A soft flutter of air stirred the emerald-dark leaves, releasing the faint scent of oranges. Drawing a deep breath, the Earl of Wrexham slid back a step deeper into the shadows of the large potted trees. He closed his eyes for an instant, pretending he was back in the steamy plains of Portugal rather than the gilded confines of a Mayfair ballroom. The caress of sticky-warm humidity against his cheeks was much the same, though here it was due to the blaze of dancing couples in their peacock finery, not the bright rays of the Mediterranean sun . . .
“Ah, there you are, John.” The leaves rustled again, loud as cannon fire, and the earl felt a glass of chilled champagne thrust into his hand. “Your sister sent me to inquire why the devil are you cowering in the bushes when you should be dancing with one of the dazzling array of eligible young beauties?” His brother-in-law gave an apologetic grimace. “Those are her words, by the by, not mine.”
“Tell her I’ve a pebble in my shoe,” muttered John after quaffing a long swallow of the wine. Its effervescence did little to wash the slightly sour taste from his mouth. “And that I’m simply making a strategic retreat to one of the side salons to remove the offending nuisance.”
Speaking of removal, he thought to himself, perhaps there is a side door leading out to the gardens close by, through which I can escape from the overloud music, the overbrittle laughter, the overzealous Mamas with marriageable daughters.
“Pebble,” repeated his brother-in-law. “In the shoe. Right-ho. Quite impossible to dance under those conditions.” Henry cocked a small salute with his glass. “If you turn right at the end of the corridor,” he added in a lower voice, “you’ll find a small study filled with exotic board games from the Orient. Our host keeps a large humidor there, filled with a lovely selection of cheroots and cigars from the Ottoman Empire.” A sigh. “I’d join you, but I had better remain here and try to keep Cecilia distracted.”
“Thank you.” John gave a tiny tug to the faultlessly tied knot of his cravat, feeling its hangman’s hold on his neck loosen ever so slightly. “For that I owe you a box of the best Spanish cigarras from Robert Lewis’s shop.”
“Trust me, I shall earn it,” replied Henry, darting a baleful glance through the ornamental trees at his wife. “Your sister means well, but when she gets the bit between her teeth—”
“She is harder to stop than a charging cavalry regiment of French Grenadier Guards,” finished John. He handed Henry his now-empty glass. “Yes, I know.”
In truth, he was exceedingly fond of his older sister. She was wise, funny, compassionate and usually served as a trusted confidant—though in retrospect it might have been a tactical mistake to mention to her that he was thinking of remarrying.
My skills at soldiering have apparently turned a trifle dull since I resigned from the army and returned to England, he thought wryly. Bold strategy, careful planning, fearless attack—his reputation for calm, confident command under enemy fire had earned him a chestful of medals.
The Perfect Hero. Some damnable newspaper had coined the phrase and somehow it had stuck.
So why do I feel like a perfect fool?
It should be a simple mission to choose a wife, but here in London he felt paralyzed. Uncertain. Indecisive. In contrast to his firm resolve and fearless initiative on the field of battle. He tightened his jaw. It made no sense—when countless lives were at stake, everything seemed so clear. And yet, faced with what should be an easy task, he was acting like a craven coward.
Henry seemed to read his thoughts. “It has been nearly two years since Meredith passed away, John. You can’t grieve forever,” he murmured. “Both you and Prescott need a lady’s presence to, er, soften the shadows of Wrexham Manor.”
“I take it those are also my sister’s words, not yours,” replied the earl tightly, finding that the mention of his young son only served to exacerbate his prickly mood.
His brother-in-law had the grace to flush.
“I appreciate your concern,” John added. “And hers. However, I would ask both of you to remember that I am a seasoned military officer, a veteran of the Peninsular War, and as such, I prefer to wage my own campaign to woo a new wife.”
He paused deliberately, once again sweeping a baleful gaze over the glittering crush of silks and satins. A giggle punctuated the music as one of the dancing couples spun by and the flaring skirt snagged for an instant in the greenery.
Ye gods, was every eligible young lady in the room a silly, simpering featherhead?
“Assuming I decide to do so,” he growled.
Why was it, he wondered, that Society did not encourage them to think for themselves? His wartime experiences had taught him that imagination was important. And yet, they were schooled to be anything but original . . .
John felt a small frown pinch at his mouth. His military duties might be over, but he had no intention of living the leisurely life of rich aristocrat. He wished to be useful, and politics, with all the intellectual challenges of governance, appealed to his sense of responsibility. As a battlefield leader, he had fought for noble principles in defending his country’s liberties. He felt he had made a difference in the lives of his fellow citizens, so he intended to take his duties in the House of Lords just as seriously. . . which was why the idea that the only talk at the breakfast table might be naught but an endless chattering about fashion or the latest Town gossip made his stomach a little queasy.
