UNDER THE COVER OF NIGHT, NOTHING IS FORBIDDEN
Lily St. Claire will do anything for the family that saved her from the streets. With their support, the young widow has become the hostess of The Devil's Fancy, London's most exclusive gaming den. She's determined to restore the St. Claire family fortune, lost a century before to the despised Huntington clan. But a ghost from her past may be her ultimate undoing . . .
Lord Aidan Huntington is handsome and wealthy, with a taste for adventure and a reputation for wickedness. A gambler and a rake, Aidan can't resist a seductive woman with secrets - but one naughty night with Lily leaves him wanting more. As Lily is drawn into London's dark underworld by an old enemy, Aidan will risk everything to save the woman who has awakened his deepest desires.
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Read an Excerpt
One Naughty Night
By McKee, Laurel
ForeverCopyright © 2012 McKee, Laurel
All right reserved.
It was a complete disaster.
Lily St. Claire ran down the red-carpeted stairs of the Majestic Theater and through the gilded, near-empty lobby. A few people lingered there on the velvet banquettes or at the mirrored bar, sipping champagne. But most were in their seats and their fine boxes, savoring her ruin.
The long, pleated silk and muslin skirts of her Juliet costume wrapped around her legs, and she stumbled. Even the costume seemed to be against her tonight. She snatched her skirts up in great handfuls, crushing the fine fabric, and kept running.
Lily burst out the doors and onto the marble steps that led to the theater. Earlier that evening, when her nervous hopes were still alive, carriages had deposited their owners at the foot of those same steps. Ladies in fur-trimmed cloaks and gentlemen in top hats had flowed up them, all of society come to see a new William St. Claire production.
“It is sure to be excellent,” they said to each other. “His As You Like It last season was marvelous. A triumph!”
Her adopted father’s Shakespeare productions were always a triumph, year after year, even in the crowded London theatrical scene. They paid for the Majestic and helped with all the St. Claires’ many business operations, both respectable and not so much. But As You Like It had starred William’s wife, Katherine St. Claire, a glittering star of the stage, in her farewell performance as Rosalind.
He had not been so careful in his casting of Romeo and Juliet.
“What a fool I was,” Lily whispered. After her youthful life in the back alleys of London, she had thought she could never feel foolish again, especially over mere playacting, but here she was. She hurried down the steps and around the side of the building, hoping to find a hiding place before the audience departed. They were all watching the farce that always followed the main play, but that would be over soon and everyone would be leaving the theater. She didn’t want to hear their comments.
In his own gentle way, her father had told her that she was not yet ready for a lead role. “You learned so much as Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew last year, my dear,” he said when she pressed him about Juliet. “Perhaps one more season would help prepare you…”
But no. Stubborn fool that she was, she had insisted that all her acting lessons, all her years of watching the St. Claires since they adopted her when she was nine, were enough. She was ready to be a real actress.
To be a real St. Claire.
But as soon as she stepped onto the stage, with the lights dazzling her eyes and the Renaissance velvet costume weighing her down, she froze. She could not remember her lines or her blocking, could not even remember her character’s name. Only when the actress playing the nurse grabbed her hand hard and mumbled her first lines into her ear had she remembered.
After that she stumbled through the play like a numb, terrified fawn, the whole thing a horrifying blur. She didn’t know how she ever made it to the end.
It was certainly not the most terrible thing that had ever happened to her, Lily thought as she kicked out at a pile of crates stacked by the wall. Pain shot through her toes. No, freezing up onstage was nothing to watching her mother die of opium addiction or starving and picking pockets on the streets of Whitechapel, as she had all her life before the St. Claires took her in. It wasn’t like being caught by the wrong people at the wrong time.
But the St. Claires had saved her from all that, had raised her as their own, educated her, fed her, clothed her. Loved her. That made this failure even worse. It wasn’t just her failure—it brought them down too.
The Majestic was her father’s great dream. He had fought so hard for it and worked so much to make it a success. And she, with her foolish self-confidence and her stubbornness, had ruined its season opening.
Lily made her way through the maze of loading docks behind the theater, where scenery and crates of costumes were unloaded. Usually the stagehands hid there for a quick smoke or nip of gin, away from Katherine St. Claire’s sharp eyes, but tonight the docks were deserted.
She dropped heavily onto a wooden bench, letting her skirts fall around her. She dragged her veiled cap from her head and shook out her heavy brown hair.
“I suppose I’ll have to marry Harry Nichols now,” she said, and shivered. Harry had been a most persistent suitor lately, and he was a prosperous one with his greengrocer stores and house in Piccadilly. He was also handsome enough in a florid way and well mannered.
But there was something in his eyes when he looked at her that she did not like.
“Now, that would be a shame,” a deep, brandy-smooth voice said from the shadows.
Lily leaped from the bench and whirled around. It was so dark that at first she couldn’t see anything at all. She could only hear the soft sound of breathing, the slight brush of fine wool fabric.
Her body grew tense and alert, every instinct from her childhood in the slums rushing back over her.
She had become weak in recent years, letting her guard down, not paying attention to every aspect of her surroundings. In Whitechapel, she would have been dead minutes ago.
“Who is there?” she called. Her hands curled into fists as she scanned the dock. “Show yourself!”
A man stepped from the shadows, his hands up, palms out. A lit cheroot was held between his lips, which curled in an infuriatingly amused smile. He didn’t look like a Whitechapel creeper. He was tall and leanly muscled, dressed in a well-cut evening coat of dark blue wool and a cream-colored silk waistcoat. A simply tied crisp white cravat looped about his neck, skewered with a sapphire stickpin.
Lily stepped back to study him closer. He was handsome, she had to admit—almost absurdly so, as if he were a painting or a sculpture. His hair, a deep, glossy mahogany brown, swept back from his face in waves to tumble over his collar. His face was all sharp, aristocratic planes, with bladelike cheekbones, a straight nose, and a square jaw with the tiniest dimple set just above it. His eyes were very, very blue, almost glowing, set off by smooth olive skin and a shadow of dark whiskers along his jaw.
He didn’t look like a criminal, lurking about to rob unsuspecting theatergoers. But Lily knew very well how appearances were deceptive. After all, didn’t she appear to be a lady now—even if she was not a Shakespearean actress? In reality, deep down, she was still just that street urchin, daughter of a whore.
The man slowly plucked the cheroot from between his lips and held it between his thumb and forefinger as he exhaled a plume of smoke. It wreathed around his head, making him look like a demon emerging from hell. A handsome Mephistopheles sent to tempt her.
“Are you going to call for a constable to arrest me?” he asked.
“What are you doing here?” Lily demanded.
He held up the cheroot. “Just having a quick smoke. I don’t much care for farces.”
Or for pitifully bad productions of Shakespeare? She dared not ask. She watched as he dropped the cheroot and carefully extinguished it under his polished evening shoe.
“I’m not here to start a fire, I promise,” he said with an enticing grin. “Or to accost young ladies fleeing from Verona.”
