The novel was posted to obtain reviews,comments and donations, after 11/15/20 all but the first three chapters will be deleted. I was advised that it wasn't safe for me to continue to post the entire novel. In addition I was hoping to raise enough money to self publish my novel.
Thank you and Happy New Year.
London, England, 1830
Devlin stalked through the crowded glittering ballroom with the ease and grace of a panther. His midnight eyes flitting from one beautiful woman to another, judging and measuring then moving on, taking in everything as he passed. He heard whispers in his wake and kept moving, before he’d left for India seven years ago his name had been on everyone’s lips. Devlin “The Devil” Duncannon rake and libertine, men admired and feared him while women desired him. He had caused a sensation when he’d wed a childhood friend, after she’d been ruined by another man. His tarnished name and black reputation had once been something he’d been proud of, but not any more. Now he wanted to be know for more than being a libertine and a debaucher.
Devlin searched the ballroom for his friends, his height of six foot six letting him tower above everyone, giving him the ability to see over the crush. With a smile he spotted them in the back corner of the room, and he made his way towards them, cutting a wide path through the elegant crowd.
“Did you see his eyes, they’re as black as his hair.” A young miss in light blue gasped loudly to another girl as he passed.
“And his face, it looks like it was carved from marble.” Her companion hissed back. “I wish he would look my way, he’s wonderfully handsome.”
“You shouldn’t say such things, he has a sinful reputation.” A third girl stammered. “They said he’s sin incarnate.”
In the past Devlin would have been amused even pleased by the comments, but no longer. At thirty and four he’d like to find a woman who was attracted to him for something other than his looks or his reputation. He strode up to his friends and saw them both give him warm smiles.
Warren Davis and Wilson Smithe were both gifted with fashionable blond hair and blue eyes. They also both had the classic good looks of norsk gods, which earned them each countless female admirers. Devlin had met them both as boys in school and their friendship had lasted for over twenty years.
“Dev, you made it. I was afraid you were going to continue to hide in your house like a crab in his shell.” Warren said with a jovial smile. “Good heavens you still didn’t cut your hair. It’s unfashionably long, you want to get a piece of skirt you’ll have to come up to scratch.”
“Stop needling him, my mother dragged him to three parties and a musical evening already. You should of seen the unwed misses pushed at him when they learned he was a widower. It was comical.” Wilson pulled a silver flask out of his inner pocket and offered it to Devlin. “Brandy, I find it helps make the time pass quicker.”
Devlin self consciously touched his hair, then looked about the packed ball room studying the other men. It was indeed longer than the current fashion, but he’d grown accustomed to it.
“It keeps the sun off my neck.” Devlin drawled.
“Well you’ll find little sun in London. Now look about and see if you see anything you like. If your in the mind to get married, I have a list of all the rich chits. Unless you prefer an older woman, there are a few attractive and very wealthy widows here. If your just shopping for a new mistress, I have a list of married women who are bored and likely.” Warren stated, reaching to take the flask from Wilson.
“You have a list?” Devlin demanded, one ebony eyebrow arching. “An actual list?”
“Yes, it comes in handy, besides I need to find a bride.” Warren replied handing the flask back to Wilson.
“You need to find a bride?” Devlin asked in disbelief. His friends were both confirmed bachelors, enjoying gambling and wenching far too much to ever settle down.
“Yes, father cut Freddy and I off. He told us we need to get married or find respectable work.” Warren sighed. “I have my army pension but it’s barely enough, so I need to find a rich wife and fast.”
“So Freddy is on the hunt as well?” Devlin demanded, thinking of Warren’s younger brother. “He is what twenty six, twenty seven now?”
“Twenty six, and finally grew into his ears, thank God. No, he found a likely girl. Nineteen, extremely pretty and with a dowry of sixty thousand pounds, and a yearly income of six thousand. But her mother won’t let him near her.” Warren replied, turning to study the colorfully dressed women spinning about the dance floor, his look reminding Devlin of a lion studying a herd of gazelle. Devlin wondered which woman he planned to cull from the herd.
Devlin looked at the assembled women and frowned. The fashions had changed while he’d been in India, women now wore very large hoops under their gowns, giving them all the shape like ships under sail. Ringlet curls also seemed to be the height of fashion, as well as lip rouge. In fact with the exception of a few white haired dowagers every woman he laid eyes on had the same blasted curls.
“And why won’t the mother let Freddy near her?” Devlin inquired
“It’s all Warren’s fault.” Devlin turned to see Freddy. Freddy had indeed grown into his ears, he was no longer a thin gawky youth, but a blonde Adonis like his elder brother. He stepped up to Devlin a warm welcoming smile on his face and held out his hand to give Devlin’s a hearty shake.
“I heard you were back. India seems to have suited you.” Freddy stepped back giving Devlin another smile.
“Thank you Freddy. Now tell me how did Warren earn the lady’s mother’s wrath, and what is her name by the way?” Devlin felt foolish not knowing the girl’s name.