“Point taken,” replied Henry. “I—” His gaze suddenly narrowed. “I suggest you decamp without delay. It seems that Lady Houghton has spotted us, and I can’t say that I like the martial gleam in her eye.”
Taking John’s arm, he spun him in a half-turn. “She has not one but two daughters on the Marriage Mart. Twins.”
“Bloody hell,” swore the earl under his breath as he cut a quick retreat between two of the decorative urns.
Civilized London was proving to be filled with far more rapacious predators than the wolf-infested mountains of northern Spain.
“Bloody hell,” swore Olivia Sloane as she eased the door shut behind her. “If I had to endure another moment of that mindless cacophony, that superficial chatter, I might . . . I might . . .”
Do something shocking? Like climb atop one of the flower pedestals and dance one of the shimmying, swaying tribal rituals that her father had described in his scholarly papers for the Royal Society?
Olivia considered the thought for a moment, and then dismissed it with a sardonic smile. No, probably not. She was already considered an outspoken, opinionated hellion by Society. And with no beauty and no dowry to her name, it was best not to draw too much attention to her eccentricities. Not that she would ever blend into the woodwork. However there were her two younger sisters and their future prospects to think about.
“Still, it would be fun to shock the look of smug complacency off all those overfed faces,” she murmured softly. But she quickly reminded herself that she was doing that already in more meaningful ways.
Looking around, Olivia saw that the room in which she had taken refuge was a small study decorated in an exotic Indian motif of slubbed silks, dark wood and burnished brass. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she realized that it was a distinctly masculine retreat, a refuge designed to keep bored gentlemen amused. The flame of the single wall sconce showed a large painted cork bulls-eye bristling with feathered darts hung on one wall. In the opposite corner, grouped to one side of the hearth, were several brass and teakwood game tables. Cards, dice, an intricately inlaid board with stone markers that she recognized as a backgammon set . . .
A sudden pang of longing squeezed the breath from her lungs. Her father had taught her to play when she was a child, and over the years they had engaged in countless matches.
Chess sharpens your mind, poppet—it teaches you to be logical, to be daring, to attack a problem from unexpected angles.
Skirting around a pair of leather armchairs, Olivia made her way into the shadowed recess and took a seat behind the double row of ivory figures which stood waiting to march into battle against the opposing ebony force. Black and white. And yet, like life, the game was not so quite simple. One had to make subtle feints and oblique moves, one had to be clever at deception. And most of all one had to be willing to make sacrifices to achieve the ultimate goal.
No wonder I’m very good at it, thought Olivia as she fingered the polished king . . .
“Oh!” It shifted slightly under her touch and a drizzle of moonlight from the narrow leaded glass widow flickered over the ornate carving. Olivia leaned down for a closer look. “Interesting.”
Like the rest of the room’s decorations, the chess set had an exotic Eastern flair. Instead of the traditional European figures, the pieces were far more fanciful. The Knights were mounted on snarling tigers, the Castles were carried by tusked elephants and the all the human figures, including the Kings and Queens were . . . stark naked.
Not only that, observed Olivia. The men were, to put it mildly, all highly aroused.
“Interesting,” she repeated. The sight of a penis wasn’t at all shocking. She had seen plenty of them before—though mostly in drawings or statues such as these, not in the flesh. Her father, a noted scholar of primitive cultures, had written extensively on tribal rituals for the Royal Society. His notebooks had been filled with graphic sketches, and he had not hesitated to explain his research to his three daughters. Men, he had lectured, held an unfair advantage by keeping women ignorant of the ways of the world. So he was determined that his girls learn about Life.
Much to the chagrin of his far more conventional wife. Who had nearly had a fit of apoplexy when several years ago Olivia had enthusiastically agreed to accompany her father to Crete for a season and serve as his expedition secretary.
Thank you for such a priceless gift, Papa . . . though leaving us with a few more material assets would have made our current situation a trifle less worrisome.
But for the moment, Olivia decided to put her practical anxieties aside. She nudged the naked pawn—whose monstrous erection looked more like a battle sword than a fleshly appendage—forward two squares, then reached for the opposing ebony pieces. Playing a solitary game against herself was always an intriguing challenge and would help pass the tedious minutes until it was time to take leave of the ball.
A second nudge moved the black pawn over the checkered tiles.
The game had begun.
Lost in thought, Olivia was not aware that someone else had entered the study until she heard a sudden whooshing exhale, followed by satisfied sigh.
“A room free of simpering ladies. Thank God.”
She froze as a pale puff of scented smoke swirled in the shadows. Flint scraped against steel and a candleflame flared to life.
“Lord Almighty,” intoned the same deep masculine voice, though this time he didn’t sound quite so pleased with the Heavenly Being.
