never lie to a lady

Nash stepped from the shadows to block her path. “Looking for your Odysseus, Madame Circe?”

The woman in purple looked him up and down boldly. “Ah, but Odysseus was immune to Circe’s spell, was he not?” she said, her voice sultry. “I should prefer a man who can be entranced by my magic.”

“Very wise, Madam Circe,” said Nash. “Have you someone in mind?”

“Alas, I did have,” she murmured. “But the man I seek does not attend such foolish entertainments.”

“Then he is unworthy of you, fair sorceress,” Nash replied. “Might another man tempt you in his absence?”

“I daresay the devil could tempt a woman to be quite wicked indeed.” Madame Circe’s eyes swept over his costume again, and a faint half-smile curved her lips. “I am impressed by your fine horns, Lord Lucifer, and your flowing black robes. But tell me—have you brought your staff? I should need to see it, of course, as proof of your powers of temptation.”

It was she.
No one else could be so witty, and yet so bold.

“Come with me, my sorceress,” he growled, grabbing her by the arm, “and I will show you my staff, so that you may judge its worth for yourself.”

Praise for National Bestselling Author Liz Carlyle and Her Sizzling Romantic Novels

“Hot and sexy, just how I like them! Romance fans will want to remember Liz Carlyle’s name.”

—Linda Howard,
New York Times
bestselling author

THREE LITTLE SECRETS

“In her usual brilliant fashion, Carlyle brings her Sins, Lies, and Secrets trilogy to a splendid conclusion with a dark, deliciously sensual, richly emotionally story…. Exquisitely complex characters and luscious writing…simply superb.”


Booklist
(starred review)

TWO LITTLE LIES

“With effective, emotional writing and a complex heroine, Carlyle’s story stands out in a crowded field of Regency-era romances.”


Publishers Weekly

ONE LITTLE SIN

“All of Carlyle’s signature elements—deliciously clever dialogue, superbly nuanced characters, gracefully witty writing, and sizzling sexual tension—are neatly placed.”


Booklist
(starred review)

THE DEVIL TO PAY

“Intriguing…engaging…an illicit delight.”

—Stephanie Laurens,
New York Times
bestselling author

“Sensual and suspenseful…[a] lively and absorbing romance.”


Publishers Weekly

A DEAL WITH THE DEVIL

“Sinfully sensual, superbly written…nothing short of brilliant.”


Booklist

THE DEVIL YOU KNOW

“Sweep-you-off-your-feet romance, the sort of book that leaves you saying, ‘More, please!’”

—Connie Brockway, award-winning author of
Bridal Season

“Rich and sensual, an unforgettable story in the grand romantic tradition.”

—Christina Dodd,
New York Times
bestselling author

NO TRUE GENTLEMAN

“One of the year’s best historical romances.”


Publishers Weekly
(starred review)

“Carlyle neatly balances passion and danger in this sizzling, sensual historical that should tempt fans of Amanda Quick and Mary Balogh.”


Booklist

A WOMAN OF VIRTUE

“A beautifully written book…. I was mesmerized from the first page to the last.”


The Old Book Barn Gazette

A
LSO BY
L
IZ
C
ARLYLE FROM
P
OCKET
B
OOKS

Three Little Secrets

Two Little Lies

One Little Sin

The Devil to Pay

A Deal With the Devil

The Devil You Know

No True Gentleman

Tea for Two

A Woman of Virtue

A Woman Scorned

My False Heart

An
Original
Publication of POCKET BOOKS

POCKET BOOKS, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2007 by Susan Woodhouse

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever. For information address Pocket Books, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

ISBN-13: 978-1-4165-4564-4
ISBN-10: 1-4165-4564-6

POCKET and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Never Lie to a Lady
Prologue
An Assignation in Crescent Mews Late Winter 1828

T
he library was hushed in every possible way, its heavy velvet drapes long since drawn against the flickering gaslight beyond. The lush Turkish carpet silenced every footfall, and the room’s cavernous depths would have swallowed every whisper, had there been any. Certainly there was no light, save that which was cast in a pool before the hearth.

Lord Nash was many things, but he was not remotely naive. The stage was set, and he knew it. He kept his back to the fire and his eye on the door, which was barely discernible in the shadows.

The door, when it opened, was as soundless as it had been upon his arrival. The Comtesse de Montignac came toward him, her fine, frail hands outstretched as if she were greeting her dearest friend. She wore a red silk peignoir, which was far more suited to the boudoir, and her heavy golden hair swung seductively about her waist.


Bonsoir,
my lord,” she purred, the red silk shimmering in the firelight as she moved. “At long last, I am to have the pleasure,
oui
?”

He did not take her hands, forcing her to let them drop. “This is not a social call,” he said. “Show me what I have come for.”

Her smile deepened almost mischievously. “I like a man who knows his business,” she purred. Before he knew what she was about, the comtesse’s elegant fingers went to her shoulders, and drew the silk peignoir down her arms. It caught on her fingertips just an instant before it slithered to the floor.

Nash cursed the little stab of lust which needled him. But by God, the woman was beautifully made, and she wore a negligee so thin it served but one purpose. Beneath it, her delicate, milk white breasts rose as the breath shuddered expectantly out of her. She touched one hardened nipple through the gossamer fabric.