“Her name is Anna Ravenhurst, and she is right there.” Freddy pointed at a tall, willowy girl with light blonde hair, wearing a blue shimmering gown about thirty feet away. Devlin watched the girl step back and then there were two girls, both with blonde hair, wearing similar gowns. Devlin frowned, he could swear his eyes were deceiving him the girls looked identical.
“No your not going mad, she has an identical twin Abigail.” Freddy said. “Warren and I were at a party at Lady Ravenhurst’s home. Lady Ravenhurst over heard me telling Warren I couldn’t yet tell Abigail and Anna apart. Warren said for sixty thousand pounds a year and big blue eyes it didn’t matter which chit I bedded. Lady Ravenhurst took exception to the comment and a few others Warren made about her appearance. She not only threw us out, but has refused to let me see Anna again, and I’m in agony.”
Devlin’s gaze touched Warren’s and saw him shrug. “She is called the Ice Queen by the way.”
“Who is called the Ice Queen.” Devlin demanded as Warren and Wilson exchanged looks.
“The Duchess Ravenhurst, Anna’s mother. She’s a widow, and eccentric. She watches over her six daughters like a hawk.” Wilson added.
“Six daughters?” Devlin felt his interest begin to be engaged.
“Yes, three sets of identical twin daughters. Completely unheard of I know. Each set of girls are lovely too, Anna and Abigail are nineteen, Beatrix and Belinda are eighteen and Corinna and Cynthia are seventeen and came out last month.” Wilson volunteered. “It’s rumored they each have dowries of sixty thousand pounds.”
“I see why Lady Ravenhurst watches her daughters like a hawk.” Devlin stated. All it would take was an unscrupulous fortune seeker to compromise one of them and the girl would be married off in a flash. “And exactly why is she eccentric, other than the fact she is a protective mother?”
“She’s a woman of business. She runs the family shipping company, and rather successfully.” Warren paused to look about, to be sure no one would over hear them. “She’s apparently wealthy as Midas and just as talented, but she rarely goes to social events. She hosts parties for scientists and ambassadors, and they say she even sails her own ship. She only started coming out to balls a few years ago when Abigail and Anna were preparing to come out.”
Devlin gave his friend a dry look. What Warren was describing sounded like an extraordinary woman, who was doing her best to take care of her daughters, and not an eccentric.
“Dev you couldn’t do me a favor and distract her for a bit so I can speak to Anna. She doesn’t know you, please.” Freddy begged, giving Devlin an imploring look.
“Now that is an excellent idea. You could practice your skills on her, after all it’s been what seven years since you used them.” Warren gave him a challenging look.
Devlin considered telling his friends no, but it had been years since he’d had a chance to flirt with a woman. The widow sounded intriguing if nothing else and he was bored. “Fine I’ll do it, where is she?” Devlin looked towards the sisters, expecting her to be near by. He saw a tall woman in her fifties away wearing a dark burgundy gown, talking to another woman of similar age dressed in dark pink. “Is she the one in burgundy or the one in pink?” Devlin hoped it was the one in burgundy, she was still a good looking woman despite her age.
“Oh no, that’s the great aunt and her companion. The duchess is tiny, with ginger hair.” Wilson interjected. “There she is, next to the dowager in black.”
Devlin followed Wilson’s gaze, for a minute he didn’t see a second woman, just a great sea of black bombazine. Then the dowager moved and he saw a tiny woman dressed in dove grey and Devlin’s eyes widened in surprise. The Duchess was perhaps five feet in height, with a mass of red hair, that was artfully arranged in subtle waves about her neck. Her gown was simple, without decoration of any kind, no lace, no frills and no bustle. She wasn’t even wearing any hoops which Devlin found both pleasing and refreshing. Not that she needed anything to accentuate her figure, her waist was small over good hips but it was her bosom that drew his gaze. She had to have one of the finest figures he’d ever seen.
“She has a rather remarkable bosom.” Warren chuckled elbowing Devlin.
“Yes, she does.” Devlin replied. “What should I say to her?”
“Her husband was an army officer when he died, in intelligence and famous. Just introduce yourself and say you knew her husband.” Warren gave him a grin. “You’ll think of something, you use to have women eating out of your hand. How hard can one widow be?”
Devlin straightened his neck cloth. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Lea ran the strings of her reticule through her fingers as she tried to watch all of her daughters at once. Beside her Aunt Justine, and her companion Agatha, were discussing men and the lattest fashion with the lady dowager Prescott.
“You could do with a bit more color my dear.” Lady Prescott intoned jolting Lea from her reserve. Lea looked down at her grey satin gown and shrugged.
“Your husband has been dead for what sixteen years? Your still good looking, it seems a shame to be throwing away what is left of your youth.” Lady Prescott stated.
“Yes, it will be sixteen years this spring. It’s just I’m trying to set a good example for the girls.” Lea replied, she didn’t like to discuss Sebastian. He’d been a rake and a rouge and she’d been trying to live down his reputation since his death, so nothing would tarnish their daughters names. She’d also heard this line of discussion before, Aunt Justine was constantly going on about that she should wear something more colorful.
