Conlan McTeer, Duke of Adair, has come to Dublin to fight for a free Ireland. But he's suddenly reunited with the young Englishwoman who had once claimed his heart, and his passion turns from politics to pleasure. When their sizzling encounter brings danger to Anna's door, she must decide where her loyalties lie-and quickly. For someone will do whatever it takes to destroy Conlan . . . and anyone he dares to love.
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Duchess of Sin
By McKee, Laurel
ForeverCopyright © 2010 McKee, Laurel
All right reserved.
Dublin, December 1799
She really should not be doing this. It was a terrible, imprudent idea.
But that had never stopped her before.
Lady Anna Blacknall drew the hood of her black cloak closer over her pale gold hair, which would shimmer like a beacon in the night and attract unwanted attention. She pressed her back tighter to the stone wall, peering out at the world through the eyeholes of her satin mask. Her endeavor to become invisible seemed to be working as everyone hurried past her without even a glance.
But where was Jane? If she turned coward and refused to appear, Anna couldn’t get into the Olympian Club on her own. Jane was the one who was a member, and the club had a strictly enforced “guests of members only” policy. It wasn’t likely Jane would abandon her, though. Jane, the widowed but still young Lady Cannondale, was the most daring woman in Dublin, always up for a lark or a dare. She was also Anna’s new bosom bow—much to her mother’s chagrin. Katherine Blacknall, Lady Killinan, feared Lady Cannondale would land Anna in scandal and ruin.
It was fortunate Katherine didn’t realize that most of their pranks were Anna’s idea, just like the one tonight.
Anna pressed her hands tightly to her stomach where a nervous excitement fluttered like a hundred demented butterflies. This seemed like such a fine idea when she first heard about the exclusive, secretive, scandalous Olympian Club and found out Jane was a member. Tonight the club was holding a masked ball, the rare opportunity for non-members to see what went on inside its hidden environs. Surely something so secretive must be worth exploring.
Strangely, though, Jane had tried to put her off, to laugh away the invitation to the ball. “It is sure to be quite dull,” she insisted, taking the engraved card from Anna’s hand after she found it hidden in Jane’s sitting room. “The club has such a reputation only because it restricts its membership. There’s just cards and a little dancing, like everywhere else in Dublin.”
Anna snatched the invitation right back. “How can a masked ball at a secret club possibly be dull? I’ve been so bored of late. Surely this is just the excitement I need!”
Jane had laughed. “You have been to parties every night this month. How can you be bored?”
“All anyone talks about are the Union debates in Parliament,” Anna said. Those endless quarrels for and against Ireland’s Union with England, rumors of who had been bribed with titles and money to switch sides, and who had come to fisticuffs over the matter in St. Stephen’s Green. She was so vastly tired of it, tired of everything.
It did not distract her from memories of the Uprising, either—from the old, terrible nightmares of blood and death in battle. Only dancing and wine and noise could do that, for a few hours, anyway.
She had finally persuaded Jane to take her to the Olympian Club’s masked ball. Anna crept out of her house at the appointed hour, in disguise, to wait on this street corner. But where was Jane?
She tapped her foot under the hem of her gown, a borrowed frock of Jane’s made of garnet-red satin embroidered with jet beads and trimmed with black lace. Her own gowns were all the insipid whites and pastels of a debutante, but this gown was much better. The beads clicked and sang at the movement, as if they, too, longed to dance, to drown in the sweet forgetfulness of music and motion. But if Jane did not hurry, they would have to leave the ball before it even started! Anna had to be home before dawn if she didn’t want to get caught.
At last, Jane’s carriage came rattling around the corner. The door opened, and Anna rushed inside, barely falling onto the velvet seat before they went flying off again. Her nervous butterflies beat their wings faster as they careened through the night, and Anna laughed at the rush of excitement.
“I thought you changed your mind,” she said, straightening her skirt.
“Of course not, A.,” Jane answered, tying on her own mask around her piled-up auburn hair. “I promised you an adventure tonight. Though I do fear you may be disappointed once you see how dull the club really is.”