Slowly releasing her hold on the ivory Queen’s voluptuous breasts, Olivia looked up and squinted into the silvery vapor. For an instant there was naught but an amorphous blur. Then, as the gentleman took another step closer, the flickering light brought his features into sharper focus.
For an instant, she couldn’t blink. She couldn’t breathe. Sharp lines, chiseled angles—an aura of strength seemed to pulse from every pore of his face, holding her in thrall.
But then, willing herself to break the strange spell, Olivia quickly regained control of her wits.
“Have you never seen chess played before, sir?” she asked calmly, ignoring his gimlet gaze. Honestly, one would think that a man would not look so shocked at seeing a graphic depiction of the male sex organ. Granted there were rather a lot of them, but still . . .
“Actually, I am very familiar with the game.” As he lifted his gaze from the checkered board, the undulating flame lit a momentary spark in his dark eyes. They were, noted Olivia, an unusual shade of toffee-flecked brown.
A powerfully mesmerizing mix of gold-flecked sparks and burnt sugar swirls that seemed to draw her in to a deep, deep vortex of shadowed spice . . .
She made herself look away.
“However,” he went on, “I have always been under the impression that it is not an activity that appeals to ladies.”
“Then you think wrong.” Olivia moved the ebony knight, putting both the ivory bishop—who in this set was depicted as a wild-eyed whirling dervish—and a pawn in danger.
The gentleman didn’t answer. Drawing in another mouthful of smoke from his glowing cheroot, he studied the arrangement of the remaining pieces for several long moments.
His reaction was a little unnerving, as was his aura of calm concentration. Olivia wasn’t quite sure why, but her fingertips began to tingle.
“Which one will you save?” he asked gruffly.
“The pawn, of course,” she replied.
A look of surprise shaded his face. Looking up through her lashes, Olivia watched as the low, licking light accentuated the chiseled cheekbones, the long nose, the sun-bronzed skin. It was an interesting face, made even more intriguing by his oddly expressive mouth.
Sensuous. That was the word that popped to mind.
And with the slow, sinuous coiling of a serpent, her ribs suddenly contracted, squeezing the air from her lungs.
With an inward frown, she shook off the unwelcome sensation and quickly shifted the pawn out of danger. “It’s easy to see why if you look three moves ahead.”
“Strategy,” murmured the gentleman. “You seem to have . . .” A tiny cough “. . . a good grasp of the game’s strategy,” he went on as she picked up the whirling dervish bishop by its phallus and placed it aside.
“Do you think that ladies are incapable of conceiving a plan of attack that requires thinking three or four steps ahead?” She knew the answer of course. Most men were predictable in their prejudices, assuming the fairer sex had naught but feathers for brains.
Which made his reply all the more unexpected.
“I have a sister,” he said slowly. “So I am acutely aware of how sharp the female mind can be.” A rumbled chuckle softened his solemn expression for just an instant. “Indeed, their skill at riding roughshod over an enemy’s defenses put the efficiency of many of my fellow officers to blush.”
He is a military man?
That explained the ramrod straightness of his spine, the hint of muscled hardness beneath the finely tailored evening clothes, the tiny scar on the cleft of his chin.
The unmistakable impression of steely strength.
She made herself shift her gaze from the intriguing little nick. “So, you are a soldier, sir?”
“A former soldier,” he corrected. “Duties here at home made it imperative for me to resign my commission in Wellington’s forces and come back to England from the Peninsula.”
Olivia returned her attention to the chessboard, but not before muttering under her breath, “There are plenty of important battles to be fought on our own soil.”
“I beg your pardon?”
She repeated what she had said in a louder voice.
His eyes narrowed—in censure, no doubt.
That was hardly a surprise, thought Olivia bitterly. Ladies weren’t supposed to have opinions about anything meaningful. Especially if they were one of the three poor-as-a-churchmouse Sloane sisters.
Of course that did not stop her from saying what she thought. It didn’t matter that Society dismissed her as rag-mannered hellion, tolerated only because of the beauty and charm of her younger sister. She could take a measure of inward satisfaction in knowing there were far more effective ways of being heard . . .
Clearing her throat with an exaggerated cough, she added, “If you must blow a cloud, sir, might you do it on the other side of the room?” She had come here for the express reason of avoiding the other guests. With any luck, he would take the hint and go away.
“I beg your pardon,” he repeated, quickly stubbing out the offending cheroot. “Had I known there was a lady present, I would not have been so ill-mannered as to indulge in a smoke.”
Olivia gave a brusque wave without looking up. “Apology accepted, sir.” Hoping that silence would help to encourage a quick retreat, she propped her elbows on the table and continued to study the position of the remaining chess pieces.
The gentleman didn’t budge.