“I agree. You have a lovely figure Lea, you should show it to advantage, don’t you think Agatha?” Justine prompted.
Agatha took a sip of her punch and looked at Lea. “Yes, you have rather remarkable breasts, if I were you I wouldn’t be hiding them. You should put them on display, I think if you did you’d have a new husband or a lover in a snap of your fingers.”
Lea felt herself flush, and knew that Agatha had been imbibing in the sherry a bit too heavily before they left home. Lea sighed, her aunt and her friends were right. Sebastian had been dead for a long time, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to encourage a man’s notice. Many widows took lovers, it would be wonderful to have handsome a man notice her.
“I’ll consider it next time I take the girls dress shopping.” Lea turned to look back at the ball room and saw waistcoat. I man’s dark green, silk waist coat to be exact. She looked up, and then up even further to see a sinfully handsome man standing before her with ebony hair and piercing black eyes. His face looked like it had been carved out of marble, the only hint of softness were fine lines at the corner of his eyes. He was also darkly tanned a rarity among the ton.
“Do I have the honor of addressing Lady Ravenhurst?” The man asked in a rich baritone, that made a shiver run down Lea’s spine. His voice reminded her of a sultry topical night, it combined with his looks was enough to make her think lustful thoughts. Lea realized she was starring and gave him a timid smile.
“Yes, I am Duchess Ravenhurst.” Lea replied and was rewarded with a slow smile. The man gave her a gallant bow that elicited a gasp from the dowager.
“Allow me to introduce my self. I’m Earl Duncannon, I had the honor of meeting your husband many years ago. I’m recently returned to England and wished to pay my respects.” Devlin smiled down at the petite widow and felt himself drowning in emerald eyes that glowed with inner fire. The tiny widow was even lovelier up close, she had a pert little nose, fine high cheekbones, a pretty pink mouth and the most shockingly green eyes he’d ever seen.
“You knew Sebastian? You were in the army with him?” Her voice was deeper than he’d of expected from such a tiny woman, and had an odd but pleasant accent. She was from either America or the islands by the sound.
“Yes, would you care to dance?” Devlin held his hand out and saw her eyes widen in surprise. “You do dance don’t you?”
Lord Duncannon oozed masculinity and controlled power, reminding Lea of a jungle cat. She locked eyes with him and tried to decide if his eyes were dark brown or truly black. They were very large and framed by long sable lashes, he also had a dazzling smile showing perfect white teeth.
“Yes, but it has been many years since I did, I’m afraid I’m dreadfully out of practice. I fear I’ll step on your toes or injury you with my lack of skill.” Lea saw a smile curl his lips, and he extended his hand.
“I shall take the risk. I believe they are about to start a waltz.” Devlin saw hesitation in Lady Ravenhurst’s eyes, then she slid her hand into his. He closed his hand over hers noting how small it was. “Besides you look neither very heavy nor terribly dangerous, I shall take the risk.” Devlin was surprised when Lady Ravenhurst laughed.
“You should never judge a book or a person on first impression my lord.” Lea let lord Duncannon lead her on to the dance floor as a waltz began. She felt dwarfed by his size, her hand lost in his massive one, then his right hand slid about her waist to touch her back and a tingle ran through her. His hand was warm and strong against her back and felt wickedly pleasant there. It had been so very, very long since a man had touched her that she felt as giddy as a girl.
Devlin adjusted his steps to match that of lady Ravenhurst, then looked up to see Freddy was hurrying across the ball room towards her daughters. Not wishing Freddy to be seen he spun her about and waltzed her towards the back of the long ballroom. Lady Ravenhurst despite her protest at being out of practice was light on her feet, following him easily about the floor. Devlin realized after a few bars that he was enjoying himself. Lady Ravenhurst had flawless peachy skin and her back curved neatly into the palm of his hand. He wondered why some man hadn’t snapped her up soon after her husband’s death.
“You have lovely eyes lady Ravenhurst.” Devlin said as he spun her about, she smiled and her eyes locked with his.
“Thank you Lord Duncannon, most men do not even notice I have eyes.” Lea replied wickedly and saw Lord Duncannon’s lips part in surprise.
“I have shocked you. You must forgive me. I was raised by my father and older brothers, and as such I’m too forth right and to bold. I also have a tendency to say shocking things.” Lea saw another smile curve Lord Duncannon’s lips.
“Really?” Devlin could see why some people would say she was eccentric. “What are you likely to say?”
“What ever that pops into my head, but I’d rather talk about you.” Lea replied as Lord Duncannon spun her about so fast everything became a blur. “Your just back from India aren’t you?”
Devlin faltered in surprise but nodded, quickly recovering. “How do you know that?”
“That is simple. Your very dark, and you said you were just returned to England. Which means you were either in the islands or India. You don’t walk like a sailor, and your hands aren’t rough enough to be a planter, which means India.” Lea watched his eyes widen in surprise as the music ended. He whirled her to a stop and gave her an inquisitive look.
