Anna Rosewood is determined to discover the truth about the death of her twin brother. Following a single clue--the symbol of a black rose crossed with a sword--she dons a mask, inflitrates a secret gathering that only a disreputable woman would attend, and encounters a dashing stranger...
Were it not for a promise to a dying comrade, Roman Devereaux would never have met this enchanting doxy who seems quite naive for her profession. But he is shocked to later discover that the lady is, in fact, the fiancée of his cousin--and that she and Roman both seek information about the sinister Black Rose Society. But working together could prove disastrous, for there is no resisting the passionate fire that sears them--or the forbidden desire that could only lad to scandal. . .or far, far worse.
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Excerpt from Scandal of the Black Rose
She had never felt so naked in her life.
Glancing furtively at the masked revelers that swarmed Vauxhall Gardens, Anna gave a discreet tug at the scandalously low neckline of her favorite green evening dress. She had never worn the garment without the lace fichu, but these circumstances called for boldness.
I’m doing this for Anthony. The litany repeated in her head, playing harmony to her rising panic, as she trailed along behind the party ahead of her.
The evening had begun innocuously enough. She and her parents had accompanied some friends of her father’s to the masquerade at Vauxhall Gardens. Everyone from the royal family to the poorest commoner wore a mask, adding an air of scandal to the otherwise mundane amusements. The entire park was lit with Chinese lanterns, the sounds of gaiety and music filling the air. She had been content to go along and simply observe the gaiety, secure in the company of her family.
And then she had seen the ring.
Her gaze drifted to it again on the hand of one of the gentlemen she followed. A black rose crossed with a sword. It was this symbol that had given her the courage to deliberately slip away from the security of her party and follow these raucous youths down darkened paths to their lantern-lit private dining area.
Coarse laughter drifted back to her from the group of Cyprians that had caught the eyes of the rakish gentlemen she pursued. It had been an easy thing to attach herself to the crowd and pretend she was just another doxy. The masks they all wore would protect her identity. And if they unmasked at midnight, she would make certain to be gone before then.
“Come in, ladies,” the young man in the lead invited with a sweep of his arm. His ring glittered in the dim light.
Sucking in a deep breath, Anna fell in line behind the gaudily dressed prostitutes. She tried not to goggle at the shocking décolletage of one woman’s gown, the neckline so low that her ample breasts looked to be in danger of popping out of her bodice. Another of the disreputable females had clearly dampened her skirts, outlining her limbs in a most shocking manner. All of them wore flamboyant masks, their faces enhanced by heavily applied powder and brightly rouged lips and cheeks.
Next to the colorful lot of ladybirds, her unpainted lips and simple mask struck her as somewhat conspicuous. Part of her wanted to run away, back to the safety of well-lit paths and her father’s old friends. But she couldn’t leave now. Not when she was so close to discovering the meaning of the symbol.
Their host blocked the door with his arm when she would have entered the dining area. “What have we here?” His mouth curved in a predatory smile. Behind his mask, his eyes glittered as he swept his greedy gaze over her body. “Aren’t you a tasty looking sweetmeat?”
His audacity struck her mute. Then he traced his fingers down her bare arm. She flinched away, her gaze falling on his ring with a cold kind of terror.
His smile became a scowl. “What’s the matter, sweetheart? I’m not good enough for you?”
“Leave her be.” A scantily clad doxy with brassy blond curls pushed to the front of the line. She leaned against the host and rubbed her barely clad breasts against his arm. “Can’t ye see she’s a new girl? I’ve got what a man like you wants.” She held his gaze boldly, a knowing smile on her ruby red lips.
Slowly the masked man grinned, then traced a finger down the bare slope of her breast. “That you do, my beauty.” He cast Anna a dismissive glance. “Go in, then.”
Heart pounding with fear, she hurried into the lion’s den.
* * * Roman Devereaux lounged against one of the ornate Greek columns that framed the private dining area, pondering the madness that had possessed him to accompany his young friend to Vauxhall tonight. In truth, he knew what had driven him to bypass Stumpleton’s card party in favor of attending this foolish bacchanal. He’d been concerned that Peter had fallen in with too fast a crowd.
He needn’t have worried about the lad. The rowdy cubs that Peter called friends gathered around the table with the giggling doxies, pouring wine and offering culinary delicacies to the females. Peter joined in the merriment, popping a bit of sliced fruit into the open mouth of a fetching little strumpet. The wench smacked her rosy lips, then whispered something in the boy’s ear that made him blush to his hairline.
It seemed the only thing fast about this crowd was the speed with which Peter might be relieved of his trousers.
One of the women approached, eyeing Roman’s tall form like a cat sizing up a bowl of rich cream. “Would you care for sommat to eat, my handsome friend?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Are you certain?” The painted blonde stroked teasing fingers down his arm. “I’ll be happy to get you anything you like.”