“I’m sure it can’t be as dull as another ball at Dublin Castle,” Anna said with a shudder. “Terrible music, endless minuets with stuffy lordlings. And Mama watching to see if I will marry one of them and cease my wild ways at last.”
Jane laughed. “You ought to let her marry you off to one of them.”
“Jane! Never. Just the thought of one of them touching me—that way. No.”
“It only lasts a moment or two, A., I promise. And then you have freedom you can’t even imagine now. My Harry was a terrible old goat, but now I have his money and my Gianni, who is quite luscious.” Jane sighed happily. “It is a marvelous life, truly.”
“But you are Harry’s widow, Jane. You no longer have to endure his—attentions.” Anna stared out the window at the city streets flashing by, a blur of gray-white marble, austere columns and black-painted doors. She thought of old Lord Cannondale before he popped off last spring, his yellow-tinged eyes that watched Jane so greedily, his spotted, twisted hands. And she thought of someone else, too, that crazed soldier who had grabbed her in the midst of battle… “Not even for freedom could I endure sharing my bed with someone like that.”
“Well, what of Grant Dunmore then? He is young and so very handsome. All the young ladies are in love with him, yet he wanted to dance only with you at Lady Overton’s ball last week. He would not be so bad.”
Yes, there was Sir Grant Dunmore. Not so very old at all, and the most handsome man in Dublin, or so everyone said. Surely if she had to marry someone, he would make a fine enough choice.
“He’s all right,” she said neutrally.
“Oh, A.! Is there no one in all of Dublin who catches your eye?”
Anna frowned. Yes, once there had been a man who caught her eye. It felt like a hundred years ago, though in fact it had not even been two. When she closed her eyes she could still see him there. The carved lines of his dark, harshly elegant face, and the glow of his green eyes. The way his rough, powerful hands felt as he reached for her in that stable…
The Duke of Adair. Yes, she did still think of him, dreamed of him at night, even though they had not met since those fearsome days of the Uprising. She was on the run with her family, and he was intent on his own unknown, dangerous mission. He would not want to see her again, not after what she had done to him.
She shook her head hard, trying to dislodge him from her memories—to shake free any memories at all. The past was gone. She had to keep reminding herself of that. “No, there is no one. I’ve never met anyone who appealed to me as your Gianni does to you.”
“We shall just have to change that then,” Jane said. “Oh, look, here we are!”
Desperately glad of the distraction, Anna peered out the window to find a nondescript building. It could have been any other house on Fish Street, a square, harsh, classical structure of white stone. The only glimmer of light came from a leaded, fan-shaped window over the dark blue door. All the other windows were tightly shrouded with dark drapes.
Anna smoothed her black silk gloves over her elbows, taking in a deep, steadying breath as a footman opened the carriage door.
“Are you quite sure this is the place?” she said. “It doesn’t look scandalous at all.”
“I told you it might be disappointing,” Jane answered, stepping down to the pavement. “But then again, the most delicious forbidden places are adept at disguise.”
Just like herself? Anna had found she, like this house, was very good at putting up façades and pretending to be what she was not. Or maybe trying on different masks to see which was really her, to hide the terrible hollowness inside. But that would require far too much introspection, and that she did not have time for.
She followed Jane up the front steps, waiting just behind as her friend gave the unsmiling butler her invitation.
“Follow me, if you please, madame,” he said, letting them in after examining them carefully. As two masked footmen stepped forward to take their cloaks, the door swung shut with an ominous, echoing clang. Now that they were really in that strange, cold, silent house, Anna wondered if Jane was right—maybe they should not be there.
She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror as the butler led them up the winding marble staircase, and she scarcely recognized the woman who stared back. In that sophisticated red gown, with her face covered by a black satin mask and a beaded black lace net over her blond hair, she looked older than her eighteen years.
That was good. Sometimes she did not want to be herself at all, didn’t want to be Anna Blacknall, with all those duties and expectations and memories.