“Please continue.” Devlin said with amusement.
“Very well, since we shall never see each other again I’ll be straightforward.” Lea knew she was being bold, but something in the lord’s arrogant gaze was too challenging to resist. “You have a very strong manner and powerful bearing which screams army. Given your age and title you were obviously an officer, at least a colonel if not a major. You also speak very well, which says you were well educated, probably Eaton or Oxford.” Lea studied Lord Ducannon taking in not just his physique but the cut of his clothes. “You are also a widower and have no valet.”
Devlin felt his mouth open in surprise and pressed his lips together. Lady Ravenhurst had been correct in everything. “How do you know that?”
“Your clothes are expensive and of a fine cut but they are several years out of fashion. A wife or valet would of known that.” Lea lifted her eyes to his face. “Your hair is also unfashionably long, a wife would of made you cut it. Though I like how you wear it my lord, it gives you a rakish look. On your left hand there is the faintest white line on your ring finger, and you have twice slid your thumb to spin a ring which is no longer there, meaning you use to wear one for some time and recently stopped wearing it, so my condolences on your lost.”
Devlin smiled in surprise, lady Ravenhurst had sharp eyes. “You are correct. I bow to your powers of observation. What else can you tell me about myself.” Devlin had hoped to challenge the lady and perhaps teach her a lesson about being too bold but she merely nodded, as if accepting the challenge.
“Very well, may I see your hand my lord.” Lea watched a smile twist his lips and he held his hand out to her. Lea examined his hand closely, it was extremely large with long yet muscular fingers, and his palm was oddly smooth. There were also calluses between his thumb and fore finger. “May I touch your arm my lord?” Lea saw Lord Duncannon nod and she slid her hand up to feel his forearm, it was as hard as a rock beneath his finely cut jacket. “You box, I’m guessing several times a week, and you wrestle. You also ride a great deal and are an expert with both a pistol and a rifle.” Lea heard the lord mumble what sounded like a curse.
Devlin was again stunned by the lady’s observations, she was unerringly correct. If he didn’t know better he would of thought someone had told her all about him.
“How do you know?” Devlin demanded, easing her off the dance floor.
“Your hands are very large and strong as our your fore arms, but you don’t have cracked or blunted nails or callused fingers. Which means the only way a gentleman such as yourself could be so strong would be to engage in rigors physical activity such as boxing and wrestling.” Lea watched a smile tug at lord Duncannon’s lips and she knew she was right. “In addition your palm is smooth and there is the smallest of marks and a callous in the webbing between your thumb and fingers, it is probably from having your hands repeatedly wrapped. You are also very light on your feet for a large man, boxers practice foot work, and it helps with their dancing ability.”
“You are again correct, and the riding and the shooting?”
“Once again the calluses on your hands, and the lines about your left eye are just a fraction deeper than about your right.” Lea studied his face again. “I’m guessing it is because you squint when you take a shot. The way you walk and your legs indicate your ride a great deal.”
Devlin looked down at his legs then back at the widow, his brows arching questioningly.
“They are very firm and muscular, you also have excellent posture. Some tall men slouch, or round their shoulders but not you, you stand very straight with your shoulders back. You would of learnt that from both the army and riding.” Lea was pleased to see the dark lord was now looking contrite. “Thank you Lord Ducannon for the dance. You may tell who ever it was that put you up to asking me for a dance that we did, and that the Ice Queen and she was as frosty and eccentric as you heard.” Lea gave turned to go, only to have his hand close over her arm.
Devlin was amazed, Lady Ravenhurst was not only keenly observant but brilliant. She had managed to not only challenge him but pique his interest, he was no longer bored. “Why do you think someone put me up to asking you to dance?” Devlin was shaken by her observations, she’d been completely accurate about everything.
“Please I’m no fool. I’m not a beautiful woman, I’m passing pretty at best. I’m dressed in a grey gown, that is with out fashion. You also didn’t really know my husband, I could tell by your answer. Which means the only reason a man as handsome as you would ask a woman as unattractive as myself for a dance was on a bet, or perhaps to gain an introduction to my daughters.” Lea straightened to her full five feet. “Thank you for the dance Sir, go collect your winnings.”
Devlin cursed mentally, he had the feeling he’d hurt her feelings. What was worse was the fact she was close to the truth.
“Lady Ravenhurst, I truly wished to dance with you.” Devlin protested and watched her lips purse.
“You should not lie sir, you will likely be caught.” Lea watched him look contrite. “You didn’t know Sebastian, it was just a ruse to come and speak to me. You see he has been dead for nearly sixteen years. And you are not old enough to have served with him, which means you were lying.” Lea watched his dark eyes widen as the music began again. “Thank you for the dance, I really did enjoy it. Now good night.” Lea spun and began walking away.
Devlin watched Lady Ravenhurst walk away, head high her hips rolling delightfully. The lady wasn’t eccentric, frank and a genius, but decidedly not eccentric. She was refreshing in her manner and her straight forwardness. She’d not batted her eyes at him, giggled insipidly, or been coy. She’d been the complete opposite of any woman he’d ever met. She intrigued him and now she was walking away thinking he was a cad.