“No,” Lily said. A sudden weariness washed over her, as if the whole long, awful evening had caught up to her. She sat back down on the bench. “I don’t suppose you are. And this is a good place to hide from farces.”
“And from my mother,” he said. “She does enjoy farces, which may be why she’s always trying to introduce me to blasted ‘eligible females.’ ”
Lily had to laugh at the wry tone of his voice. She imagined “eligible females” chased him down wherever he went. She still wasn’t sure about him—he was a stranger, after all, even if he was unearthly handsome. She knew better than to trust any man. But she was suddenly glad not to be alone.
He was as good a distraction as any.
She slid over on the bench in silent invitation, and he sat down next to her. He didn’t touch her, but the bench was small, and he was close enough that she could feel the heat from his body. He smelled delicious, of some spicy cologne, expensive soap, and something wonderfully dark that was only him. She had to resist the urge to bury her head in his shoulder and just inhale him, as if he were a drug that could make her forget.
“So you have to marry too?” she said.
“Someday, I suppose.” He took a small silver flask from inside his coat and unstoppered it before holding it out to her in silent invitation.
Lily cautiously sniffed it. Brandy, and very good stuff too. She took a long sip and handed it back. He also drank, and she watched in fascination as his strong throat moved above the cravat.
“But,” he continued, “I am luckily not promised to this Harry Nichols, whoever he might be. The name alone sounds appalling.”
Lily laughed. The warm smoothness of the brandy—and his close presence—seemed to be working its spell on her. “He’s not so bad, I suppose. There are surely worse fates than to be Mrs. Nichols, queen of the greengrocers.”
“But there must be better ones as well.”
She thought of her wretched failure as an actress, her lack of skills in anything else except keeping accounts. She was rather good at numbers, but that held little appeal next to her glamorous brothers and sisters. “Not for me, I think.”
He shrugged and put away the flask. “We all have to do what we must.”
“Yes,” Lily said. “And what do you do?”
“Not much at all,” he answered with a laugh. “To the despair of my father. I left Oxford last year and have been adrift ever since.”
“What does your father want you to do, then?”
“Go into the church or, failing that, the army. But he prefers the church, as he has a rather valuable living to bestow and it would get me out of the way.”
Lily laughed at the image of this obviously rakish young man giving a sermon in black robes. His female parishioners would be wildly distracted, fainting in the aisle and cornering him in the vestibule. “You? A vicar?”
“Exactly so. You see, we have only just met, and you see the folly of such a scheme. My father is harder to persuade.”
Lily shook her head. “The church is a most respectable profession.”
“And as such, it deserves a respectable practitioner.”
“And that isn’t you?”
“Certainly not. I also have the chance to try my hand at some business in the West Indies, which would probably suit me much better.”
His choices were the church or the tropics? Lily kicked at the hem of her costume as she thought about the suffocating expectations of other people, of the world at large. How they pressed in on all sides, no matter if you lived in a palace or a hovel.
“What would you do if you could do anything at all?” she asked.
He studied her closely, and for just a moment his careless, rakish demeanor fell away, and he looked older and far more serious. His blue eyes darkened.
“I would write plays, I suppose,” he said.
Lily was surprised. She didn’t know what she had expected him to say, but it wasn’t that. “Write plays?”
His smile came back, like a mask dropping back into place. “You’re astonished.”
“Of course not. I completely understand anyone falling in love with the theater.” She thought again of all her hopes for the stage—and the way they crashed down around her. “It just doesn’t always love you back.”
She suddenly felt a gentle touch on her hand and looked down to see his fingers against hers, his hand large and dark on her pale skin, his fingers long and elegant. She usually didn’t like men touching her; it brought back the old, terrible memories. But with him, she didn’t want to pull away at all.
“It was only your first night,” he said. “I’m sure even Richard Burbage suffered stage fright at his debut. Who wouldn’t when faced with Shakespeare? The next time will be very different.”
Lily shook her head. Her cheeks burned to think that he, of all people, witnessed tonight’s debacle. And now he tried to comfort her! “There won’t be a next time, not for me. At least you will not have to speak your lines right there in front of everyone once you have written them.”
“But I would have to give them into the hands of others and let them go,” he said. “I’m not sure I have that much trust in me.”
“I’m quite sure I wouldn’t,” Lily said. “It is very hard for me to trust at all.”
“Yet you’ve talked to me, a stranger, tonight.”
She smiled up at him. “You’re rather easy to talk to. Maybe it’s because you’re a stranger.”
“Odd. I was thinking the same about you… Juliet.” He raised her hand to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to the back of her fingers.
His lips were warm, soft and hard at the same time, and their touch made a strange, sparkling haze drop over her. As she watched, fascinated, he turned her hand over in his and pressed an openmouthed kiss at the center of her palm. The tip of his tongue then touched the pulse that beat at her wrist, and she shivered.
Lily laid her other hand on his bent head and felt the rough silk of his hair under her touch. If she had to marry Harry Nichols, to spend her life in the real world of shops and streets and housework, didn’t she deserve this one moment out of time? This one kiss with a sinfully handsome stranger who seemed to banish her fears with just a touch?
He took her in his arms and drew her close, until there was not even a particle of light between them. “Juliet,” he whispered, and his mouth met hers in a hungry kiss.
Lily met him eagerly, holding tightly to his shoulders to keep from falling. His kiss made her feel just like that, as if she were tumbling through the night sky among the flashing stars.
His tongue pressed past her lips to touch and tangle with hers. He tasted of brandy and mint, hot and delicious, and he was such a good kisser. Lily had never been kissed like this, never felt like this before. She curled her hands into the front of his coat and felt his heart pounding against her.
He groaned, a deep, echoing sound, and his lips slid from hers to press against the side of her neck. He kissed that soft, sensitive spot just below her ear, nipping it lightly with his teeth and then soothing it with the touch of his tongue. His breath brushed warmly over her skin.
“Lily!” someone called out, pulling her abruptly back down to the hard, cold earth. “Lily, are you out here?”
It was her mother, her voice filled with worry. And she was getting closer.
Lily tore herself out of the stranger’s arms and leaped to her feet. She swayed dizzily, but when he reached out for her again, she stumbled back. “I… I have to go,” she whispered.
He stood up beside her, not trying to touch her again. His blue eyes glowed in the shadows. “Where can I find you?” he said hoarsely.
She shook her head. He was a dream—and she had to wake up now. She whirled around and ran away from him, lifting her skirts to flee once again.
“Wait! Please,” he called after her. But she didn’t dare look back.
London, Three Years Later
“You see, Lily, it’s the perfect place for sin.”
Lily St. Claire Nichols leaned back on the seat of the open carriage as it came to a halt, staring up at the building from under the brim of her fashionable satin and net bonnet. It was a very handsome structure, to be sure, four stories elegantly built in the uniform white stone of Mayfair. Polished marble front steps led up to a glossy black-painted door, and there were lots of gleaming windows to reflect the pearl-gray London sky behind their discreet velvet draperies. It blended perfectly with its genteel neighbors.
But sinful? She had seen lots of places much better suited to that.
