Sexy Sophisticated Historical Romance
Excerpt for The Ruin of a Rogue
Eyes straight ahead, Anne Brotherton wove through the packed saloon, dodged a mustached guardsman, avoided the eye of a red-faced sportsman, and resolutely ignored the efforts of Lord Algernon Tiverton to offer her refreshment.
“Miss Brotherton! May I…”
No, thank you, she answered silently as she made her escape into a blessedly empty passage. No, you may not ply me with ratafia and bore me with tales of your ancestors.
Second door on the right, the footman had told her. It was cool in Mr. Weston’s private sanctum. Neither a fire nor the press of bodies moderated the chill of a November evening. She made a quick survey: two doors, one leading to a completely dark room or closet. She should be safe from that direction. She turned the key in the other with a satisfying click and released her breath.
Oh the bliss of escaping her suitors! Half an hour she guessed, until Lady Ashfield, her chaperone for the evening, sent someone to find her. Half an hour away from the inane compliments of insincere fools. Half an hour to feast her eyes and calm her spirit with the ineffable creations of the ancient past. Mr. Weston’s celebrated collection of antiquities was the only reason she’d chosen to attend his wife’s rout.
She peered through the glass cabinet door at the statue of a woman, her child at her feet. Though both were devoid of a scrap of clothing, they appeared quite comfortable. Greece was, presumably, warmer than her native Buckinghamshire. She longed to touch the marble skin. Without thought she removed her glove, then guiltily dropped her hands to her sides.
She almost missed the sound the of side door opening. Confound it! Was she never to be allowed any peace? She fixed her attention on the next object in the case.
Footsteps trod softly over the polished parquetry floor and she sensed a figure, taller than she, standing at her shoulder. Reflected in the glass she identified the intruder as a man by his dark coat and the white linen around the throat. She continued to stare, now at a small male figure who’d lost his head, one arm, and all of his private parts.
“Interesting piece.” His voice, of a pleasant low timbre, proclaimed him a young man.
Another man attracted by her rolling acres, magnificent mansions, and thousands upon thousands of pounds in the funds. Annoyance blended with a twinge of embarrassment at being caught staring at a naked man, even one nine inches tall and lacking vital evidence of his sex. She kept her eyes on the antiquity and her elbow ready to repel any effort to hold her hand or steal a kiss. She had no intention of being compromised into marriage to someone unsuitable.
For one thing, she’d never hear the end of it from her guardian. At the moment she only had to put up with his letters. When he returned to England he’d harangue her with all the force of his dominating personality. The poor Irish! She felt sorry for them with Morrissey as their governor.
“A Greek original, I believe.” An agreeable voice interrupted her thoughts and actually said something interesting. “From Attica, most likely Apollo.”
She jerked her head around. “What makes you think that?”
“The laurel tree, sacred to the God and the games given in his honor.”
This remarkably intelligent speaker merited her attention. She liked what she saw: a tall, well-proportioned figure, good looking, distinctly elegant with an open countenance. He seemed different from the other men she’d met in London, something about the impeccable neatness and fit of his clothing, perhaps.
“Have you spent much time in Greece?”
“I’ve been to Athens,” he replied, “and to some of the Isles.”
”Indeed. I’ve had the good fortune to spend a good deal of time in Italy.”
“I envy you. I always longed to go. Now, with the war, I doubt I’ll have the chance.”
“I returned myself earlier this year. Escaping from Naples once the French arrived was quite an adventure.”
“Were you able to bring anything back.”
“I’m no collector. But I picked up some knowledge of antiquities staying at Sir William Hamilton’s house.”
Hamilton, she knew, was the British Envoy to the court of Naples and Sicily, a noted collector, and author of a treatise on Greek vases. Anne thought of asking his name, this sensible and pleasant gentleman with the foreign air. But things usually became difficult when a man learned he was talking with the wealthiest woman in Great Britain. It was, of course, possible that this man knew who she was and was either an excellent actor or didn’t care. For once she decided not to find out, and merely, for a few minutes, to enjoy a conversation with one who shared her pursuits.
“There are some lovely things on these shelves but I know little about them. That lady with the child, for example. Can you tell me if she’s Roman or Greek?”
He tilted his head and concentrated. She’d seen a similar look on the faces of cognoscenti in the British Museum. This was a man who took his antiquities seriously. “A Roman copy of a Greek piece. I’m sure your recognize Aphrodite. That’s her son Eros at her feet. Do you see he is riding a–.”
“–a dolphin!” she broke in. “So he is. The head of the fish has broken off so I didn’t notice at first. I was admiring the way the sculptor breathed life into stone.” Again she raised her hand to the glass barrier.
“Wouldn’t you like to touch it?”
His low voice, humorous with a touch of mischief, tempted her. “I couldn’t do that. I don’t have Mr. Weston’s permission.”
“Are you always so dutiful?”
Aside from the occasional peccadillo, the answer would have to be yes. Her bare finger tips pressed against her silken skirts as the glowing marble beckoned.
Mr. Handsome-Knowledgeable, whoever he was, had no such scruples. He opened the cabinet and gestured with one hand and a wicked little smile. Why not? No one would know and she wouldn’t do any harm.