Devlin hurried after her, catching her quickly as his strides were over twice hers.
“Lady Ravenhurst if I have offended you some how, I ask your forgiveness.” Devlin said and she stopped so suddenly her skirts swished about his ankles.
“Lord Duncannon, I am not offended, nor am I a fool. I did truly enjoy our dance.” Lea watched Lord Duncannon frown. He was obviously not use to women dismissing him, he was also too attractive to be truly interested in her. She tore her eyes from his chiseled features and saw a man walking towards her. Dread washed through her. It was lord French, no doubt come to hound her again about marrying him. “If you’ll excuse me I really must go.”
“Lady Ravenhurst.” Devlin saw Lady Ravenhurst’s eyes widen and her face register surprise, or perhaps fear.
“Please I have to go, there is a man I don’t wish to see, and he is coming this way.” Lea turned looking for an avenue of escape. She spotted a dark passageway at the end of the ball room, and began hurrying for it, dodging dancers as she went.
Devlin frowned watching Lady Ravenhurst hurry away, then saw an older man, with grey unkept hair, a ruddy face and a large paunch lock eyes on her. The lady appeared to need rescuing, perhaps if he lent assistance she would forgive him enough for a second dance. Devlin hurried off the dance floor, nearly colliding with a young couple and after the widow who was making for the back of the ballroom at a rapid walk.
“May I be of some assistance?” Devlin demanded hurrying up to her.
“You may by disappearing, I don’t want Lord French to spot me. And you sir are too huge to be missed.” Lea gave the hulking lord Ducannon a dismissive smile increasing her pace.
“If you perhaps told me what was the matter?” Devlin persisted following Lady Ravenhurst into a dark corridor at the back of the ball room.
Lea stopped to cast a quick look over her shoulder and saw Lord French was still coming her way. “Blast I think he spotted me. Lord French is a widower, and he’s in debt. He thinks if he can force me to marry him all his money problems will be solved.” Lea looked about and saw a nearby door, darting to it she gave the handle an experimental turn. It was locked, spinning she began heading towards the next door on the long corridor.
“You don’t wish to wed him?” Devlin asked in amusement.
“No of course I don’t wish to wed him. He is nearly sixty, over weight and rarely bathes. He is as odious as he is disgusting which in his case is a lot. He is also a widower twice over.” Lea stopped before another door and gave it’s handle a frantic try. She looked over her shoulder to see lord Ducannon was still following her. “He has a violent temperament, drinks to excess, gambles and whores. While I don’t fault a man for one or two vices he does all three to extreme.”
“I see he certainly sounds unpleasant, but if you told him no I’m sure he’d leave you alone.” Devlin stated watching in amusement as Lady Ravenhurst tried another door, only to discover it was locked.
“I have told him no four times.” Lea bit her tongue before she accused Lord Ducannon of being thick. “He got very angry the last time, and said he wouldn’t take no for an answer. He tried to kiss me, then grabbed my arm and dragged me into his carriage, where he tried to force himself on me. I only escaped him by hitting him over the head with my umbrella, to which he took great umbrage and slapped me. Now please I really have to find someplace to hide.”
Devlin’s amusement instantly disappeared, the widow had been assaulted. She was not just trying to avoid an unpleasant man she was in genuine fear. She obviously had no male protectors or she wouldn’t be trying to run. “Please allow me.” Devlin tried the next door for her, discovering it too was locked. He could hear heavy footsteps and looked back the way they’d come seeing the older paunchy man entering the corridor.
Lea heard the footsteps too and spun to see Lord French standing in the entrance of the corridor, scowling and peering into the darkness. She stifled a curse and ran towards the end of the corridor only to discover a dead end. She was now trapped, fear coursed through her at the thought of confronting him.
“I could protect you if you think he means you harm.” Devlin whispered and saw her shake her head.
“You are a stranger my lord, I couldn’t ask you to do that. Besides he is mad and prone to angry out bursts, he carries a knife at all time, he might hurt you.” Lea protested her eyes settled on a window hidden by thick curtains. “A window, perhaps I can go down a drain spout.”
Devlin blinked in surprise, had the woman just suggested going out a window? They were on the second floor, was she mad or desperate. Devlin looked about and spotted a deep alcove, partially hidden by velvet curtains with a very large statue of a roman soldier in it.
“Quickly, in here.” Devlin caught her hand and dragged her towards the alcove, pushing her in first. He followed her in and pushed her all the way into the alcove, till her back was against the wall. He pressed himself against her, and slipped his hands about her waist.
“Kiss me.” Devlin hissed hearing approaching foot steps. He saw her raised eyebrows in the dim light and bent his face towards hers. “Kiss me, my body will shield yours. He’ll think he found two lovers.”
Lea slipped her hands about Lord Duncannon’s waist under his jacket, as he touched his lips to hers. His lips were warm and soft on hers, and his body pleasantly hard as it pressed against hers.