“If you say so, Dominic,” she said with a laugh. “But I would have thought it the perfect place for drinking tea and playing the pianoforte.”
“Ah, sister dear, as usual you have no imagination,” Dominic said. As he leaped down from the carriage to the flagstone walkway, two passing young ladies paused to watch him, giggling and blushing under their fringed parasols.
Lily bit her lip to keep from laughing. It was always thus with Dominic—his golden, Apollo-like good looks, combined with the natural flamboyance of the St. Claires made it utterly impossible to look away from him. He always exuded energy and good cheer, a glow that drew people in, just as their famous parents and her siblings did. When the St. Claires were all together, they nearly obliterated the sun.
Where Lily, only an adopted St. Claire, contented herself with her brown hair, a sensible nature that kept her wilder siblings from too much trouble, and their reflected glory. Someone had to be a practical Athena to their Dionysian revels, to keep track of the accounts and organize their businesses. She liked keeping to the shadows, especially after her one disastrous moment in the theatrical sun three years ago.
She was done with the spotlight. Now she had a new task—to help her brother Dominic with his latest venture: a fashionable, luxurious gambling club right in the heart of Mayfair. It seemed a good plan. Aristocrats often had deep pockets and longed for decadent but discreet ways to empty them. The St. Claires were good at helping them with that task.
It seemed like a good place for Lily to start over too. Her husband had been dead for a year now. It was time to move on, to forget the past.
“Thanks to you, Dominic, I have plenty of imagination,” she said as he helped her alight from the carriage. She looped her gloved hand through his arm and went with him up the gleaming steps. Despite her caution, she felt a bright spark of excitement deep inside. She had a good feeling about this place.
“It’s a very pretty house in a fine neighborhood,” she went on. “But how will anyone even know to come here and gamble their money away? It’s not the most obvious.”
“That’s the very point! If we want to attract dukes and earls, we have to be discreet and very exclusive. They won’t want the queen to know what they’re up to.” Dominic drew a shining brass key from inside his fine, blue wool coat. “We will have a small brass sign here on the door along with a demon’s head knocker. ‘The Devil’s Fancy—Members Only.’ And, of course, there will be a very strict and respectable butler to man the door.”
“I’m glad you’ve thought of everything, even a dramatic name,” Lily said, stepping inside. She blinked at the sudden, dark shadows after the bright day. “And where will these members, these dukes and earls, come from?”
“Nothing easier, Lily, as you well know. You’re the one with the brain for accounting, after all. Our investors will drop hints among their friends. The word will spread through the ballrooms and the gentlemen’s clubs. Everyone will want to join.”
Lily untied her bonnet and swept it off to get a better look at the surroundings. She had to admit it was impressive. The foyer, with white and gold walls and elaborate wedding-cake plasterwork, soared upward to a domed ceiling painted with a fresco of a classical gods’ feast against a bright, blue sky. A winding staircase with a fine wrought-iron balustrade led to the public rooms above, while just beyond she glimpsed a small room that could be the office of that stern butler.
She could picture liveried footmen greeting their guests with glasses of champagne, could hear the rustle of lacy crinoline skirts, laughter, and chatter floating along those stairs. The whir of a roulette wheel, the clink of coins.
“You have investors, then?” she said. “Rich ones?”
“You always do get right to the point, don’t you, Lily?”
Certainly she did. The stink of the streets, where she spent her childhood picking pockets and scrounging to survive until the St. Claires rescued her, was never far enough away. Even here in elegant Mayfair.
“Investors?” she said again.
“Of course, with Brendan’s help.” Their brother Brendan was magical with people—they could never say no to him. Odd, since he always seemed the strong, silent type, the sort of man no one could fathom. So different from Dominic. “Just a few so far, but very desirable ones. Viscount Brownville. Sir Archibald Overton. Lady Smythe. Even a duke’s nephew, perhaps. Brendan was a bit secretive about that one.”
“All those? How did Brendan reel them in?”
“They know a good investment when they see one.” Dominic propped his booted foot on the lowest marble step, his handsome, smiling face suddenly darkening. “Maybe with one duke, we could lure Carston to invest here as well. Take a chunk of his ill-gotten gains.”
The Duke of Carston. The Huntington family. It always came back to them. That high-in-the-instep ducal family always darkened every St. Claire moment of triumph. They hung over everything due to the old legend of the way they once ruined the St. Claires.
Lily gently laid her hand on Dominic’s arm. She wasn’t about to let Carston, or anyone, ruin this, her new beginning. “Show me the upstairs rooms.”
He nodded and led her up the stairs, their footsteps echoing in the luxurious, empty space. Off the landing were three beautiful salons, shimmering with more white and gold. There were vast, elaborately carved marble fireplaces and tall windows draped in pale yellow brocade and velvet trimmed in heavy tassels and fringe.
“This can be the main gaming salon,” Dominic said eagerly, his dark mood seemingly forgotten. “And over there a ballroom and a dining room.”
Lily laughed. “Dining and dancing too?”
“Of course! A French chef, a fine orchestra…”
“It’s a good thing we have rich investors, then.”
“And we’ll soon have more. Our investment will be returned many times over, Lily. You’ll see.” Dominic strode through the empty rooms, throwing back the draperies to let in the daylight. “I will order all the gaming supplies, but you must be in charge of hiring the staff and buying the furnishings. The most fashionable of everything.”
Even as she calculated exactly how much “the most fashionable of everything” would cost, Lily couldn’t deny that her brother’s excitement was infectious. It would certainly be a splendid establishment. And with dukes and viscounts as their customers, leading the way for London’s elite to come trooping to their doors, their fortune would be made.
Lily eased back one of the draperies to peer down at the street below. As she did so, she caught a glimpse of herself in the glass pane, a ghostly reflection of her pale face against the satin bow that tied her jacket collar. She sighed at the sight.
Despite her fine, blue velvet jacket and plaid silk skirt, she was surely nothing out of the ordinary. A pigeon among the golden St. Claire peacocks, with brown hair and eyes, of middling height, and too thin for fashion.
“It’s a good thing you can afford fine clothes,” she murmured wryly. And that she had a stylish mother to help her choose them. Katherine St. Claire was known as one of the most fashionable women in London, and she loved advising her daughters. It helped Lily pretend, for a while at least, that she belonged here.
Lily unlatched the window and threw it open so she wouldn’t have to look at herself any longer. The cool, fresh breeze of clean air, untainted by the smoke and muck of poorer neighborhoods, carried away the stale stuffiness of the salon. The prospect outside was as pretty as the one inside, with a green, shady park across the tidy street. Well-dressed people strolled there, ladies in crinolines and feathered bonnets on the arms of men in frock coats and gleaming silk hats, children with their hoops and wagons ushered by starchy black-clad nannies. Their laughter and bright clothes were like beacons in the gray day.
How pretty it all was, how fine and hopeful. How different from where she grew up on the streets of Whitechapel…
Suddenly a high, open carriage turned the corner and came flying down the street, scattering all the fine, placid people. It was painted bright yellow with green wheels and was pulled by a matched pair of bay horses. If the walkers were like beacons, this was like the entire sun. Lily leaned farther out the window to get a better view.