And she didn’t want anyone else to recognize her, either. If anyone discovered she was here, she would be quite ruined. She would disappoint her mother and family yet again, in the worst way. But on nights like this, it was as if a terrible compulsion, almost an illness, came over her, and she had to run away.
They turned on the landing at the top of the stairs, making their way down a long, silent corridor. Medieval-looking torches set in metal sconces flickered, casting bronze-red shadows over the bare walls. At first, the only sound was the click of their shoes on the flagstone floor. But as they hurried farther along, a soft humming noise expanded and grew, becoming a roar.
The butler threw open a pair of tall double doors at the end of the corridor, and Anna stepped into a wild fantasy.
It was a ballroom, of course, but quite unlike any other she had ever seen. The floor-to-ceiling windows were draped in black velvet; streamers of red and black satin fell from the high ceiling, where a fresco of cavorting Olympian gods at an Underworld banquet stared down at them. More gods, stone and marble, stood in naked splendor against the silk-papered walls. The air was heavy with the scent of wax candles and exotic orchids and lilies, tumbling over the statues in drifts of purple and black and creamy white.
A hidden orchestra played a wild Austrian waltz, a sound strange and almost discordant to Anna’s ears after the staid minuets and country dances of Society balls, but also gorgeous and stirring. Masked couples swirled around the dance floor, a kaleidoscope of whites, reds, blacks, and greens. It was a primal scene, bizarre and full of such raw energy.
That nervous feeling faded, replaced by a deeper stirring of excitement. Yes, this Dionysian place was exactly what she needed tonight.
Jane took two glasses of champagne from the proffered tray of another masked footman, handing one to Anna. “Cheers, A.,” she said, clicking their glasses together. “Is this more like what you expected?”
Anna sipped at the sharp, bubbling liquid, studying the dancers over the golden rim. “Indeed so.”
“Well, then, enjoy, my friend. The card room is over there, dining room that way. They have the most delectable lobster tarts. I think I will just find myself a dance partner.”
“Have fun,” Anna said. As Jane disappeared into the crowd, Anna finished her champagne and took another glass, making her way around the edge of the room. It was decidedly not a place her mother would approve of. It was too strange, too dark—the dancing much too close. One man leaned over his partner, kissing her neck as she laughed. Anna turned away from them, peeking into the card room where roulette and faro went on along with more intimate card games. There seemed to be a great deal of money, as well as piles of credit notes, on the tables.
No, the Olympian Club was assuredly not Dublin Castle, the seat of the British government, and not some stuffy Society drawing room, either. And that was what she wanted. There was no forgetfulness in staid reels and penny-ante whist.
She took another glass of champagne. The golden froth of it along with the rich scent of the flowers was a heady combination. For a moment, the room swayed before her, a gilded mélange of red and black and laughing couples, and she laughed too.
“You shouldn’t be here, beag peata,” a deep voice said behind her, rough and rich, touched at the edges by a musical Irish accent. Though the words were low, they seemed to rise above the cacophony of the party like an oracle’s pronouncement.
Anna shivered at the sound, the twirling room slowing around her as if in a dream. Her gloved fingers tightened on the glass as she glanced over her shoulder. And, for the first time since she stepped into the alternate world of the club, she felt a cold frisson of fear trickle down her spine.
The man stood far enough away that it would be easy for her to run and melt into the crowd. Yet something in his eyes, a fathomless, burning dark green behind the plain white mask, held her frozen in place as his captive.
He was tall and strongly built, with his broad shoulders and muscled chest barely contained in stark black and white evening clothes. And he was so dark—bronzed, almost shimmering skin set off by close-cropped raven-colored hair and a shadow of beard along his sharp jaw. Dark and hard, a Hades in his Underworld realm, yet his lips seemed strangely sensual and soft.
They curved in a wry smile, as if he read her fascinated thoughts.
“You don’t belong here,” he said again.
Something in that gravelly voice—the amusement or maybe the hint of tension—made Anna prickle with irritated anger. He did not even know her; how dare he presume to know where she belonged. Especially when she did not even know that herself.