Devlin slid his hands down Lady Ravenhurst’s body to cup her bottom. He was vastly pleased she wasn’t wearing hoops, or even layers of petticoats as he found her small firm bottom and gave it a gentle squeeze. She gasped in surprise opening her mouth and he eased the tip of his tongue inside. His was delighted when her mouth widened beneath his and her tongue touched his. Devlin deepened the kiss, as Lady Ravenhurst responded with a surprising amount of passion, her tongue twinning with his.
Devlin tightened his grip, pulling her hard against him, feeling the softness of her breasts as they pressed against him. She tasted like strawberries and smelled of jasmine. Excitement washed through him, his heart speed up as heat spread to his groin. He felt her hands tighten about his waist and he deepened the kiss. He was vaguely conscious of footsteps behind him, of hearing a man curse, then the footsteps moved away. Devlin pulled his lips from Lady Ravenhurst’s to nuzzle her neck and felt her push at his chest.
“I think he is leaving.” Lea whispered and pushed at Lord Duncannon. “I said he is leaving, your ruse worked.”
Devlin clamped down on his runaway libido, he felt Lady Ravenhurst give him another push. “Yes of course.”
“You were very clever, I don’t think he saw me. Thank you for your help.” She caught his lapels and pulling herself up placed a kiss on his cheek. Devlin looked down at her in the shadowy light, she was much prettier than he’d first thought. He felt her push on his chest again and regretfully stepped back. She stepped out of the alcove to take a cautious peek down the corridor then smoothed her skirts into place.
Lea took a deep breath to compose herself and then gave Lord Ducannon a polite nod. Her lips were still tingling from his kiss and she could still feel his hard body pressed against hers. It had been too long since a man had kissed her, and Lord Ducannon was certainly a very fine example of his sex. “Thank you again my Lord, I hope you have a pleasant night.” She felt his dark eyes on her, but she was too flustered to say anything else, so she gave another nod and hurried down the corridor towards the ballroom.
“Wait, one more dance. I wouldn’t want us to part, and have you think me a cad.” Devlin called after her. She turned about, a faint smile on her full lips.
“I do not think that sir. But I must go I have an appointment tomorrow morning at nine thirty, and must see my daughters home.” Lea gave herself a mental curse, she should dance with him again but it would only make her feel more confused. No she would be sensible and leave before her loneliness made her do something foolish like kiss him again. “Thank you again.” Then she turned to walk away.
Devlin watched Lady Ravenhurst hurry away, and licked his lips. He could still taste her, she tasted like strawberries and cream and had been just as delicious. He could still feel heat coursing through him, surprising and pleasing him. It had been years since he’d kissed a woman like that, since one had kissed him back like that. Duchess Ravenhurst in her plain boring grey gown was far from plain or boring. She’d been one of the best kissers he’d ever encountered, and he’d kissed a lot of women. Hidden underneath that plain gown was a siren. He stalked down the corridor and entered the ball room, his senses assaulted by light and sound.
Devlin blinked, then spotted his friends near a corner punch bowl. Dodging dancers he made his way to them and saw Freddy smiling from ear to ear.
“Thank you Dev, thank you. She agreed to see me tomorrow, she’s going to have her aunt to take her shopping and then slip away to meet me.” Freddy grabbed Dev’s hand between both his own and pumped it vigorously.
“Your welcome.” Dev said and Freddy gave him another grin before slipping back into the crowd.
“So how was the Ice Queen?” Warren demanded pressing a cup of punch into his hands. “Frosty?”
Devlin looked down at the cup and thought of their kiss, then shook his head. “No actually I found her delightful and witty. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again.”
“Hell, your jesting?” Warren said loudly, drawing annoyed glances from several people near by.
“No, she is extraordinarily intelligent. She deduced I’d just returned from India, from my complexion, and that I was a widower from the faint white mark on my hand.” Devlin heard his friends make rueful noises. He’d forgotten his friends were more interested in a woman’s looks than her wit or intelligence, but once he’d been like that too. Before his marriage he’d only been interested in a woman’s form, and not her mind. He’d made a game out of seducing lonely and bored wives, enjoying their charms once or twice and then moving on. His numerous conquests, lack of scruples and dark looks had earned him the title the Devil Earl among his peers.
“Would you be willing to see her again?” Warren demanded, a sly smile on his face.
“Why does Freddy need me to distract her again?” Devlin asked feigning nonchalance.
“Actually I was thinking of a wager, to see if you still have your talents with the fair sex, or if all those years away dulled your skills.” Warren’s smile had now turned decidedly wicked and there was an evil glint in his eyes.
“What kind of wager?” Devlin snapped taking a sip of punch.
“It’s simple that you can bed the Ice Queen in the time it takes me to become engaged. You said you found her delightful.” Warren gave him another sly smile. “And just to make it interesting we’ll put a wager on it. Say five pounds.”