The carriage held only one passenger, the man who wielded the reins. He wore a brown velvet coat and brown wool trousers, a beautiful pearl-gray waistcoat, and a finely tied cravat—well cut and fashionable like his carriage but not too elaborate. He wore no hat, and she had a glimpse of his face and his glossy, dark brown hair as he passed.
“Oh, good heavens,” she gasped. It was him—the man she met after her disastrous stage debut. It had been almost three years, but she had not forgotten a single detail of his face. She had thought never to see him again, sure he would appear to her only in her dreams.
Yet here he was, driving right past her. And he was even more handsome than she remembered, his face all elegant, sculpted angles, bronzed skin, and slashing dark brows. Surely his cheekbones alone could cut glass—or a woman’s heart.
He looked up as he passed, laughing as if in deep sensual pleasure at his speed. His blue eyes, blue as the sea and sky, seemed to pierce through her even at such a distance. He raised one gloved hand to wave at her, his grin widening, and she drew back from the window as she tried to resist the urge to dive to the floor.
Her cheeks felt suddenly warm, and she pressed her palms against them. A sparkling excitement seemed to flutter deep inside her, and she wanted to giggle like some silly schoolgirl.
She had never been a schoolgirl of any sort, and she wasn’t going to start now. Not even over the handsome god of her former dreams. Surely the disillusionment of her marriage had killed off any such foolishness?
“What do you see out there, Lily?” Dominic asked. He pushed past her to peer outside.
“Nothing at all,” Lily said, cursing the silly breathlessness of her voice. “Just a pleasant morning.”
Suddenly Dominic pounded his fist on the windowsill. His shoulders stiffened. “Damn it all! What is he doing here?”
“Who?” Lily leaned past him, wondering which blameless pedestrian had earned her brother’s anger.
“Him, of course.” Dominic gestured toward the yellow carriage, clattering away out of sight. “Don’t you know him?”
A chill swept over Lily, driving away the last of her warm blush. Of course, it would be him Dominic hated. “No. Should I?”
“It’s Lord Aidan Huntington,” Dominic said, with what sounded suspiciously like a growl. “Son of the Duke of Carston.”
“No! That can’t be possible.” Lily leaned out the window again, but he was gone from sight. She still saw him in her mind, though, that roguish smile, the glossy gleam of his hair. That sensual mouth she remembered kissing all too well.
How could her dream man be a Huntington, a member of that despised family? She felt numb and so cold, caught up in a dream turned nightmare.
“He’s the duke’s second son, and a greater rake you’ll never find in London. He’s nothing but trouble.” Dominic pulled Lily back into the room and slammed the window shut. The glass rattled ominously.
“That’s rich coming from you, Dominic,” she said. “I thought you were the greatest rake in London. Just because he’s a Huntington—”
Dominic caught her arm and gave her a little shake. “Just being a Huntington makes him trouble! They are all liars and cheats who care for nothing but their own lofty titles. They utterly ruined us once before—they would do it again without so much as a blink.”
Lily had heard all this for years, ever since she became a St. Claire, and she surely hated anyone her family hated. The St. Claires did have good cause to despise the Huntingtons. But she also remembered the kindness in Aidan Huntington’s eyes on that long-ago night, the sweet desire that rose up in her at his kiss. Could he truly be as black-souled as the rest of his family?
Of course he could. All men had the seeds of cruelty deep inside; she had learned that hard lesson over and over in her life. Even ones who hid behind a handsome face.
Maybe especially those.
Lily turned away from Dominic to rearrange the draperies. Now that her dream man was all too real, now that he had a name—and a hated name at that—she had to let him go. Harden her heart entirely even to his memory.
“We have far too much to do to involve ourselves in quarrels,” Lily said, forcing herself to laugh. “Now, tell me more about these fashionable furnishings I must look for…”
“I’m glad to see you haven’t completely forgotten your duty to your family, Aidan,” the Duke of Carston growled. He waved his walking stick menacingly at the hapless footmen who tried to help him maneuver his wheeled chair into the drawing room. “Your mother was sure you could never pull yourself away from your disreputable pursuits to visit us. We’ve been in town for a fortnight now.”
“Perhaps if you’d let me know of your arrival, I might have ceased my disreputable pursuits and spared you an hour earlier,” Aidan said lightly. He leaned lazily against the marble mantel, arms crossed over his chest as he watched his father being lifted onto a brocade settee. The servants fluttered about like a mad flock of crows bearing tea and blankets. The duke shooed them all away with his stick.
Aidan couldn’t help but grin at the sight. The old rascal. Even riddled with gout, he terrorized everyone. No wonder Aidan and his brother stayed away whenever they could. The damnably hot months Aidan spent in the West Indies were bearable because it was very, very far away.
“If you were doing your duty and going about in good society, you would have known we were here,” the duke said. “Your mother’s friends say you refuse all their invitations.”
“Because their balls and musicales and such are decidedly dull, Father, as you well know after years of enduring them. I have work to do.”
“Work!” The duke gave a loud snort. “What sort of work d’you mean? Losing money at cards? Racing your blasted carriage? Chasing loose women?”
Aidan laughed. Yes, he did all of that on occasion—but he wasn’t about to tell his father about his real work. As much as the duke disliked dissipation, he would hate Aidan’s true passion even more. “A gentleman never tells, Father.”
“Gentleman? Humph!” The duke sat back on his settee and waved at the chair across from him. “Sit down already. You’re making my neck hurt staring up at you.”
Aidan sat down, propping one booted foot on the low end table despite his father’s fierce frown. His mother had recently redecorated in the new “Scottish” style, with tartan taffeta draperies at the windows, plaid-edged carpets, and gewgaws on every surface. Aidan had to be careful not to knock over any vases or statuettes.
“You’re right enough that those parties are dull as tombs,” the duke said. “But your mother wants you to go and meet her friends’ daughters. She’s been pining for grandchildren since you returned from the West Indies.”
Aidan laughed. Was that what this official visit was all about? Settling down, begetting little Huntingtons? He wasn’t ready for that yet, not by a mile. He was not yet thirty. And all those daughters, who paraded before him every time he dared show his face in a ballroom, were a lot of brainless gigglers trussed up in pink ruffles.
For an instant, another image flashed in his mind, of a different lady altogether. The woman who stood at the window of the house that was to let as he drove past. He had caught only a glimpse of her, a pale, heart-shaped face and shining brown hair. She was so still and serene-looking—until her white cheeks turned pink at his bold wave.
There was something so oddly familiar about her. He felt like he should know her, remember her, but the memory was just frustratingly out of reach. He only knew he had to find her again and discover who she was.
“Are you listening to me, Aidan?” his father barked.
Aidan glanced up to see his father sneakily pouring a tot of brandy into his tea. “Mother will be furious if she catches you with that. Didn’t the doctor say no brandy?”
“We aren’t talking about me, you impudent boy! We are talking about you, and your refusal to do your duty.”