“Many men have paid well for this,” she said throatily. “But for you, Nash—oh,
mon dieu
! A woman almost wishes to give it away.”

Nash slid a hand beneath her left breast, and squeezed—not hard enough to hurt her. Not
quite
. A strange mélange of fear and lust sketched across her face. “The papers,” he gritted. “Get them. Do not toy with me.”

She backed away, cutting him a dark, sidelong glance as she moved into the shadows. He heard a drawer slide open, then slam shut again. She returned with a thick fold of foolscap. Nash took the papers and unfolded them toward the firelight. His eyes swept over the first, then the others, more quickly. “How much?” he asked emotionlessly.

“Ten thousand.”

He hesitated.

The comtesse stepped so near he could smell the scent of jasmine in her hair. “This bargain was hard earned, my lord,” she said. “My every feminine wile was required in order to obtain what you needed.”

“All save one, I daresay,” murmured the marquess.

The comtesse did not so much as blush. “And I am sure I need not tell you, my lord, the political ramifications which this could have,” she purred, drawing a warm hand down his arm. “Ten thousand, and the pleasure of my body for the evening?”

Nash tried to divert his eyes from the rise and fall of the woman’s breasts. “I cannot think your husband would appreciate being cuckolded beneath his own roof,
madame
.”

She smiled, pressed the length of her body to his. “Pierre is very understanding,
mon cher
,” she murmured. “And I have…particular needs. Needs which I will gladly demonstrate—if you can be persuaded into my bed?”

“I cannot,” he said.

She drew her hand from his arm—in surrender, he thought. Until it settled firmly and warmly in an altogether different location. To his humiliation, his rigid cock twitched insistently against her palm. “Are you quite sure,
mon cher
?” she whispered. “You feel very firmly persuaded—and I cannot but wonder, Nash, if you are all that rumor claims.”

He tossed the papers aside. “You play a dangerous game,
madame
.”

“I live a dangerous life,” she returned. But with a muted smile, she dropped her hand and stepped away.

He watched her in silence for a time, as one might watch a snake in the grass. She cut an uncertain glance at him. “
Mon dieu
, do not look so sanctimonious, Nash!” she finally snapped. “We are alike, you and I. We are not of this restrained, oppressive English world. We never shall be, you know. Come, why may we not learn to pleasure one another?”

Nash did not answer, but instead bent down and picked up the red silk peignoir. “Just put it on, comtesse,” he answered. “There is very little anyone could teach a woman of your experience.”

Again, the coquettish smile. “
Oui
, my lord,
c’est vrai
,” she agreed. She took the red silk robe from his outstretched hand.

They concluded their transaction swiftly enough, the comtesse making no further overtures, save for the occasional torrid, sidelong glance—and not at his face. Nash was relieved to make his way back through the house and out into the damp, silent streets of Belgravia. The mist had grown heavier now, rolling in off the Thames with a cutting January chill. Nash turned up his collar and set off along Upper Belgrave Street. Behind him, the newly minted church bell at St. Peter’s tolled twice, the sound oddly sharp in the drizzle.

The broad, elegant thoroughfares were empty at this hour, at this time of year. No one observed Nash as he made his way soundlessly into the rabbit warren of Crescent Mews. This was an old place which the new perfection of Belgravia had swallowed up and risen above. A place not easily found, which made it perfect for his purpose.

In the distance, Nash could see a lamp swinging from its brass bracket, casting a feeble light down the steps of a small and unimportant-looking establishment. As he neared the entrance, a man in a brilliantly hued Guards uniform staggered from the shrubbery, hitching up the fall of his trousers. They nodded politely, and Nash pressed on. From the foot of the steps, Nash could hear raucous laughter ringing out. He stepped beneath a tree just beyond the lantern’s glow, lit a cheroot, and settled in for a wait. He had long ago learned patience.

From time to time a military man or a gentleman would burst from the laughter to make his way down the narrow stairs and stagger up the mews. But eventually, a man came out and made his way to the tree. He was slight and quick, and his gait held the sureness of sobriety.

“Good evening, sir.”

“Good evening,” said Nash. “Is every drunken soldier from the Guards’ barracks in there tonight?”

The smaller man smiled faintly. “It would seem so, my lord,” he said. “Swann says you wish to engage my services?”

Nash withdrew his purse and jerked his head toward Wilton Crescent. “Do you know the woman who lives in the third house this side of Chester Street?”

“Who does not?” he answered. “The Comtesse de Montignac.”

“Yes,” said Nash. “Is that her real name?”

The smaller man smiled faintly. “It is thought unlikely,” he said. “But she has well-placed friends, and her husband is an attaché to the French embassy. What is it you wish, my lord?”

“Three men observing the house night and day,” said Nash, his voice emotionless. “The names of everyone who comes and goes, from the chimney sweep to the dinner guests. Should she leave the house, I wish to know where she goes, with whom, and for how long. Report to Swann once a week. I shan’t seek you out again.”

The smaller man bowed. “It shall be arranged.” Then he hesitated. “My I speak frankly, my lord?”

Nash’s dark, harsh eyebrows went up a notch. “By all means.”

“Have a care, sir,” he said quietly. “The diplomatic corps is a nest of vipers—and the Comtesse de Montignac writhes at its center. For a price, she would betray her own mother.”