“I’ll think about it.” Devlin replied and walked away to watch the dancers. His eyes moved from one woman to another, judging each and finding each wanting in some way. Hell when had he become so finicky. There had been a time when he’d seek out a pretty woman and move in for the kill. Now he wanted more than just sex with a beautiful woman, he craved companionship, even conversation.
Devlin heard Wilson’s voice and looked back to see he was talking with another man, that Devlin recognized as a mutual friend. Devlin looked at the collection of brightly gowned women, reminding him of a flock of butterflies, his roaming gaze moved across the glittering room to Lady Ravencroft. She was once again standing beside a group of older women, her shoulders back, her chin held high, looking like a solider on the parade ground. He traced the curve of her body with his eyes remembering how it had felt under his hands, the feel of her full breasts against his chest. He only took tall woman for his paramours, at six foot six it was a nuisance to have to bend near double to kiss a woman. But in the case of the widow he might make an exception.
Devlin took another sip of his punch and strolled back to his friends. The bet would relieve his boredom if nothing else.
“Hello Terrance.” Devlin gave a polite nod to the newcomer, then caught Warren’s eyes. “I’ll do it. It might relieve my boredom.”
“Brilliant.” Warren exclaimed.
“You think you can beat Dev?” Wilson demanded. “He’s never failed with a woman, ever.”
Warren shrugged. “It will be a pleasure to find out.”
“Wonderful it’s a bet then.” Wilson said.
Devlin looked over his punch cup at the fascinating Lady Ravenhurst. He saw her glance about the ball room, then her eyes met his and she give him a quick nod, then she looked away.
“Warren just told me about this bet of yours.” Terrance said. “I will admit she has a rather spectacular figure but if you mean to play this game, you might wish to find another mark. The lady in question I know personally and she has suffered too much to be made the target of a puerile wager.”
“I beg your pardon?” Devlin demanded his brow furrowing. Beside him Wilson made a rude sound and rolled his eyes.
“You have your eyes set on Lady Ravenhurst. You plan on wooing her and trying to get her into your bed, before Warren can find a bride.” Terrance scowled at the three men.
“How has the lady suffered?” Devlin demanded finishing his punch.
“They didn’t tell you who her husband was did they? What she did for England?” Terrance shot Wilson and Warren smoldering looks.
“I presume her husband was Duke Ravenhurst.” Devlin retorted with annoyance.
“Her husband was better known as Sebastian Ravencroft, in certain circle he was simply known as the Raven.” Terrance stated and Devlin’s eyes widened in recognition.
“She was married to Sebastian Ravencroft, the spy master?” Devlin turned to settle his eyes on the small and curvaceous figure of Lady Ravenhurst in wonder.
“Yes, for four years. She changed her name after his death, to try and avoid the scandal associated with his name. Not only was she married to him she helped him on several missions.” Terrance folded his arms before his chest, fixing Warren an annoyed look.
“But the lady doesn’t look that old, if Ravencroft were still alive he’d be fifty at least.” Devlin protested.
“She isn’t and he would be. He married her when she was just fifteen.” Terrance snapped, then stopped talking till several ladies passed by.
“Fifteen? Why would a man of the world marry a girl of fifteen?” Devlin demanded. He remembered Sebastian Ravencroft from the War office. He’d been a youth then, and had been in awe of Ravencroft’s feats of daring when they’d seen him. Ravencroft had a reputation as devote rake and libertine, that he had married a child was a mystery and a surprise.
“She saved his life. Sebastian and I were traveling through the Caribbean on a ship belonging to her father. She was on board learning to sail.” Terrance looked up at Devlin to be sure he had his attention.
“She was learning to sail?” Devlin demanded in disbelief.
“Yes, her father was Ronald Hurst an American merchant and ship owner, her mother had been lady Lizabeth Weathering. Both sides of the family were deeply involved in the sea and sailing.” Terrance paused again while another group of ladies passed close by, and he signaled for the others to follow him further away from the punch bowl.
“So the lady was on the ship.” Warren offered, prodding Terrance to continue.
“Yes, she was literally learning to sail, her father had her climbing the rigging and swabbing the decks. Despite that she was still a charming and engaging girl, and devastatingly intelligent. She could converse equally well in French, Russian or German and was fascinated by philosophy and chemistry.” Terrance made a wistful smile. “Both Sebastian and I found her delightful. Especially Sebastian, he was bewitched by her.”
“Go on.” Devlin was now truly fascinated. Every lady he could think of would have gone into a hysterical fit and fainted had their father even suggested such a thing.
“During a squall we were attacked, an boarded by a French ship. The Frenchies were looking for Sebastian. He’d liberated some rather important documents from a French garrison on one of the islands. A practically odious French Captain name Henri Lafleur, threatened to shoot Sebastian if he didn’t hand over the papers.” Terrance paused again to be sure they weren’t being over heard. “Sebastian, being Sebastian of course refused. Lafleur went to shoot him and she stepped in front of Sebastian, and took the bullets meant for him, and shot Captain Lafleur. After that all hell broke loose, and some how in the confusion they vanished.”
“They vanished?” Wilson demanded.