“You’ll have to leave all that heir business to David. He’s your firstborn, the future duke and all that. I don’t care to marry yet.”
“Your brother is worse than you are. He won’t even leave the country, preferring instead to pretend to be a stable hand on his estate rather than behave properly. I have the two most ungrateful children in existence.”
“Yes, yes,” Aidan said impatiently. He had heard of his inadequacies and those of his elder brother for years. It was very boring now—especially when he needed to hunt down a certain lady. “We are wretched indeed.”
“Well, I daresay you will change your mind soon enough when you meet the right girl. Just as I did when I met your mother. But that isn’t the only reason I wanted to see you.”
“Is it not? How astonishing. What else have I done wrong this week?”
The duke ignored him. “It’s your mother’s silly nephew William again. He’s made a new investment and thinks I should look into it as well.”
“Oh? What is it this time?” Aidan asked casually, swinging his booted feet. Bill was constantly getting into speculative schemes and trying to involve his family in them too. Aidan steered clear—they failed more often than not. “Canals? Ships on the India trade?”
“A gambling club. Something very much in your line, I should think.”
Now that was a surprise. “A what, Father? Has Bill turned gamester on top of everything else?”
“I shouldn’t think so. He’s terrible at numbers, like everyone in your mother’s family. He says this is strictly an investment.”
“It sounds risky even for him. And especially for you.”
“Not as risky as all that. It’s to be an elegant, members-only sort of place, right around the corner from this street. All these brainless aristocrats will flock there and are sure to lose their money at such foolish things as faro.”
“Right around the corner, eh?” Aidan said, his interest piqued. Perhaps it was the house with the dark-haired lady in the window? “And who is to be the proprietor of this elegant place?”
“A Mr. Dominic St. Claire. Surely you know of him, as you’re always hanging about the theaters.”
Aidan’s interest rose. “I do know of the St. Claires. William St. Claire owns the Majestic Theater, and I heard Dominic St. Claire was a great Hamlet there only last month.” Was the woman a St. Claire, then?
It was his lucky day.
“So what then, Father?” Aidan said, concealing his interest. It would never do to arouse the duke’s suspicions. “You want me to put my money into this club as well?”
“Certainly not! You can’t afford to lose so much as a shilling. I just want you to inspect the place for me when it opens, see if it looks to be a good investment.” The duke tried on a cajoling smile, always a bad sign. “I can’t get out much with this damned chair, and I want to be sure of my money. It wouldn’t hurt for you to meet some of the club’s members either.”
“Fine,” Aidan said. As far as familial errands went, inspecting a gambling club seemed a fine one, enjoyable even. Especially if the St. Claires were involved.
The duke gave a satisfied smile. “Very good, m’boy. I knew you wouldn’t let me down. Now, be sure and say hello to your mother before you leave. And not a word about any brandy.”
Aidan managed to quickly escape the stuffy confines of Huntington House after fending off his mother’s matchmaking hints and her attempts to lure him to a dinner party that night. He knew where he could find out more information on the St. Claires and their business concerns, and it wasn’t in Mayfair. He made his way to the jumbled, narrow lanes around the theater district where the merchants and cafes catered to the theatrical set and any gossip could be had for the right coin.
Aidan spent a great deal of his time there.
He left his curricle and proceeded on foot, as it was futile to try and drive through the jostling crowds that filled the narrow streets. Shouts and shrieks of laughter blended with the yaps of ladies’ lap dogs and the silvery ring of bells over shop doors. Aidan waved and smiled at the ladies’ effusive greetings and their enthusiastic kisses on his cheek. Even away from the clamor of the theater doors, drama was never far.
Aidan bowed and smiled at a fluffy little blonde who giggled behind her fan at him, and turned toward the cafe that was his destination.
“Aidan!” he heard someone call as he reached for the door, and he turned to see his friend Lord Frederic Bassington hurrying toward him. A red-haired lady in a bright pink tippet held on to his arm as he pushed his way through the bustling crowd.
“Freddy,” Aidan said, happy to see his friend and fellow theatergoer. “It’s good to see you again. You haven’t been in town much of late, I hear. But then neither have I.”
Freddy smiled, but there was a strange shadow on his expression. It was most puzzling in a man usually so lighthearted. “I fear I’ve been busy.”
“Care to go to the theater this week? I hear Mrs. Parker is appearing at Drury Lane, a few select performances only. She’s a favorite of yours, I think? I need to make up for my time away from England.”
“Quite so. I just haven’t—”
“Freddy,” the lady said, tugging impatiently at his arm.
“Oh, Aidan, I don’t believe you’ve met my sister, Lady Christabelle,” Freddy said. He looked surprised she was still there. “Christa, this is Lord Aidan Huntington, who is only recently back from the West Indies.”
Lady Christabelle batted her eyes at him from beneath her flower-laden bonnet. “The Duke of Carston’s son, of course. Freddy has told us an awful lot about you.”
Aidan gave her a polite bow. “All Banbury tales, I fear, Lady Christabelle.”
“Oh, no!” she protested. “He says only very good things, I assure you.”
“Christa,” Freddy said, “why don’t you run ahead to the carriage and meet Mama there? I need a quick word with Lord Aidan.”
She pouted, but left after another eye-bat and curtsy. Freddy, though, looked terribly solemn.
“I say, Aidan,” he whispered after looking to be sure his sister was really gone. “I need your help.”
“Of course, Freddy,” Aidan answered in concern. This wasn’t like his friend at all. “Anything. Do you need money?”
“No, no.” Freddy shook his head. Even his red hair seemed faded. “At least I don’t think so, not yet.”
“What do you mean? I can’t help you, my friend, if you don’t tell me the problem.”
Freddy bit his lip. “I… I can’t say here. Meet me at the coffeehouse next week? Christa and Mama will be gone to Brighton by then.”
“Of course. Just send me word of the time.”
“You are a true friend, Aidan,” Freddy said, looking a bit more relieved. He ran off after his sister, leaving Aidan alone. Freddy Bassington was one of his most lighthearted, uncomplicated friends, always good company, always ready to help him forget his own brooding. What trouble could he possibly be in?
Aidan turned back toward his errand, but his path was blocked by a woman just emerging from the music shop next door. A large, jostling, laughing group passed by and knocked against her. She tottered on the uneven cobblestones, her bonnet knocked askew over her eyes.
Aidan caught her before she could fall, his arms coming around her waist before he could even think. She landed against his chest, soft and warm.
“Oh!” she said, laughing. Her gloved hands curled into his waistcoat to hold herself steady. “I do beg your pardon, sir. So clumsy of me.”
“Not at all,” Aidan said. He was rather intrigued by the bundle that had so suddenly tumbled into his arms. He held on to her as she found her balance. She wasn’t very tall, her bonnet coming only to his shoulder, and her body felt slender and delicate under that softness. And she smelled like violets, as cool and sweet as a rainy spring day.
Intrigued by two women in one day—he was becoming a romantic.