The marquess’s mouth curved with bitter satisfaction. “As I am too well aware,” he said. “But I thank you for the warning all the same.”

Chapter One
A Gala in Hanover Street Spring 1828

M
iss Xanthia Neville was thinking of having an
affaire
. Thinking of it quite vividly, in fact, as she watched the tide of handsome, elegantly attired gentlemen sweep their partners through the intricacies of the waltz. Cutaway coats and diaphanous skirts swirled and unfurled beneath the glow of a thousand candles. Champagne glasses clinked, and sidelong gazes lingered. Everyone was lighthearted. No one was alone.

Well, that was not quite true, was it?
She
was alone. At the great age of not-quite-thirty—a brittle precipice indeed—Xanthia was a confirmed spinster. Nonetheless, tonight she had worn red; the deepest, most daring shade of claret-colored velvet to be found in the whole of Pall Mall, as if doing so might send some subtle signal within the rarefied confines of Lord Sharpe’s ballroom.

Ah, but perhaps she was just deluding herself. Perhaps she’d had too much of Sharpe’s champagne. In this country, unmarried ladies did not have liaisons. They had weddings. Even her cynical-hearted brother would not tolerate a scandal. Moreover, Xanthia, the consummate negotiator, had no notion how one went about parlaying
that
sort of deal. She could finesse the flintiest of customs agents, consign cargo in three languages, and spot a thieving purser with a doctored manifest at fifty paces. But this—her personal life—so often felt beyond her.

So this romance of hers was just another fantasy. Another unattainable thing which, while painfully absent from her life, simply came at too great a price.

Was
she lonely? She hardly knew. She knew only that her life had required hard choices—and she made them, for the most part, with her eyes open. Lord Sharpe’s ballroom was awash in pretty, virginal debutantes. They were not wearing red. Life’s many possibilities were still open to them. Xanthia was envious, and yet she would not have traded places with even the most beautiful amongst them.

She turned away from the ocean of beautiful men and pretty virgins and went out onto the terrace in search of solitude. The heels of her slippers sounded softly on the flagstones, until at last the strains of the orchestra faded, and the murmur of voices quieted. Even the illicit lovers had not ventured so deep into the gloom as this. Perhaps she ought not have, either—the English
ton
did seem to frown on the oddest things—but something in the silence drew her.

At the distant end of the terrace, Xanthia at last paused to lean against the brickwork and let her shoulders relax against the masonry, which still held a hint of heat from an unseasonably sunny day. She had been all of four months in London now, but never once had she been
warm
. She let her head tip back and her eyes close as she savored the faint heat, and swallowed the last of her champagne.

“Ah, if only I were the cause of that expression!” murmured a deep, rueful voice. “Rarely do I see a woman so enraptured—unless she is in bed with me.”

Xanthia’s eyes flew open on a faint gasp.

A tall, elegantly built man blocked the terrace before her, and even in the dark, she could feel the heat of his gaze drifting over her. She recognized him vaguely, for she had noticed him earlier, reclining languidly in a chair deep inside the cardroom—and she had seen the female heads turning as he left it, too. He was the sort of man who caught a woman’s notice; not for his beauty, but for something far more primitive than that.

Xanthia lifted her chin. “Sharpe has a dreadful crush tonight,” she said coolly. “I thought my escape had gone unobserved.”

“Perhaps it did.” His voice was a low rumble. “I could not say. I have been hiding out here all of a quarter hour myself.” There was chagrin in his voice, which unexpectedly made her laugh.

He stepped fully into the shaft of moonlight and glanced down at her empty flute. “Sharpe has unimpeachable taste in champagne, does he not?” he murmured. “And your intriguing expression aside, my dear, I wonder if it wouldn’t be prudent for you to return to the ballroom?”

Xanthia, however, caught neither his suggestion, nor its subtle implication, for she was absorbed in the study of his face. No, he definitely was not beautiful. Instead, his features held a remarkable ruthlessness, with a hawkish nose, a too-hard jaw, and extraordinary eyes, which were set at just the slightest angle. His hair was dark, and far too long to be fashionable. More disturbing still, there was just the slightest aura of danger about him. Inexplicably, Xanthia did not heed it.

“No,” she said quietly. “No, I think I shall stay.”

He lifted one of his solid-looking shoulders. “Suit yourself, my dear,” he said. “You looked like a cat soaking up warmth just now. Are you cold?”

Fleetingly, Xanthia closed her eyes and thought of the Bajan sun. “I am always cold,” she answered. “I haven’t been warm in an age.”

“What a pity.” He leaned nearer and offered his hand. “I believe I have not had the pleasure, ma’am. In fact, I am quite persuaded you are new to Town.”

She looked down at his hand, but did not take it. “And do you know everyone?”

“It is my business to do so,” he said simply.

“Indeed?” Xanthia set her glass down atop a nearby baluster. “What sort of business are you in?”

“The business of knowing people.”

“Ah, a man of mystery,” she answered a little drolly. “And from whom, I wonder, are you hiding? An angry husband? A woman scorned? Or that little coterie of matchmaking mammas which keeps eyeing you so greedily?”