“Aye. We beat the Frenchies and took their ship, but after all the mayhem had died down Sebastian and her where no where to be found. We thought they had both gone over the side.” Terrance shook his head. “They were discovered six months latter on an uninhabited island. Sebastian had dragged her to a dingy, meaning to protect her and a wave had knocked the boat loose. During their time alone Sebastian had fallen for her and seduced her, she was five months gone with child when they were rescued. The captain of the ship that rescued them married them. Apparently Sebastian had fallen madly in love with a fifteen year old girl at the age of thirty eight, because she’d taken two bullets for him.”
“Good God.” Devlin turned to see the object of their conversation marshaling what he presumed were her daughters about her, like a mother hen lining up her chicks. What was amusing was that all six of her daughters were a good head taller than her. “I can certainly see why he’d find her endearing.”
“He was besotted with her. After the birth of the first set of twins she began to help him with his work, the rumors said she saved his life on more than one occasion.” Terrance looked across the ball room as Lady Ravenhurst began ushering her daughters towards the door.
“So I should not pursue the Lady because she was a spy?” Devlin demanded, pressing his empty punch cup into his palm.
“You should not pursue the lady because she saw her husband shot before her eyes. Though it was nearly sixteen years ago, what happened was so shocking it made all the papers, and is still gossiped about.” Terrance leveled his gaze on Devlin, who shook his head.
“I was in India sixteen years ago, what happened?” Devlin was now hanging on Terrance’s every word.
“They were walking in Regent’s Park, when four French agents confronted them. There was a struggle and they were both shot, she was eight months gone with child when it happened.” Terrance paused and took a deep breath. “She was wounded and it made the baby come early. Sebastian lived for three days and his son for two weeks. They had been married for only four years. I think gentlemen that the lady deserves your sympathy and your respect, and should not be made the object of some cruel game. Now if you’ll excuse me I wish to bid her good night.” Terrance gave them each a nod before hurrying away across the crowded ball room.
Devlin watched Terrance approach Lady Ravenhurst who gave him a warm smile and took his hand. Devlin turned around to scowl at his two companions.
“Did you know any of this?” Devlin was now intrigued by the lovely widow, and feeling a bit guilty about planning to seduce her for sport.
“Well, some of it.” Warren stammered. “Come Dev think of the challenge of it. And just imagine the reward, think what Ravencroft must of taught her in bed. Good God the man is still a legend at White’s. I agree she’s not your usual taste in women but she’s certainly pleasing to look at.” Warren cast a long look across the ballroom after the departing lady. “I mean just look at her. She’s got magnificent breasts and a remarkably small waist for a woman of her age, and her ass is utterly delicious.”
Devlin was suddenly furious at Warren’s crass remarks, both his interest and his esteem for the widow had grown by leaps and bounds during Terrance’s story.
“Your being an ass.” Devlin snapped rounding on his friend. “ And as for her age she can’t be more than thirty five or thirty six. I’m thirty four, so it hardly puts her in her dotage.” Devlin saw Warren and Wilson both step back in surprise.
“Do you know where she lives then?” Devlin demanded, and saw Warren nod.
“Yes not far from you actually, near Regent’s Park.” Warren replied.
“Excellent. Tomorrow morning I shall pay a call on the fascinating widow Ravenhurst.” Devlin scowled at his two friends, then swung around to look back at the ball room. “Well pick one Warren. I’ve been in India for seven years, and while I admit I wasn’t a monk, the lovely little widow has intrigued me.”
“So bet’s still on?” Wilson demanded, with a glint in his eyes.
“Yes it is.” Devlin looked back out at the crowded ballroom. It was full of beautiful young women, of all sizes, shapes and with a myriad of hair colors. But somehow Devlin found them all rather boring and uninteresting. He noticed three young girls watching him over their fans, they smiled as one and then turned away giggling. He frowned and shook his head, he doubted the three of them had a brain put together.
Devlin doubted his friends would believe that, “the Devil Earl” had learned at the age of thirty four that there was more to finding a woman attractive than simply her face and form. He saw another group of chits giving him and Warren the eye. He gave them a smile and a nod then shook his head in exasperation.
“I’m off home.” Devlin heard his friends combined gasp of surprise.
“What so early, it’s not even mid night.” Wilson protested.
“My prey has left, and I don’t see any thing else here that holds my interest.” Devlin watched the girls continue to openly flirt with Warren. They were pretty he supposed, but far too young and foolish. “Happy hunting gentlemen.”
Devlin stalked away through the ball room, setting his empty cup on a waiters tray as he passed and frowned. When had a woman’s mind become as important as her face he wondered, sometime in the last three years when his loneliness had begun to consume him. He missed female companionship, and not just sex. He missed talking and laughing with a woman, missed the smell, and the feel of one. He could still remember the feel of Lady Ravenhurst against him, and felt a surge of heat.
He quickened his pace as he thought of tomorrow morning and seeing the lovely widow again. A woman of adventure, mystery and business that would indeed be a pleasant diversion.