she pondered a number of decisions regarding her future.
"...a crack shot with a bow and arrow? Is that so, my dear Cara?" Lord Haverstock waggled a brow at his cousin, then darted a mischievous glance at the others. "Then perhaps the young ladies of the group would care to match off against the gentlemen in a display of archery?"
"What an excellent suggestion, Richard." Lady Cara, the hostess of the small house party, favored him with her first real smile of the day. "I am sure we would all welcome the chance for a bit of vigorous outdoor activity after being cooped inside for the past few days."
The heavy rains and chill winds were not the only forces to have dampened the spirits of the small gathering. The estate library had been broken into several nights ago, and although Lady Cara had made every effort to appear unperturbed by the incident, it was clear that the intrusion and subsequent visit by the local magistrate had been a trying ordeal. And so, the suggestion of a spirited competition was met with a hearty murmur of agreement from the others at the table. Without delay, Haverstock rose and went off to arrange for the target to be set up beyond the garden wall.
"Allow me to offer an arm, Lady Olivia. The path is a trifle rough." As Lord Henniger jumped up to assist her out of the chair, Olivia could not quite keep a spark of exasperation from flaring in her eyes. He was no doubt a perfectly pleasant gentleman. And with his glossy dark curls, well-cut features and trim height, she imagined most ladies would consider him quite attractive. Yet his fawning attentions and conventional conversation had set her teeth on edge.
She took care to mask her momentary irritation, yet as she followed along behind her hostess, she couldn't repress an inward sigh. Perhaps she was simply not cut from the same cloth as most other young English ladies. She preferred exotic saris to prim muslins. Not to speak of her taste in hues, which ran to bold tones of spicy cinnamon and lush saffron rather than pale shades of peach and cream.
Had it been a glaring mistake to return to a society where females were not expected to have an ounce of color?
Over the years, she had trusted her own instincts in making a great many difficult decisions, but in this question, she was as yet uncertain of the answer.
Copyright © 2004 by Andrea DaRif
A Kiss of Spice
Lady Olivia Marquand, the sultry, savvy owner of a spice trading company, knows her way around the shadowy world of clandestine commerce, so Davenport has no choice but to ask for her help, no matter that sparks fly between them. As the clues lead them from the sparkling ballrooms of Mayfair to the smoky gaming hells of St. Giles, they find themselves fighting the deadly wiles of a cunning adversary -- and their own simmering attraction, which threatens to consume them in a flare of flames....
- Pocket Books |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9780743499989 |
- November 2004