He flashed a crooked, rueful smile. “Noticed that, did you?” he asked. “It’s devilish awkward, really. They seem to keep expecting me to—ah, but never mind that.”

She looked at him intently.
“Expectations
,

she murmured. “Yes, that is the very trouble, isn’t it? People are so very reluctant to surrender them, are they not? We are all expected to do certain things, make certain choices—and when we do not, well,
we
are accounted stubborn. Or eccentric. Or that most horrid euphemism of all—
difficult
. Why is that, I wonder?”

“Why indeed?” he murmured. The man’s gaze held hers steadily. “I wonder, my dear—are you the sort of woman who does the unexpected? You strike me as being…oh, I don’t know—a little different, perhaps, from those other people whirling about the ballroom.”

Those other people.

With those three simple words, he seemed to draw a dark and certain line between the two of them and—well, everyone else. He was not like them, either. She sensed it. A sudden frisson of some unfathomable emotion slid down her spine. For an instant, it was as if he looked not at her, but at something deeper. His gaze was watchful. Assessing. And yet understanding, all at once.

But what nonsense that was. What was she doing here in the dark, chatting with a perfect stranger?

His slashing black eyebrows went up a notch. “You have grown very quiet, my dear.”

“I fear I have nothing of interest to say.” Xanthia relaxed against the brickwork again. “I lead a rather austere life and do not generally go about in society.”

“Nor do I,” he confessed, dropping his voice. “And yet…here we are.”

He leaned so near she could smell his cologne, an intriguing combination of smoke and citrus. His gaze caught hers again, more heated now, and Xanthia felt suddenly as if the stone portico beneath her feet had shifted. Even in the dark, his eyes seemed to glitter. “I beg your pardon,” she said a little breathlessly. “You…you are wearing amber oil, are you not?”

He inclined his head. “Amongst other things.”

“And neroli,” she said. “But the amber—it is quite a rare scent.”

He looked vaguely pleased. “I am surprised you know it.”

“I have some knowledge of spices and oils.”

“Have you indeed?” he murmured. “My perfumer in St. James imports it for me. Do you like it?”

“I am not quite sure,” she said honestly.

“Then I shan’t wear it tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?”

“When I call on you,” he said. “By the way, my dear, do you mean to tell me your name? Just the name of your husband will do. That way, I can ascertain his club hours and determine when he is most apt to be out.”

“I do not know
your
name,” she said archly. “But I see that you are quite forward.”

“Yes, well, being backward gets one nowhere, does it?” he suggested, smiling.

Xanthia gave a bitter laugh. “Indeed, it does not,” she answered. “I learnt that much the hard way.”

He watched her warily for a moment. “No, you do not look the shy, retiring type,” he said in a musing tone. “Tell me, my dear, are you as bold as that red dress you are wearing might suggest?”

“In some situations, yes,” she confessed, holding his gaze. “If there is something one wants badly, one must often be bold.”

Suddenly, he slid one hand beneath her elbow, and it was as if something electric passed between them. “You are a most intriguing woman, my dear.” His voice was raspy in the gloom. “Indeed, it has been a very long time since I felt…well,
intrigued
.”

“Perhaps I understand,” Xanthia found herself saying. “I wish we could…oh, never mind. I am very foolish, I think. Perhaps I ought to go.”

But his hand on her arm stilled her. “What?” he murmured. “What do you wish, my dear? If it is within my power to fulfill your desire, it would be my greatest pleasure.”

His words left her shivering. “No, it was nothing,” she answered. “You are a dangerously charming man, sir. I think I ought not linger here.”

“Wait,” he said, pulling her to him. “Let us make a bargain, my dear. I shall tell you my name—and my line of business. And in exchange, you will—” He paused, and let his eyes run over her again.

Xanthia was undone by the suspense. “What?”

“You will kiss me,” he commanded. “And not some sisterly peck, by God.”

Xanthia’s eyes widened, but she was inordinately curious. After all, it was she who had started this silly game of cat and mouse. But more foolish, even, than that, she
did
wish to kiss him. To feel that hard, harsh mouth settle over hers, and—

He did not await permission. His hands grasped her shoulders, drawing her abruptly against him as his lips molded firmly over hers. He made no pretext of gentleness, or of polite restraint, opening his mouth over hers, and stroking his tongue hungrily across her lips. Desire surged, and Xanthia opened beneath him, allowing him to explore the depths of her mouth with his slow, sensual strokes.

She felt suddenly alive, yet almost enervated in his embrace, as if she had no will of her own. His wish was hers; his quickening desire echoed her own. It had been so long since she had been kissed by anyone—and never had she been kissed like this. She twined her arms round his neck and allowed his hands to roam restlessly over her, setting her skin to shivering. Their tongues entwined as their breath quickened. He tasted of champagne and raw lust. The smoky scent of his cologne grew to a dizzying intensity as his skin heated. Xanthia was caught up in his madness, pressing her body almost shamelessly against his and allowing his roaming hands and hungry mouth a lover’s every intimacy.

“Good God, this is madness,” she heard herself say, but it was distant. Disembodied.

“Yes, a glorious madness,” he murmured.