“Perhaps later.” He held the tart’s gaze until she accepted his rejection. With a pout, she turned on her heel, sauntering back to the group around the table.
Peter hurried over to him. “Rome, come eat with us.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“Oh, don’t be such an old stick.” Peter glanced back at the dark-haired doxy, who licked her lips in blatant invitation. “There’s plenty to go around.”
Rome merely shook his head. There was no mistaking the brightness in the boy’s eyes; lust would have its way with youth, and common sense drifted away like smoke on the breeze. At thirty-three, he felt ancient by comparison. “Have a care for your purse, Peter. Leave some of your inheritance for your children.”
“I will.” The young man flashed him a grin and darted back to the table and the delights of the wench who awaited him.
“And I gave up a night at the card tables for this,” Roman muttered. He could have been swapping battle stories with his old comrades at arms over a hand of faro, a glass of whisky at his elbow, but instead he was spending his evening playing nursemaid to a twenty-two year old youth and his wild friends.
A promise was a promise, after all.
He just hadn’t known when his good friend Richard lay dying on the battlefield that the promise he made to watch out for Richard’s younger brother, Peter, would include chaperoning the lad to various orgies and drinking parties.
Peter had seemed so excited about his new found friends, a group of fencers who challenged each other to mock duels. The fascination with swords had raised Rome’s concerns. These days there were so many foolish pursuits that could land a reckless young man in trouble. He owed it to Richard to make sure Peter had not gotten involved in something dangerous.
This evening he had been prepared to extricate Peter from the clutches of this set, if necessary. Instead, the deadly organization he had imagined appeared to be little more than a collection of wild bloods out to impress each other with showy exhibitions of swordsmanship, nothing more. His only concern now was that the strumpet currently sitting in his young friend’s lap did not include picking pockets among her talents.
Another half hour just to be certain there was truly nothing to be concerned about, and then he would take his leave and claim his chair at Stumpleton’s.
A movement caught his eye, and he looked away from the revelry to the young woman standing just to the side of the crowd at the table. At first glance, she appeared to be part of the merriment, but as he watched her he realized that wasn’t the case. Every few moments she took another step away from the table, edging towards the door.
What was she up to?
Rome straightened. She was a fetching thing, not hard-eyed and painted like the other bawds. Her dress looked to be of a decent quality satin, though its low neckline revealed a delicious amount of swelling breasts. He forced his gaze upward to note that her honey brown hair curled in fashionable disarray around a fine-boned face that looked elegant even with the simple satin mask covering half of it. Only her mouth fit her surroundings, lush and sensual and begging for a man’s kiss.
He’d never seen a prostitute who looked so much like a debutante. Curious now, he made his way across the room.
She saw him coming. For an instant, her eyes widened, then she glanced away and took another step towards the door.
He blocked her escape.
When she realized that he stood in her path, she took in his large form with a quick glance, then pursed her lips. He could nearly see her working out the options in her head.
“You might as well say good evening,” he murmured. “I’m not going to move.”
Surprise flashed across her face. In the flickering light, he could see that she was not beautiful. Sensual, yes. Striking. Erotic, even. Alluring. It was all he could do not to bend down and taste those soft-looking lips.
“I do wish you would,” she whispered.
Lust jolted the breath from his lungs, and he nearly hauled her into his arms before he realized she couldn’t possibly have read his mind.
“I wish you would move,” she reiterated, her soft voice nearly inaudible beneath the riot of merriment around them. “I think perhaps I’ve made a mistake.”
“Have you?” He peered at her, noting her nervous glances at the rest of the party, the way she startled every time someone roared with laughter. “This is your first time, isn’t it?”
She jerked her gaze to his, her brown eyes wide with panic. “How did you know?”
“I can tell.” He reached out and took her hand, suddenly glad he had come. Her fingers fluttered in his for a moment, then quieted. “You seem rather shy for a woman in your line of work.”
“Oh. . .well. . .I. . .” She stuttered to a halt, a becoming blush darkening her cheeks.
“It’s all right. I find it charming.” He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm, and she stepped closer, as he’d hoped she would. “My name is Rome.”
“I’m A. . .Rose.” She licked her lips, distracting him. “My name is Rose.”
“Rose.” He tested the name on his lips the way he’d taste a fine wine. “Beautiful.”
“Thank you.” She smiled up at him. “You’re very kind.”
“And you’re very lovely.” Expertly he turned and steered her away from the crowd at the table. The swish of her satin gown drew his attention to the body beneath the material. The swell of a hip, the bend of a knee. A quick flash of ankle. The gentle curve of her collarbone.