But then she pushed her bonnet back into place and peeked up at him, and he saw it was only one woman after all. She was the same as his mystery lady in the window, and she had fallen right into his arms.
Her laughter faded away and her eyes, a sherry brown under thick black lashes, narrowed as she studied his face, and her brow furrowed a bit. A tiny dimple appeared in one pink-flushed cheek, and Aidan had the overwhelming urge to touch it. To kiss her just there and see if she tasted of sweet violets and an English springtime.
“It’s very crowded here today. Collisions seem inevitable,” he said near her ear. Dark ringlets curled there, soft against her skin.
“Indeed it is,” she said uncertainly. “I was fortunate you were there to catch me.”
“Not at all. The good fortune seems to be all mine today.”
Her frown deepened, and she let go of his coat quickly, as if she only just realized she held on to him. She took a step back, and Aidan felt cold where she had pressed against him.
He almost never felt this way about a woman, so very intrigued by just a glance, a touch. Who was she? What was it about her that drew him in like that? He couldn’t let her go, not yet.
“Please, let me make amends for nearly knocking you over,” he said.
Her frown flickered. “Amends?”
Aidan laughed, trying to put her at ease, making her stay with him. “Nothing too nefarious, I assure you. A cup of tea? This cafe is most respectable, I promise.”
She glanced back over her shoulder, and for a moment, Aidan was afraid she might run from him. But then she gave him a little smile. A mere ghost of a smile over her pretty pink lips, but for the moment it was enough.
“Perhaps if you add a scone to that tea, I might be persuaded,” she said.
“As many scones as you like,” Aidan answered, and held out his arm to her. “And maybe emeralds or pearls? A fine carriage? A castle?”
She laughed out loud, a silvery, sweet sound Aidan feared he would do anything to hear again. She slid her gloved hand into the crook of his arm.
“Just the tea for now,” she said as he led her into the cafe. “We’ll see about the castle later.”
Lily settled herself at the tiny table in the corner and watched Aidan Huntington as he made his way to the counter to order. Aidan Huntington—she could hardly believe she was here with him after their long-ago encounter at the theater docks.
What was she thinking? She had vowed to harden her heart to him, to forget the memory of their kiss. She was just getting her life in order again; he was a distraction she did not need. He was a Huntington, for pity’s sake.
But when he smiled at her, flirted with her, when she felt the hard strength of his body under her hand—somehow she simply could not turn away from him. She wanted him to smile at her again.
She was not the only woman who felt that way. Lily watched the crowd as he threaded his way through it, and every lady between the ages of five and eighty turned to study him under their lashes. They all blushed and looked away, only to peek at him again.
Just as Lily feared she was doing herself.
She busied herself with taking off her gloves and smoothing her jacket, but her attention kept drifting to him. Aidan. The slightly exotic, Celtic-sounding name suited him. He was tall and lean like some ancient warrior, with strong shoulders and snakelike hips and—her eyes slid lower—a taut backside in close-fitting trousers above long legs. His rich, glossy brown hair gleamed in the dim light of the cafe, and he shook it back from his brow as he peered over at her. For an instant, his face looked dark and intent, taut as a hawk about to dive onto its prey. His blue eyes, the most unearthly color she had ever seen, narrowed, and she stiffened in her seat. Then he smiled, that charming, careless grin that could capture any woman’s complete attention, and something warm and melting touched Lily deep inside.
She didn’t like that feeling at all, that sense that her moorings to the real world would snap and she’d drift up into the sky.
She turned away to pretend to study a menu on the wall. From the corner of her eye, she saw him lean his elbow on the high counter to order. He gave a smile to the waitress, and the girl giggled. Lily studied his profile, the sharply etched perfection of it, the way he casually brushed his hair back. She was accustomed to being around handsome men. The St. Claires were all very good-looking and garnered more than their share of female attention wherever they went. The actors they worked with were often the same. She hardly noticed such things now.
It was different with Aidan Huntington. She was all too aware of everything about him.
Don’t be silly, she told herself. She twisted her soft kid gloves in her hands and forced herself to stay still. Aidan was no danger to her. Not here in this crowded place. Not if she didn’t let him.
“You look very deep in thought,” she heard him say. She glanced up to see him setting a tray of tea and scones on the table. He smiled at her but it was a different smile, quizzical, questioning. “And not very pleasant thoughts, I would wager.”
Lily made herself smile in return and reached for the tea to pour. She welcomed the routine, the familiar motions, something to root her in the everyday. “I was just daydreaming, I fear. Organizing things in my mind.”
“What sort of things?” he asked, watching her closely.
She peered across the table at him and tried to gauge whether he was merely being polite. But his blue eyes were focused only on her, waiting for her answer.
She passed him the cup of tea, and his fingers drifted over hers as he took it from her. His touch lingered a little longer than necessary, and she sighed at the warm feeling of his skin on hers, the strength of those elegant fingers. They were slightly rougher than she would expect from a gentleman.
She glanced down as he slid away and noticed ink stains on his fingers. She remembered his confession on that long-ago night at the Majestic, that he wanted to write plays. She wondered if he still harbored that dream or if being a duke’s spoiled son took all of his time.
She wondered if he remembered that night at all.
She shook her head and tried to recall what he had asked her. “I am helping my brother with a new business venture,” she said.
“Sounds promising,” he answered. “What sort of business?”
Lily took a sip of her tea and studied him over the white rim of the cup. She almost answered him by name, before she recalled that they were supposed to be strangers. “I don’t even know your name,” she said.
He gave her that rakish grin again, and she saw the flash of a dimple low in his cheek. She had the strangest, strongest urge to press her fingertip there, to lean across the table and lick him, taste him, feel that tiny indentation on her tongue.
Lily sat back in her chair in shock. She never had such feelings about a man, such erotic urges. Not after seeing her mother’s life in the brothel, the girls she knew on the streets, seeing where such things always led. She wrapped her hands tightly around her cup and looked away from him.
“Easy enough to remedy,” he said. “I am Aidan Huntington, at your service. And you are…”
Lily touched the tip of her tongue to her suddenly dry lips and tried to ignore the way his gaze sharpened on that tiny gesture. “I am Lily Nichols.”
“Nichols?” A frown flickered over his brow. “Why is that—Ah.” He sat back in his chair and stared at her, studied her. As if this were the first time he saw her. “Juliet.”
Despite the confusing swirl of emotions inside of her, Lily had to laugh at his thunderstruck expression. “I did wonder if you would remember. It was so long ago.” And he had surely known so many women, so many intimate moments, between then and now.
“Not that long ago. I have been gone on family business to the West Indies since then.” He leaned his forearms on the small table; he was so close she could smell him. The light touch of some expensive cologne, the dark scent of his skin. His stare was so intent on her face.
“So you married your greengrocer,” he said quietly.
“Yes, I did. But he died last year.”
“And you never went back on the stage.”
Lily remembered too well the frozen terror of that night, humiliation that only burned away when he kissed her. “Never. Acting is not for me.”
“I looked for you,” he said. His hand slid over hers, a quick, soft gesture hidden under the folds of a napkin. “But the name in the program was a false one.”