She stiffened her shoulders, tilting back her head to stare up and up into his eyes. He really was cursed tall! She felt delicate and small beside him when she wanted to feel like a powerful goddess.
“On the contrary,” she said. “I find this all remarkably amusing.”
“Amusing?” His gaze swept over the room before landing on her again, pinning her as if she were some helpless butterfly. “You have strange taste in amusement, beag peata.”
“You should not call me that. I am not that small.”
One dark brow arched over his mask. “You know Gaelic?”
“Not a great deal. But enough to know when I am insulted.”
He laughed, a harsh, rusty sound, as if he did not use it very often. “It is hardly an insult. Merely the truth—little one.”
Before Anna could tell what he was doing, he grabbed her wrist, holding it between his strong, callused fingers. Though his touch was light, she sensed she could not easily break away. That eerie fascination, that hypnosis he seemed to cast around her, tightened like a glittering web.
Unable to breathe or to think, she watched as he unfastened the tiny black pearl buttons at her wrist, peeling back the silk. A sliver of her pale skin was revealed, her pulse pounding just along the fragile bone.
“You see,” he said quietly. “You are small and delicate, trembling like a bird.”
He lifted her wrist to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to that thrumming pulse. Anna gasped at the heat of that kiss, at the touch of his tongue to her skin, hot and damp. She tried to snatch her hand away, but his fingers tightened, holding her fast.
“You should not be here among the hawks,” he muttered, his gaze meeting hers in a steady burn.
There was something about those eyes.…
Anna had a sudden flash of memory. A man on a windswept hill, his long, black hair wild. A man who held her close in a dark, deserted stable, who kissed her in the midst of danger and uncertain fates. A man all tangled up in her blood-soaked memories.
A man with dark green eyes.
“Is—is it you?” she whispered without thinking.
His eyes narrowed, a muscle in his jaw clenching. “I told you, beag peata. You should not be here.”
“I go where I please,” she said, an attempt at defiance even as her head spun.
“Then you are a fool. Everyone should be most careful these days. You never know who is your friend and who your foe.”
“Insults again?” Angry and confused and, she feared, aroused by him, she tried again to twist away.
He would not let her go. Instead, he drew her closer, his other arm coming around her waist and pulling her up against him. His body pressed against hers, warm and hard through the slippery satin of her gown.
“Since you insist on staying then,” he said, “you should have a dance.”
Before she could protest or even draw a breath, he lifted her up, carrying her into the whirling press of the dance floor.
She stared up into his eyes, mesmerized as he slowly slid her back down to her feet. He twirled her about, her hand held over her head in an arch.
“I don’t know the steps,” she gasped.
“We’re not at a castle assembly,” he said roughly, dipping her back in his arms. “No one cares about the steps here.”
As he spun her around again, Anna stared into a dizzy haze. He was quite right—everyone seemed to use the dance merely as an excuse to be close to each other. Very close. The couples around them were pressed together as they twirled in wild circles, bodies entwined.
She looked back into his eyes, those green eyes that saw so very much. He seemed to see everything she tried so hard to keep hidden—all her fear and guilt. That mesmerizing light in his eyes reeled her closer and closer.…
She suddenly laughed, feeling reckless and giddy with the champagne, the music, and being so close to him, to the heat and light of him. Well, she had come here to forget, had she not? To leave herself behind and drown in the night. She might as well throw all caution to the wind and go down spectacularly.
Anna looped her arms around his neck, leaning into the hard, lean strength of his muscled body. “Show me how you dance then,” she said.
His jaw tightened, and his eyes never wavered from hers. “You should go home now.”
“The night is young. And you said I should dance.”
In answer, he dragged her tight against him, his hands unclasping hers from around his neck as he led her deeper into the shifting patterns of the dance. Even as the crowd closed around them, pressing in on her, she could see no one but him. The rest of the vast room faded to a golden blur; only he was thrown into sharp relief. He held her safe in his arms, spinning and spinning until she threw back her head, laughing as she closed her eyes.
It was like flying! Surely any danger was worth this. For one instant, she could forget and soar free.