His hand was on her hip now, erotically circling the weight of it through the velvet of her gown. Another inch lower, and he was lifting her urgently against him. There was no mistaking the throbbing ridge of his arousal, nor of his intent. Xanthia rose greedily onto her tiptoes, pressing herself to him as she ached for something dangerous.

Somehow, he drew up the fabric of her skirt and slipped his hand beneath, caressing the swell of her hips, stroking suggestively. Over and over he caressed her there. Then, without lifting his mouth away, he urged her firmly against the brick wall and eased the hand between them, delving lower and lower.

Xanthia managed to tear her mouth from his. “Wait, I—”

“We are all alone, my dear,” he reassured her between the little kisses he planted along her jaw. “I am sure of it. Just trust me.”

His words melted over her. Foolishly, she gave in to him; ached for him with a need she had never known. This really was madness. But on a soft sound of surrender, Xanthia returned her mouth to his, and let the dark stranger have his way. And yet, in this wild, timeless moment, he did not seem a stranger. He knew her; knew just where to touch her. His palm was warm through the thin lawn of her drawers. Without lifting his mouth from hers, he gave a deep, hungry groan and caressed her there, in her most private place. Like a wanton, Xanthia surrendered, her knees going weak. His stroke became more urgent, and then she was panting for him, reveling in each delicate stroke as her need ratcheted up, and her body began to ache.

She was going to explode.
She could not bear it. The ache was bone-deep and shuddering now. She felt reality edge away, felt the dark of night swirl about them, and, suddenly, she was frightened. Dear God, had she lost her mind?

He pressed his mouth to her ear and sucked lightly at her lobe. “Give in to it, my dear,” he murmured, nipping lightly at her flesh. “Good Lord, have you any idea how beautiful you are just now?”

“I—I think…” Xanthia was still shaking. “Oh, please. I think…we must stop.”

He groaned as if in pain, but his hand stilled.


Stop
,” she said again, as much to herself as to him.

Lightly, he let his forehead touch hers. “Must we, my dear?” His words were thick. “Come, slip away with me. Spend the evening in my bed. I promise to pleasure you until morning—and we can do anything your imagination might conjure up.”

She shook her head, her hair scrubbing against the brickwork. “I dare not,” she said. “I can’t think what has come over me. You…you must already think me some sort of whore.”

He was already smoothing her skirts back down, his touch gentle. “What I think is that you are a sensual woman with a well of unslaked needs,” he murmured, lightly kissing her cheek. “And that you should let me rectify that regrettable circumstance.”

She gave a short, sharp laugh. “Dear God, I must be mad,” she murmured. “I was half-considering it—and I do not even know who you are!”

His eyes still simmering with desire, he stepped back, and sketched her a surprisingly formal bow. “I am called Nash,” he said quietly. “Gamester and professional sybarite, at your service, ma’am.”

Professional sybarite?

The appalling recklessness of what she had just done was swiftly sinking in. Xanthia still couldn’t catch her breath. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out. And suddenly, she did perhaps the most idiotic, most humiliating thing a woman could have done. She turned and ran.

She dashed along the terrace, her mind in a panic. But there was nothing. No footfalls. No shouts. The light spilling from the ballroom was but a few yards away. Just short of the door, she somehow found the presence of mind to stop to tidy her hair and right her clothing. Still no sound. He was not following, thank God.

What had she been thinking
? Her breath still rough, Xanthia set her hand flat against the outer window frame and struggled to turn her legs from jelly into something substantial enough to gracefully walk on. Well. She had wanted to do something slightly scandalous. And she certainly had. She had allowed a strange man to kiss her senseless—and had very nearly allowed him a vast deal more than that. And now, absent the warm strength of his body, she felt colder than ever and uncharacteristically shaken.

Furious with herself, Xanthia stiffened her spine and plunged into the crowded ballroom, an artificial smile plastered upon her face. Dear God, what a fool she was. It was one thing to drink a little too much champagne and wallow in mawkish fantasies, and quite another to behave brazenly with a common stranger—or, in Mr. Nash’s case, a most
uncommon
one. But however intriguing he was, there was nothing metaphysical between them. He had not looked into her eyes and seen her soul, for pity’s sake. How had she conjured up such a notion? Celibacy must be affecting her brain.

Well, there was nothing left to do but pray to God that Nash was a gentleman. Oh, Xanthia was not afraid of gossip for her own sake, but there was her brother Kieran to think about. He might yet turn his life around. And there was her much-loved niece, Martinique. Lord and Lady Sharpe, cousins whom she adored, and their daughter Louisa, whose come-out ball this was. Xanthia’s behavior could reflect badly on all of them.

Somehow, she managed to nod to the few people she knew as she passed through the crowd. She wondered if she looked like some just-tumbled wanton, but no one she passed raised so much as an eyebrow. The panic was fading now, but the memory of his touch was not. Dear heaven, she really must find her brother and ask him to see her home, before she did something unutterably foolish—like search out Mr. Nash, and toss him her garter.

With a hand which still shook, Xanthia stopped a passing footman to ask Kieran’s whereabouts. The footman bowed, resplendent in his deep blue livery. “Lord Rothewell is in the cardroom, ma’am.”

Xanthia smiled politely. “Kindly tell him I should like to go now.”