“Thankfully. One less embarrassment if no one knows who I really am. My sister took over the role after that.”
“Isabel St. Claire is your sister? I have heard about her.”
Lily gave a wry laugh. Of course he knew of Issy—everyone who saw her onstage fell in love with her red-gold hair, green eyes, and sweet manner. Any interest Aidan Huntington had in Lily would surely flee now. “My adoptive sister, yes.”
She waited for him to ask her to introduce him to Issy, but he just frowned. His hand slid over hers again. His fingertip rubbed across the tiny band of skin where her wedding ring once rested.
“Lily,” he said softly, as if to himself.
“Aidan,” she whispered. She turned her hand palm up and let his fingers tangle with hers for the merest instant. She couldn’t seem to help herself. He had her caught in some spell.
“There is so much I want to ask you,” he said. He glanced over his shoulder at the crowded cafe. “But this doesn’t seem to be the place. When can I see you again?”
Lily stared at him in surprise. “You would like to see me again?”
A rueful half-smile drifted over his lips. “You can tell me to stay away, if that’s what you want. I can’t promise I will do it, but you can tell me to.”
And that was exactly what she should do. But it was not what she wanted to do. Lily was suddenly weary of doing what she should do. She wanted to cease to be cautious for a moment, to be mischievous and seize life as her siblings did. Even as she knew it would not end well.
“My brother and I are opening an exclusive new club in Mayfair in a fortnight,” she said. “If you will give me your direction, I can send you an invitation.”
Aidan laughed, and his hand fell away. “There’s no chance of anything a bit sooner, is there?”
Lily laughed, too, and shook her head. “I am too busy before then. It’s not a long time to open a new business.”
“I’ll take what I can get, then. For now.” His eyes held some hint of warning—he would not wait for very long.
Lily felt a shiver ripple over her skin at the threat and promise in his eyes. She didn’t know what this was between them. The power of it both drew her in, like a moth to the fatal flame, and made her want to run. To never see him again, even as the thought of that was painful.
“Thank you for the tea,” she said. “I should go now.”
“Do you have your carriage here?”
Lily shook her head. “I took a hansom.”
“Then let me drive you home.”
She considered refusing. His dashing yellow curricle was so small; she wasn’t sure how she would feel pressed close to him on the narrow seat. Her body against his.
But she found herself nodding. “Very well. Thank you. It’s not far.”
He took her arm in a light grasp as he led her out of the cafe and back onto the crowded street. He held her close, safe from the jostling, and drew her back toward the wider lanes outside the warren of shops and restaurants. He kept up a light stream of talk as they went, making her laugh at his jests, his observations of the people around them. She even found herself relaxing somewhat and let herself enjoy his touch on her arm, the protective closeness of his strong body.
But then they turned a corner, and she glimpsed a figure lounging against the brick wall across the street. A muscular figure with close-cropped black hair and clad in plaid trousers and leather coat and holding a stout, skull-headed walking stick.
Oh, Christ, that stick! It could not be.
Lily’s whole body went stiff with a rush of raw fear. He was dead. She had heard he was, that he had died in Australia, and even the old nightmares had started to fade as the years went on and she never saw him again. This had to be an illusion. She was probably overly tired from working on the plans for the club.
She peered past Aidan’s shoulder, back to the wall, but no one was there now.
Her skin still prickled with awareness, with the fear she had known all the time as a child, and she gave her head a hard shake. She had only imagined it. He was gone. He no longer had any power over her.
“Lily?” Aidan asked. “Are you well? You look so pale.”
Lily jerked her attention away from the wall and back to Aidan’s handsome face. He looked concerned, and his hand tightened on her arm. But the fear of the past, of that man, still held her in its cold, iron grip. She drew away from Aidan.
“I am quite well,” she answered shortly, and walked away down the street.
Not real, not real, she told herself as Aidan fell back into step beside her. If only she could believe it.
Aidan leaned against his carriage door and watched Lily as she hurried up the back stairs to her house. She wouldn’t let him leave her at the front door and walk her inside. She had insisted he drive her to the mews tucked behind the garden. And as he helped her down, he could swear she nervously scanned the windows to make sure no one was watching.
What was she hiding?
That hint of mystery, of intrigue, only made her more attractive to him. He had always loved a woman with secrets. It made it so much more fun to uncover them all, layer by layer.
Especially when the secrets came in as pretty a package as Lily St. Claire Nichols.
She paused by the door to glance back at him. She gave him a tentative smile, a little wave with her gloved hand. He barely had time to wave back before she whirled around and dashed into the house.
Aidan grinned as he flexed his fingers and remembered the brush of her skin against his just there, the rainy-violet scent that seemed to linger on his hand. He was a man who liked women, enjoyed their company, and he had known a great many of them in his life. If anyone knew exactly how many, it would be a scandal. Yet he had never felt anything quite like the sensation that shot through his hand when Lily touched him. The hot awareness that jolted straight to his manhood.
He glanced up at the windows, hoping for one more glimpse of her face, but the glass was blank. Aidan swung back up into the carriage and gathered the reins. Soon he was back on the crowded streets, turning toward his lodgings on Jermyn Street. But his thoughts were still on Lily St. Claire.
Usually he knew all too easily how to woo a lady, could see as soon as they met what would lure her in. With Lily St. Claire, he was baffled, thrown off his game. She was like no other woman he had ever met.
He drew up outside his lodging house and tossed the reins to a footman as he leaped to the ground. Soon enough he would get to see Lily again, when he went to her brother’s gambling club—two birds with one stone.
And then he would start to slowly unravel the delicious mystery of Lily St. Claire.
“I wish I could see the club when it opens. It’s so unfair.”
Lily laughed at the wistful sound of her sister Isabel’s voice. She glanced at their reflection in the dressing table mirror as Issy lodged pins into Lily’s upswept hair. “It will be very dull. Just work.”
“Of course it won’t be dull!” Isabel protested. “There will be music and dancing and handsome men. It will be fun, and I’m missing it as usual.”
“You do have fun, Issy.” Lily reached for her pot of rouge and carefully smoothed swaths of pink over her pale cheeks as Isabel finished her hair.
“I don’t. I work at the theater and then I go home to sit by the fire all evening while everyone else goes out. I’m almost eighteen! James gets to go out far more than I do,” Isabel said, referring to her twin brother.
Lily laughed. “Eighteen is not old enough to spend the evening at a gambling club.”
“As if I would be in any danger. Not with you and Dominic and Brendan there.”
“Maybe next year.”
Isabel gave a pout and snapped off three red roses from the bouquet on the table to wind them through Lily’s hair. “Everyone always says next year.”
Lily smiled at her, studying Isabel’s loose fall of strawberry curls, her pretty oval face, the bright, angry glitter of her green eyes. Isabel was the baby of the St. Claire family, younger than James by a half hour, and they did rather shelter her too much. But Lily would never want sweet Issy to see what was really out there in the world beyond the circle of their family. She never wanted her to lose that shining innocence.