Repressing a huff of impatience, Olivia pushed the last ivory pawn forward with a touch more force than was necessary. It slid over the smooth marble tiles and collided head-on with its ebony counterpart. With a soft snick, the two erections hit up against each other.
A glint of emotion seemed to hang for an instant of the fire-sparked tips of his dark lashes. But surely she must be mistaken—it was only a quirk of the candlelight that made it appear to be amusement.In her experience, military officers were not wont to display any sense of humor.
“Madam,” he murmured after another moment of regarding the board with a hooded stare.
“Miss,” she corrected.
A frown fitted across his face, but after a tiny hesitation he continued, “I concede that you seem conversant in the concept of chess. But this evening, perhaps, er, playing cards would be a more appropriate choice of entertainment.”
“I loath cards,” said Olivia. “They require such little mental effort. Chess is far more cerebral.”
“Indeed. However, in this particular case, it is the, er, physical aspect of the game that is cause for concern—”
“Why?” she interrupted. “Seeing as chess is considered by many to be a metaphor for war, it seems singularly appropriate that male figures display their swords.” A pause. “Sword is a euphemism that you gentlemen use to refer to your sex organ, is it not?”
His bronzed face seemed to turn distinctly redder in the uncertain candlelight.
Good—I’ve truly shocked him.
Now perhaps he would go away, thought Olivia, quickly moving one of her pawns to another square. She had been deliberately outrageous in hopes of scaring him off. His presence—that tall, quiet pillar of unflinching steel—was having a strangely unsettling effect on her concentration.
“You might want to reconsider that particular strategy.” To her dismay, the gentleman slid into the seat across from her and took charge of the ebony army.
The faint scent of his spicy cologne floated across the narrow space between them, and as he leaned forward for a closer survey of the board, the candle flame flickered, its red-gold fire catching for an instant on the tips of his dark lashes.
Breathe, she told herself. It was the exotic smoke that was making her a little woozy.
“If I move here,” he pointed out, “you are in danger.”
His words stirred a prickling sensation at the nape of her neck, as if daggerpoints were teasing against her flesh. In and out, in and out. Olivia forced her lungs to obey her silent order as she studied the positions of the pieces. The blood was thrumming in her ears, and for one, mad, mercurial moment, she feared she might swoon.
No—only feather-brained gooseberries swooned. And of all the derogatory comments she had heard whispered behind her back, nobody had ever called her an idiot.
“True,” she replied to him.
The sudden scuffling of approaching footsteps in the corridor prevented him from making a reply.
Damnation. Fisting her skirts,Olivia shot up from the table, belatedly realizing that she had put herself on the razor’s edge of ruin.
Damn, damn, damn.
The rules of Society strictly forbid an unmarried lady from being alone in a room with a gentleman. Her name would be blackened, her reputation would be ripped beyond repair.
Ye Gods, if I am to be sunk in scandal, at least let it be for the right reason, she thought, quickly whirling around and moving for the narrow connecting portal set in the recessed alcove.
Clicking open the latch, she darted into the welcoming darkness of the adjoining room.
John watched as the lady flitted away in a swirling of shadows, smoke and indigo silk.
Who the devil is she?
It had been too dark, too hazy for him to make out more than a vague impression of her face. Arched brows, Slanted cheekbones. A full mouth. And an errant curl of unruly hair—it looked dark as a raven-wing, but he couldn’t be sure of the exact color—teasing against the curve of her jaw.
The lady’s voice had been the only distinctive feature. Slightly husky, slightly rough, the sound of it had rubbed against his skin with a heat-sparked friction.
He frowned, feeling a lick of fire skate down his spine and spiral toward his . . . sword.
Good Lord, had the lady really uttered such an utterly outrageous observation? He wasn’t sure whether he felt indignant or intrigued by her outspoken candor.
“No, no, definitely not intrigued,” muttered John aloud. He shifted in his seat, willing his body to unclench.
Everyone—including himself—knew that the Earl of Wrexham was, if not a perfect hero, a perfect gentleman. He respected rules and regulations. There were good reasons for them—they provided the basis for order and stability within Polite Society.
Don’t think. Don’t wonder. Don’t speculate.
No matter that the blaze of fierce intelligence in her eyes had lit his curiosity.
Granted, she might be clever, he conceded. But a lady who flaunted convention was his exact opposite. And like oil and water, opposites never mixed well.
It was his sister calling. The muted echo of his name was followed by a tentative rapping on the study’s oak-paneled door. “Are you in there?”
At the moment, he would rather be pursued by Attila the Hun and his savage horde of warriors.
The latch clicked.
Deciding that he had had enough uncomfortable encounters with the opposite sex for one night, the earl hesitated, and then, like the mysterious Mistress of the Exotic Chessboard, he spun around and made a hasty retreat.