She really did not want to disturb her brother’s gaming, but it was either that, or remain here and risk running into Mr. Nash again. Suddenly, amidst all the confusion, it struck her.
Mr. Nash still did not know her name.
She had bolted before giving it to him, and he had not followed her. It was as if he had lost interest.

Perhaps he had. Perhaps she was not as skilled at kissing as she had hoped? The thought was a little lowering. But indeed, it was all for the best. Mr. Nash did not know her name, and she barely knew his. They would almost certainly never lay eyes on one another again, for she did not go about in society—indeed, she scarce had the time—and Mr. Nash had possessed the unqualified arrogance of a man who knew his place in the
haut monde
. And unless Xanthia missed her guess, it was very high up indeed. A sense of mild relief swept over her, restoring her composure.

In the entrance hall, Lady Sharpe was saying good-bye to her sister-in-law. Mrs. Ambrose kissed Xanthia effusively on both cheeks. “Xanthia, my dear, you really must get out more,” she said. “You are looking perfectly colorless.”

“How charitable of you to concern yourself,” said Xanthia politely. “By the way, have you seen Kieran?”

Mrs. Ambrose flashed an acerbic smile. “I left him in the cardroom,” she answered. “He is in one of his moods.”

Lady Sharpe laughed aloud as soon as her sister-in-law had gone. “What a cat she is, Zee,” she whispered as she set her lips to Xanthia’s cheek. “And how flattered I am that my reclusive relations have actually deigned to attend my little ball.”

“Oh, Pamela, we could not possibly miss Louisa’s come-out.” Xanthia leaned in to embrace her. But at that very moment, Lady Sharpe went a little limp and slumped almost imperceptibly against her.

Startled, Xanthia slid an arm awkwardly beneath her cousin’s elbow. “Pamela?” she said sharply. Then, to the footman, “A chair, if you please! And her maid. Fetch her at once.”

A chair was brought in an instant, and Lady Sharpe collapsed into it most gratefully. “The crush and the excitement,” she explained as Xanthia snapped open her fan and knelt. “Oh, thank you! That breeze is most restorative. Yes, I’ve worn myself a little thin, I daresay. Oh, but
please
do not tell Sharpe.”

Just then, Xanthia’s brother appeared. “Pamela?” he said sharply. “You look most unwell.”

Lady Sharpe turned pink. “It is just the heat,” she said. “And perhaps my
age
, Kieran. Now pray
do not
ask me any more questions, or I vow I shall answer them and utterly mortify you.”

Kieran had the good grace to blush and go at once in search of their carriage. As soon as Lady Sharpe’s maid arrived, Xanthia stood. “I do not like your color, Pamela,” she said, reluctant to leave her. “But there! I sound like Mrs. Ambrose, do I not?”

Lady Sharpe looked up sheepishly. “Not without reason,” she muttered. “I am sorry to have given you such a turn.”

“But you have.” Xanthia reached down to squeeze her hand. “Which is why you shall see me again tomorrow. Shall we say tea, my dear, at three-ish?”

Chapter Two
A Row in Wapping High Street

B
y dawn, the unseasonable warmth had given way to a rainstorm, which met the day in slicing gray sheets and continued, unrelenting, into what felt like the following week. Attired in a dressing gown of creamy tussah silk, Nash stood at his bedchamber window in a grim mood, staring across Park Lane and sipping pensively at his morning coffee. But it was not, in point of fact, anywhere near morning.

After leaving Lord and Lady Sharpe with a dozen burning questions still unanswered, Nash had passed the hours after midnight tossing the ivory at White’s—not one of his more common vices—and then gone on to his mistress’s maisonette in Henrietta Street, coming away vaguely unsatisfied from both. Oh, he’d taken a monkey off Sir Henry Dunnan at hazard, without even paying attention. And Lisette had looked resplendent in a filmy French negligee—a vision hampered only by his recollection of how much it had cost him, and how it had become her habit of late to pout and sulk when he did not dance attendance on her.

Well, she had been pouting and sulking last night. He could hardly blame her; he’d not been at his best. Their interlude had ended in tears, blood, and three shattered wineglasses. He looked down at his empty hand and flexed it experimentally. No, the wound did not gape. He had escaped the surgeon’s needle this time. Perhaps it was time to give Lisette her
congé
. His mind was elsewhere now, though he was little pleased to admit it, even to himself.

Absent the fog of lust and champagne, Nash knew he had done an excessively foolish thing last night—and an unnecessary thing, too. How long would it have taken him to discover the name, and more importantly, the circumstances, of the woman in red? Thirty minutes, perhaps, had he troubled himself to do so. But he had not, and now he was deeply angry—with himself, and perhaps with her.

Nonetheless, he had been unable to escape the memory of what they had done together on the terrace last night. And what price, if any, was he going to pay for those few moments of exquisite temptation? What was it about her that had affected him so? He was rarely so willing to let his guard down. But in his embrace, she had been the embodiment of fiery feminine passion, a woman undeniably hungry for all the pleasures his body had offered.

Out of his arms, however, she had panicked like some green schoolgirl—and in the light of day, it was that contrast which so greatly troubled him.

Well, he’d be damned if he would sit back and wait for trouble; he decided as he watched the raindrops race one another down the windowpanes. If there was mischief afoot, he meant to go out and find it, before it found him. The element of surprise was a vastly underestimated advantage.