“It will be all work tonight,” Lily said. “There will be time for fun when you go to the seaside next month. Aren’t you looking forward to your holiday?”
“I do like the sea,” Isabel admitted. “But I’m tired of children’s holidays.” She put the finishing touches on Lily’s hair and smiled. “There, now, all done. What do you think?”
Lily twisted her head to the side to examine the elaborate creation of curls and waves, entwined with ribbons and the red roses. “Amazing, Issy. You have quite transformed this little brown wren.”
Isabel laughed. “Hairdressing is one of my many talents. But I only gilded your beauty.”
“And you are also the sweetest sister in the world.” With her hair done and the kohl at her eyes and diamonds sparkling in her ears, she looked almost pretty.
Would Aidan think so when he saw her? Would he appear tonight at all? She had made sure he received an invitation, but that didn’t mean he would come. It didn’t mean she hadn’t imagined the dark, intent look in his eyes when he helped her from the carriage. It had been many days since she saw him.
She shook her head. She was being a fool, mooning over a handsome man like that. He was a Huntington, her family’s enemy, and a distraction she did not need. She had seen the way the women in the cafe looked at him. He could have any of them, pretty women who didn’t carry the weight of their dirty past around with them like iron shackles.
Yet still she had taken the extra care with her appearance tonight. She had tried to cover up the nightmares and sleepless nights that had plagued her since she thought she saw him again.
“I am a very good sister,” Isabel said with a laugh. “And don’t ever forget it. I will expect a full account of the evening tomorrow. Now, let’s get you into your gown. Which one did you decide on for tonight?”
An hour later, Lily stood in the main salon of the Devil’s Fancy club, turning in a slow circle as she studied every detail. Soon, very soon, the doors would open, and their new venture would be open for business.
Everything had to be perfect.
She twitched the heavy draperies into place so they hung exactly straight and nudged a yellow-and-white-striped satin settee against the wall. The card tables were set up, lined with gilded French chairs also upholstered in yellow and white, and new paintings of cavorting cupids and pretty, plump-breasted goddesses hung on the silk-papered walls. Large arrangements of fresh flowers stood on marble stands, perfuming the air, and the soft amber glow of gaslight fell over everything. It all looked elegant, expensive, inviting.
Now all it needed was a crowd of guests, all happy and merrymaking, in the mood to cheerfully lose all their money.
Lily peeked into the dining room, where a lush buffet was laid out in all its tempting array and champagne fountains bubbled. In the ballroom, the orchestra tuned up in their alcove while the gleaming dance floor waited to be filled. Footmen were stationed at the doors, and the pretty girls who were to play banker stood at their faro tables. They all wore gleaming pink satin, soft, fluffy, and eye-catching.
Lily smoothed her full skirts. Unlike the girls, she wore a quiet, lavender-blue silk gown trimmed with white lace on the small, off-the-shoulder sleeves, simple and respectable. She knew her job, which was to fade into the shadows and let the club shine as she kept an eye on everything. Dominic would charm everyone and make sure they all had fun. It was what he did best.
She turned to watch Dominic and Brendan as they came into the room. Of course, everyone would be charmed by them—how could they not? Dominic so golden and laughing in his flamboyant, blue evening coat and striped cravat, Brendan dark and brooding in plain, stark black and white, the left side of his face crisscrossed with pale scars. Like her, Brendan took in every detail of the room, calculated every flaw, while Dominic clapped his hands. Her brothers were like the bright sun and the mysterious moon.
“Lily!” Dominic called, and hurried across the room to kiss her cheek. “Everything looks beautiful. You have worked wonders, as usual. But why the frown?”
Lily laughed and pulled away from him to smooth her gown one more time before he could crumple it. “I’m only afraid no one will appear and our venture will fail before it begins. We’ve already spent our initial investment fund and then some….”
Dominic shook his head and took her hands again to waltz her in wild circles around the salon, spinning her around and around until she couldn’t quit laughing. Even solemn Brendan chuckled at the sight of their dance.
“Ridiculous!” Dominic shouted. “Everyone will be here. Haven’t we been making the rounds of London for weeks, advertising our wares?”
“Ah, yes,” Lily said breathlessly. She held tight to Dominic’s shoulders as he spun her around. “Tearooms, assemblies, bookshops…”
“Coffeehouses, gentlemen’s clubs, expensive brothels,” Brendan added. He caught her out of Dominic’s arms and swept her off her feet, swinging her in a circle.
“The talk among the ton is of nothing else but the Devil’s Fancy now,” Dominic said. “Everyone is dying for a glimpse of this place!”
“But after they have had that glimpse, will they come back?” Lily gasped. “Oh, do put me down, Brendan! You will ruin my hair, and Issy will kill you.”
No sooner had Brendan set her back on her feet and she smoothed her hair than a carriage pulled up at their front steps, a fine equipage with a coronet emblazoned on its glossy black door. And Lily found it was silly to worry at all.
The elegant rooms were quickly filled to the walls with noisy merrymakers, their laughter and bright chatter tangling and flowing above the rattle of the roulette wheel and the clink of coins, the sound of dance music. Every chair was filled, jewels flashing in the light, silks and satins glinting. The scent of expensive French perfumes and powders blended with the flower arrangements in a dizzying mélange.
It made Lily’s head spin. She made her slow way through the rooms, accepting greetings and compliments from the patrons, making sure all went well with the dancing and with the gaming at the faro tables, ensuring that the buffet and the champagne were well stocked. Her brothers had vanished in the crowd, and everyone seemed to be having a grand time.
Lily was finally able to find a corner for a moment and snapped open her fan to try and create a cooling breeze. Yes, things were going well indeed—but Aidan Huntington had not appeared.
She took a glass of champagne from a footman’s tray and sipped at it as she scanned the salon again. It seemed even more crowded than just a few minutes ago, the laughter even louder and more reckless. She glimpsed Dominic standing at one of the faro tables, his arm around the waist of a red-haired lady in green taffeta. The woman whispered in his ear, and Dominic threw back his head and laughed.
Lily smiled and drained the last of her champagne. At least everyone was having a good time.
Then she glimpsed a group of newcomers in the doorway. She wasn’t at all sure there was room for anyone else, but she pasted her most welcoming smile on her lips and stepped out of her corner.
Only to halt in her tracks when she realized who it was standing there. Aidan.
She watched him take in the room around him. He wore plain, stylish evening clothes of black with touches of white, the only hint of color the sapphire pin at his cravat. His blue eyes were hooded, a half-smile on his face, and he gave away none of his thoughts or reactions as he looked around him. He seemed every inch the cool aristocrat.
From the corner of her eye, Lily saw Dominic’s shoulders stiffen and saw him turn toward Brendan. Bloody hell, the last thing they needed here tonight was a St. Claire–Huntington fight! Not when business was going so well. Not when Aidan was here at last, after she had been trying not to think about him all evening.
She snatched up two glasses of champagne from a tray and made her way through the crowd to his side.
Excerpted from One Naughty Night by McKee, Laurel Copyright © 2012 by McKee, Laurel. Excerpted by permission.
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