She was soft and sweet and lush, a siren that stirred his appetite. How long had it been since he’d had a lusty wench beneath him? Weeks perhaps. Much had happened since he’d resigned his commission and come home to England, and he hadn’t wanted the complication of a permanent attachment. Or a temporary one, for that matter.
Her perfume drifted to him, the innocence of attar of roses. His body responded, communicating its wishes in no uncertain terms. Suddenly attachments didn’t seem so complicated any more. Peter was safe enough. The so-called swordsmen appeared to be little more than rambunctious university students. Why shouldn’t he indulge?
He led her to an alcove in the Grecian style temple that that served as the club’s dining room, out of sight of the revelers but not lost in the darkened paths of Vauxhall. The intimate niche held a large planter. Columns, plants, and statuary completely concealed them from the others. He ducked inside and pulled her against him. She gave a squeak of surprise and flattened her hands against his chest as if to brace herself.
He laughed, tracing a hand down her spine. “There now, sweet Rose. Relax against me. Let me enjoy the feel of you in my arms.”
“Heavens,” she whispered.
“You really are an innocent,” he mused. “Are you certain you intend to pursue this line of work?”
“I have no choice.”
“Ah, like that, is it?” He stroked her back, her bottom. “I, too, had no choice but to form a career, though mine was in the military.”
“There’s a bit of difference between the two.”
He chuckled. “There is indeed.”
She shifted against him, clearly uncomfortable with their proximity. “Sir—-”
“Rome,” he corrected, resting a hand at the small of her back. “Sweetheart, if you intend to be successful in your new trade, you need to learn to enjoy a man’s embrace.”
Her dark eyes looked fathomless through the holes in the mask. “As I said, this is my first time.”
“There’s nothing to fear.” He traced the shell of her ear, then wrapped one soft curl around his finger. “I won’t hurt you. It was quite intelligent of you to tell me this is your first foray into the trade. Have you ever been with a man before?”
“Have I. . .no! No, of course not.”
He brushed his lips against her temple. Attar of roses flooded his senses, and he nuzzled her hair, unable to resist her. “You are in possession of a precious gift, sweet Rose.”
A breathy gasp escaped her as he traced butterfly kisses down her cheek. “I understand that such things have value to men.”
“They do indeed.” He nipped her chin, felt her quiver in response. “Every man wants to be the first.” Unable to hold back any longer, he pressed his mouth to hers.
Dear God, she tasted sweet. Her soft lips trembled beneath his, and he moved in to take full advantage, enjoying the innocence of her kiss even as it excited him. Her fingers clamped on his arms, then slowly eased their grip. Soon she was making mewling noises, kissing him back.
“Dear God.” Barely able to control his lust, he seized her hips and pulled her lower body tight against him. “You had best name your price, sweetness, for you have a buyer for your wares.”
She jerked stiff as a poker. “What did you say?”
“And enough of this foolishness.”
He reached for her mask, but she stayed his hand. “We can discuss terms, sir, but my anonymity is one that cannot be negotiated.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “I am disappointed, of course, but I must have you, Rose. Whatever your price, I will pay it.”
“I must think.” She pushed against his chest until he allowed a couple of inches between them.
“If you can. My reason has deserted me.” He took her hand and tangled his fingers with hers. “I will make it good for you, my dear. I swear I will. You might not get so generous an offer from someone else.”
Anna stared up into the stranger’s eyes. They looked to be green behind the black velvet mask, and at the moment they glittered like emeralds.
“Rose,” he coaxed, his voice low and soothing. He swept his thumb along the inside of her wrist, then brought her palm to his lips. His gentle kiss made her knees buckle, and she struggled for reason.
Heavens, but what had ever given her the wild notion to pass herself off as a demi-rep? She could have followed the group of young bucks and claimed to be lost while still maintaining her identity as a gently bred lady. Instead she had mingled with the crowd and allowed them all to think her a harlot.
But the madness that had grabbed hold of her when she had seen that ring had ended up leading her down the right path. She had learned from the evening’s conversation that the crossed rose and sword was the symbol of the Black Rose Society, a club of swordsmen who dueled one another for sport. Her masquerade had proven a worthy sacrifice to discover the truth.
She just hadn’t expected anyone to take her up on her implied profession.
“Have you forgotten me?” He tugged her against him again, and she could feel the hardness of him pressing against the juncture of her thighs. She had never felt such a thing before, but she’d had a brother and knew what it meant. Heat flooded her system, making her skin tingle and her breath catch.
Think, Anna! How could she get what she needed and still escape unscathed? “I do not know what to say,” she murmured, her mind scrambling for a solution.
“Say yes.” He nuzzled her temple with his lips. “I’m not young and foolish like the rest of these lads. If you came here to find a man for your bed, you’ve got one.”
Copyright © 2006 Debra Mullins
All rights reserved .