Just then, his valet breezed efficiently into the room. “Good morning, my lord,” said Gibbons, going straight to the dressing room. “I’ve set your shirt to soak in cold water. I think the bloodstain will come out. Shall I lay out your morning coat? Or will you ride?”

“I shall ride if the rain lets up,” said Nash. “I have some urgent business this morning.”

“And a grim business, too, it sounds.” Gibbons was altogether too forward. “Dare I hope that you mean to turn Miss Lyle off?”

Nash smiled faintly. “One does grow weary of artistic temperament,” he murmured. “Have you any notion, Gibbons, what that woman has cost me?”

“A king’s ransom, Mr. Swann says.”

“Ah, Mr. Swann!” Nash paused to swirl the last of his coffee about in his cup, wondering if one could read one’s fortune in coffee dregs. He really did not care for the English habit of tea. “Tell me, Gibbons, do all my servants gossip about me? Or is it just you and Swann?”

“All of us,” Gibbons grunted. He was up his rolling ladder now, and poking about on the top shelf of the dressing room. “Alas, we lead small lives, my lord. We must look to you for our excitement.”

“Sometimes, Gibbons, I think that I should like a small life,” Nash mused. “Or perhaps just a moderately sized life. My stepbrother’s life, perhaps? Enough money to live well without being burdened by it, and a career of service to the nation. What would that be like, do you imagine?”

“I’m sure I couldn’t say, sir.” With one last grunt, Gibbons heaved down a large bandbox. “But if you mean to exchange lives, kindly give a fortnight’s notice.”

“What? You do not fancy being in service to a prominent member of the Commons?”

“You could not afford me, sir,” said Gibbons.

He was quite correct, too. Nash possessed life’s every luxury. Indeed, his every whim was anticipated by someone, somewhere, from his boot-boy to his French chef, all the way up to Swann, his man of affairs, and all of them had to be paid a living wage.

Then there was his banker, his butler, his bootmaker, his vintner. His haberdasher and green grocer. Mentally, he added his stepmother and his two sisters to the list. Then all of the servants at all of his estates. His stepbrother Tony. His two great-aunts in Cumbria. The colliers in that Cornish coal mine he’d taken off old Talbot at
vingt-et-un
. It was almost medieval in its simplicity. To every name, he owed a duty, for such was the dominion of the Marquess of Nash. It was a damnable yoke they’d hung round his neck, by God. And he wondered if it was soon to grow heavier.

“I think it must be the carriage today, my lord.” Gibbons was at his elbow now, staring at the befogged vista which would perhaps reappear as Hyde Park someday. “I should hate you to take pneumonia.”

“Very well,” said Nash unhappily. He meant to have a name to go with the miserable unslaked lust his body was suffering, and trotting about London in a crested carriage was far from anonymous. But the carriage it would be, he supposed. It was just another of the many privileges which came to him by way of his title.

It was almost laughable, really. He was certainly not to the manner born. He was just a second son of a second son, and had possessed no prospects at all save for a grueling military career, a cold grave, and, most probably, a Turkish knife in his back.

Still, it was what he had been born and bred to do, his mother had always insisted. And strangely, it was what he had wanted. As a child, he had lived an adventurous life flitting about Europe—at least, he had thought it adventurous. He had not realized they were simply running from one political tinderbox to the next, until the whole of the Continent was consumed in Napoleon’s flame and fury.

It was not until his brother Petar, long promised to Czar Alexander I, had been on the verge of leaving for the Russian army and earning his younger sibling’s undying envy, that the astonishing news had come all the way to St. Petersburg from faraway Hampshire. Their English relations could not have picked a more opportune time to die, God rest them.

But alas, the Grim Reaper had not finished with what was left. The ensuing years had been hard ones. And when all the bloody battles were done, and all the funeral dirges sung, he was Nash—the very thing he had never expected to be nor ever wished to be.

The door hinge squealed, jerking him into the present. He turned to see his stepbrother peering into the room. “Ah, there you are, Stefan,” he said. “Have you another cup? I vow, I am soaked through to my drawers.”

“What a charming picture you paint, Tony.” Nash motioned for Gibbons, but he was already bringing another cup. “It does look a nasty day out. What brings you?”

The Honorable Anthony Hayden-Worth smiled warmly and took the best chair, which was also the one nearest the coffee service. “May a chap not call upon his brother merely to see how he goes on?” asked Tony, filling the empty cup.

Nash pushed away from the window and joined him by the hearth. “Yes, of course,” he said. “But if you need anything, Tony—?”

An inscrutable look passed over his stepbrother’s face. “I’m quite all right,” he said. “But thank you just the same.”

“Jenny is well?” said Nash.

Tony lifted one shoulder. “She went back down to Brierwood last week,” he remarked. “She seems to have developed quite a fondness for the place. Perhaps she misses Mamma and the girls. I hope you do not mind?”

“Do not be ridiculous, Tony,” he replied. “Brierwood is Jenny’s home, too. I wish her to be happy there.”

“Oh, Jenny is happy enough, so long as her bills are paid.” Tony smiled faintly. “She will pop over to France, I daresay, whilst she’s in Hampshire, and run up a few more.”

“Her father really has cut her off this time?”