But then he lifted her from her feet again, twirling her through an open door and into sudden silence and darkness. She opened her eyes to see they were in a conservatory, an exotic space of towering potted palms and arching windows that let in the cold, moonlit night. The air smelled of damp earth, of rich flowers, and of the clean salt of his warm skin.
There were a few whispers from unseen trysts behind the palms and the ghostly echo of music. But mostly she heard his breath, harsh in her ear. She felt the warm rush of it against the bare skin of her throat. Her heart pounded, an erratic drumbeat that clouded all her thoughts and obscured any glimmer of sense.
For the first time since they started dancing, she felt truly afraid. She was afraid of herself, of the wild creature inside that clamored to be free. Afraid of him, of his raw strength and strange magnetism that would not let her go, and of who she suspected he was. Afraid he would vanish again.
He set her down on a wide windowsill. The stone was cold through her skirts, and his hands hard as he held her by the waist. Anna braced herself against his shoulders, certain she would fall if he let go. Falling down and down into that darkness that always waited, so she could never find her way out again.
“You should listen to me, beag peata,” he said, his accent heavy and rich like whiskey. “This is no place for someone like you.”
“Someone like me?” she whispered. “And what do you know of me?”
“You are too young and innocent for the likes of these people.”
“These people? Are you not one of them?”
His lips curved in a humorless smile that was somehow more disquieting than all his scowls. “Assuredly so.”
“And so am I—tonight. I am not so innocent as all that.” Innocents did not do what she had done, seen what she had seen. They did not commit murder.
“Oh, but you are,” he whispered. “I can see it in those blue eyes of yours. You are an innocent here.”
She laughed bitterly. “But I can be a fierce innocent when I need to be.”
“You’re very brave.” He took her hand in his, sliding his fingers over the silk of her glove.
She gasped. His hold wasn’t painful, but she was all too aware that she could not break free from him, could not escape. The pulse at the base of her throat fluttered, and she couldn’t speak. She just shook her head—she was not brave at all.
“Brave, and very foolish,” he said hoarsely, as if he was in pain. “Don’t do this to me.”
“What…” She swallowed hard, her throat dry. “Do what to you?”
“Look at me the way you do.” He leaned into the soft curve of her body, resting his forehead against hers. She closed her eyes, feeling the essence of him wrap all around her. She felt safe, safer than she had in so very long, and yet more frightened than ever. This had to be a dream. He could not be real.
He let go of her wrist, bracing his hands on the windowsill behind her. Slowly, she felt his head tilt and his lips lower toward hers—the merest light brush, a tantalizing taste of wine and man. His tongue swept across her lower lip, making her gasp at the hot sensations. The damp heat of it was like a drug, sweetly alluring like laudanum in wine, pulling her down into a fantasy world. He bit lightly at her lip, soothing it again with his tongue.
She felt his hands slide over her shoulders, bared by the daring gown, trailing a ribbon of fire over her collarbone, the hollow at the base of her throat, and the sensitive skin just at the top of her breasts.…
But then he was gone, pulling back from her, and his arms dropping away. She cried out involuntarily, her eyes flying open. He stood across from her with his back turned and his shoulders stiff.
She would wager that was not the only part of him that was stiff, either, but he would not turn to her again.
“Go home now,” he growled, his hands tightening into fists.
Anna was sure she might be foolish, but she certainly knew when to cut her losses and retreat. She leaped down from the ledge, her legs trembling so that she could hardly walk. But she forced herself to turn toward the door, taking one careful step after another.
“And don’t ever come here again!” he shouted after her.
She broke into a run, hardly stopping until she was safely bundled into a hackney carriage, racing toward home. She ripped off her mask and buried her face in her gloved hands. But that did not help at all; she could smell him on the silk, on herself, taste him on her lips.
Damn him! How could he do this to her again? Or rather, how could she do this to herself? He had drawn her into his strange world once before—she couldn’t let him do it again. She wouldn’t let him.
Excerpted from Duchess of Sin by McKee, Laurel Copyright © 2010 by McKee, Laurel. Excerpted by permission.
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