“So cold,” she said, fingering the intricate braids of the goddess’s hair. “I always think marble is pure white but it isn’t really, is it? It has almost a golden hue.”
He nodded. “There’s nothing like seeing and touching the real thing and it’s even better under the sun. There’s only so much you can learn from illustrations. Have you seen many of the English collections?”
“No. What I know is from books.”
“If Admiral Nelson prevails, Europe will again be open to the English traveler and you’ll be able to see the ancient sites for yourself.”
“Sometimes I think the fashion for travel makes us overlook what we have under our feet. Most of England was a Roman colony. There must be building buried everywhere and so little has been discovered, outside the larger towns. My greatest ambition is to unearth a villa.” She looked at him anxiously. Even the most ardent suitor grew wary when exposed to her abiding enthusiasm. The Duke of Castleton’s eyes had regularly turned to unpolished stone at the very mention of the word “dig.”
The Countess of Ashfield, a lady of impeccable ton, had told her a dozen times that gentlemen found ladies with knowledge tedious. Lady Ashfield also said it didn’t matter a whit if Anne drove them into catalepsy. “Nothing can make a great heiress unappealing to a man.” Anne didn’t find the pronouncement comforting. While not expecting to be admired for her beauty–she had none–she wished gentlemen saw something to like about her besides her fortune. Her companion could be feigning politeness. They all did.
“I do tend to carry on once I mount my hobbyhorse,” she said. “I fear I will bore you.”
“I’m not bored,” he said with a sincerity she let herself believe in.
And then he touched her, a feather-light contact of fingers on her bare wrist. Unaccustomed to much physical contact in her restricted, well-ordered life, she especially rejected any attempt at a caress from her despised suitors. Yet there was something different about this casual touch that sent a quick shock through her.
She had felt at ease with this interesting stranger and conversed with him with an openness she usually managed only with those she knew well. She stepped away in alarm and pursed her lips.
Even before she stumbled back, Marcus knew that touching her had been a mistake. The graceful hand, pale and unflawed as the polished marble before them, had lured him to act on instinct, an unaffordable luxury in a life led with finely-honed calculation. Used to the free ways of the louche European circles he frequented, Marcus had for an instance forgotten the circumscribed habits of English society, especially the kind of company frequented by a well-guarded heiress. He hastened to correct his error. Without offering an apology, which would give importance to the awkward moment, he smiled guilelessly.
“I always prefer conversation with substance. If they can dig up Pompeii, why not England? Have you seen the remains at Bath?”
“I’m sorry to say I have not. Have you?”
Marcus decided it was better not to mention his sole visit to that spa. He’d been ten years old at the time, accompanying his father who was in pursuit of a rich widow, ripe for the fleecing. Antiquarian exploration had not been on the menu.
The irony that he was essentially on the same mission did not escape him. His presence in this room was no accident and every word between them had been carefully planned, except his reaction to Miss Brotherton. She wasn’t what he’d expected. Caro claimed her cousin was delightful, but Caro was ever kind to those she loved. He’d preferred to believe Robert when he called the wonderfully rich Miss Brotherton dull, proud, and plain as any proper English virgin.
Marcus had entered the room to find a slender lady peering into the display case. He didn’t make the mistake of assuming from her outmoded gown that he’d found the wrong woman. Any courtesan or social aspirant with a few guineas and a competent dressmaker could look fashionable. His practiced eye recognized the first quality cloth, the quietly expensive trimmings, and the air of confidence that came from shopping without regard to cost or the necessity of impressing anyone. The double string of modest but exquisitely matched pearls, her only adornment, proved to the discerning observer that she came from the best circles.
The full-skirted gown made it impossible to assess her figure, but her face, not beautiful by any standard, was appealing, features regular, and her eyes a pretty hazel. Skilled as he was in reading expressions, he found her inscrutable, perhaps why he’d offered that potentially harmful caress on her wrist. The necessity of pursuing an heiress hadn’t thrilled him, but she was more of a challenge than he’d anticipated. Neat as a pin in her attire, her hair and her manner were equally unruffled.
He’d quite enjoy ruffling her.
Gazing at her well-bred, English face, he thought of the green fields, neat hedgerows and wholesome air of his distant childhood, before he became an adventurer. The foolish idea crossed his mind that she deserved better than him. Ridiculous because he had no conscience.
During a grueling game of primiera with some Italian Jesuits in Berlin, he heard his opponents claim that if they had a boy for his first seven years, they had him for life. Whatever the power of Catholic priests, Marcus was living proof it didn’t work for English ladies. Any influence of his mother had been stamped out when she’d died, leaving the seven-year-old Marcus under the sole influence of Lewis Lithgow, one of the world’s greatest rogues.
Miss Brotherton cocked her head at him. What was the question?
“No,” he said. “I’m not familiar with Bath.” It was too soon to express a wish to explore the Roman baths with her, a suggestion likely to send an English virgin into the vapors. Better leave her now, before he said something indiscreet. He’d made a good start and it was always preferable to leave a mark intrigued and eager for further play. More importantly, he’d rather keep her wondering, before she learned that he was the notorious Viscount Lithgow, prominent on any list of men that women of reputation avoided.