Tony shook his head. “Not really,” he answered. “She is a pampered princess, our Jenny. Papa threatens, but once in a while, a fat bank draft will still turn up.”

“Perhaps it would be better if he did cut her off,” Nash suggested.

“Why?” asked Tony pointedly. “So you would be left to pay her bills? And I would be further indebted you? Thank you, no.”

Nash sat down and poured himself another cup of coffee, struggling to hold his temper in check. “I have never interfered in your marriage, Tony,” he finally said. “And I do not mean to do so now.”

Tony smiled, and the sour mood was broken. “Actually, old man, I only came round to see what went with you last night,” he said. “I thought you’d be at White’s.”

It was an olive branch, and Nash took it. “I finally caught up with Lord Hastley,” he said, slowly stirring his coffee. “He has agreed to part with that broodmare after all—for the right price, of course.”

Tony’s face broke into a grin. “Congratulations, Stefan!” said his stepbrother. “How the devil did you manage it?”

Nash smiled wryly. “An act of sheer desperation, I do assure you,” he said. “I ran him to ground at Sharpe’s ball last night.”

“Good God, you attended a come-out? That
was
desperate.”

“It was, rather,” Nash agreed.

Tony scowled across the table. “Mind what you do in such places, Stefan,” he warned, “or one of those sly, matchmaking mammas will have you in a fix from which your money cannot extract you.”

His words sent a chill down Nash’s spine though he did not show it. “Wealth can extract a man from nearly everything,” he said, hoping he spoke the truth. “And then there is always my vile reputation to fall back on, is there not? In any case, I found Hastley in Sharpe’s cardroom. The poor devil’s in so deep, he
has
taken to bride-shopping. And he’s glad enough now to take my money.”

“Yes, aren’t we all,” said Tony on a laugh.

Nash laid his spoon down carefully. “You are entitled to an allowance from the estate, Tony,” he said, measuring his words. “Father arranged it. I could not undo it, even if I wished to—and I do not.”

Tony smiled again and changed the subject, turning it instead to his favorite, politics, and the growing strain between Wellington and Lord Eldon. Nash did not much concern himself with English politics, but he knew Tony lived for it, so he murmured polite responses and nodded at all the right places.

“I tell you, Stefan, this damned Catholic question is going to be the death of somebody,” Tony finally finished. “At best, it is slow political suicide for the prime minister.”

“And trouble in the family is never a good thing,” said Nash wryly.

Tony just laughed again. “By the way, old fellow, that reminds me,” he said. “Mamma is to celebrate her fiftieth birthday next month.”

“Yes,” said Nash. “I had not forgotten.”

“I believe I shall have a celebration,” said Tony. “Something more than her usual birthday dinner party. Perhaps a ball, and a few guests up to Brierwood for the week, if you do not mind?”

“Of course I do not,” said Nash. “Jenny will be pleased to have something to do, won’t she? I’m told females enjoy such things.”

“I am not sure a house party for Mamma’s friends is Jenny’s idea of excitement,” said Tony. “Still, will you come, Stefan? It
is
your home—and Mamma would be so pleased.”

There was an almost imperceptible tightening of Nash’s mouth. “We shall see,” he finally said. “What are your plans for the day, Tony? Shall I see you at White’s this evening?”

“I shouldn’t think so,” said his stepbrother. “We’re to meet after dinner to whinge over the Test and Corporation Acts, but we are just beating a dead horse if you ask me. And then there’ll be a by-election strategy meeting.”

“Why do you not dine here, then?”

“Certainly, if you will forgive me for rushing away afterwards,” said Tony. “These bloody meetings will likely drag into the night as it is.”

“But your seat in the Commons is quite safe. You have been reelected. What more must you do?”

Tony pushed back his chair and rose. “It is the nature of English politics, Stefan,” he said. “Elections do not simply cost pots of money, they take effort. One hand washing the other, and all that rot. And rotten boroughs do not come cheap. You are fortunate to be in the Lords, old fellow, where one need not concern oneself with the opinions—or the palms—of the common man.”

Nash smiled and languidly took up his coffee. “Indeed, I never give him a thought, Tony,” he said, staring over the brim of his cup. “I am too preoccupied with exercising my upper-class prerogatives—and, of course, my upper-class vices.”

His stepbrother scowled down at him. “It is just that sort of talk, Stefan, which blackens your reputation,” he chided. “I beg you to have a care—and to think of Mamma, at the very least.”

“I cannot think anyone imagines my stepmother responsible for my character, Tony,” said Nash. “I am fond of Edwina, as she is fond of me. But she did not raise me, more’s the pity.”

Whatever argument his brother might have countered with was forestalled by Gibbons, who crossed from the dressing room to the window. “It is a miracle, my lord,” he announced, staring down at the street below. “The rain has stopped. I think you may safely go out now.”

But Nash was not simply going out. He was going on the offensive. “Excellent, Gibbons,” he answered. “Send word to bring round my gig, and fetch my charcoal morning coat.”

 

In Wapping, the skies did not clear until midafternoon. Xanthia stood at her office window, staring across the Upper Pool toward St. Savior’s Docks and trying to keep her mind on her work. London’s weather had done little to still the traffic on the Thames, for this sort of hustle and bustle was driven by hardier men than that.