Read an Excerpt
Adrian crossed the drawing room's threshold and found himself in the middle of an Arab harem.
Women swathed in colorful pantaloons and veils lounged beside men dressed in flowing robes. A fortune in silk billowed down from the high, frescoed ceiling, forming a massive tent. Two tiger skins stretched over the pastel tapestry rugs, and bejeweled pillows and throws buried settees and chairs. An exotic, heavy scent drifted under those of incense and perfume. Hashish. In the darkest corners some men kissed and fondled their ladies, but no outright orgy had ensued.
A man on a mission, with no interest in this type of diversion, Adrian walked slowly through the costumed bodies, looking for a female who fit the description of the Duchess of Everdon.
He noticed a canopied corner that appeared to be the place of honor. He aimed for it, ignoring the women who looked his way and smiled invitingly.
The canopy draped a small dais holding a chaise longue. A woman rested on it in a man's arms. Her eyes were closed, and the man was plying her with wine. Adrian's card had fallen ignobly to the floor from her lax fingers.
"I am grateful that you have finally received me, Duchess," he said, announcing his presence. Actually, she had not agreed to receive him at all. He had threatened and bluffed his way past the butler.
Her lids slit and she peered down her body at him. She wore a garment that swaddled her from breasts to bare feet, but which left her neck and arms uncovered, revealing pale, glowing skin. In the low light he could not judge her face well, but her hair was a mass of dark curls tamed by a gold band circling her head.
She looked very sensual with the red silk wrapping her curves and her armlets and anklets gleaming in the candlelight. The blond, bare-chested man who held her thought so too. Adrian half-expected him to take a bite out of her while he watched.
The duchess gave Adrian a frank assessment and he returned one of his own. The only living child of the last Duke of Everdon had attained instant importance with her father's unexpected death. For the last two weeks everyone who was anyone in England had been speculating about Sophia Raughley, and wondering what she had been up to during her long absence from England.
Adrian did not relish reporting the answer to the men who had sent him here. From the looks of things, the new duchess had occupied herself lo these last eight years in Paris with becoming a shameless libertine.
She twisted out of her lover's hold and stretched to grope for the card, almost falling off the chaise longue. She appeared childishly clumsy suddenly, and a bit helpless, and Adrian experienced a pang of pity. He picked up the card and placed it in her fingers. She squinted, and gestured to her partner to bring a candle close.
"Mister Adrian Burchard," she read.
"At your service, Your Grace. If we could speak privately, please."
Gathering her drapery, she rose to her feet. With the breeding of centuries stiffening her posture, she faced him.
"I think that I know what service you offer, and you have wasted your journey. I am not going back with you."
Of course she was. "Again, I ask to speak with you privately."
"Come back tomorrow."
"I have come the last two days, and now tonight. It is time for you to hear what I have to say. It is time for you to face reality."
Anger flashed in her eyes. She advanced toward him. For a moment she appeared quite formidable. Then her foot caught in the flowing silk. She tripped and hurtled forward, right into his arms.
He grappled with the feminine onslaught, gripping her soft back and bottom. She wore no stays or petticoats under that red silk. No wonder her blond Arab gleamed with expectation.
She looked up in dazed shock, her green eyes glinting. Her smile of embarrassment broadened until he expected her ears to move out of the way.
She was drunk. Completely foxed.
He set her upright and held her arm until she attained some balance.
"I do not much care for reality. If that is what you offer, go away." She sounded like a rebellious, petulant child, provoking the temptation in him to treat her like one. She waved around the drawing room. "This is real enough for me."
"Hardly real. Not even very accurate."
"My seraglio is most accurate. Stefan and I planned it for weeks. Delacroix himself designed the costumes."
"The costumes are correct, but you have created a European fantasy. A seraglio is nothing like this. In a true harem, except for the rare visitor, all the men are eunuchs."
She laughed and gave Stefan a playful poke. "Not so loud, Mister Burchard, or the men will run away. And the women? Did I get that right at least?"
"Not entirely. For one thing, an entire seraglio exists for the pleasure of one man, not many. For another . . ."
Stefan's expression distracted him. His smile revealed the conceit of a man who assumed that if only one sultan were to enjoy the pleasures of this particular harem, it went without dispute that it would be him.
Stefan was going to be a problem.
"For another, except for a few ornaments, the women in a harem are naked."
Suggestive laughter trickled to the dais from the onlookers. Bawdy shouts pierced the smoky shadows. As if his words had been a cue, a woman on the other side of the room rose up from her circle of admirers and unclasped a broach. Her diaphanous drape fluttered to the floor amidst shouts and clapping.
Another woman rose and stripped. The situation deteriorated rapidly. Garments flew through the air. The shadows filled with the swells of breasts and buttocks. Embraces became much more intimate.
The duchess's eyes widened. She appeared dismayed at the turn things had taken. Ridiculous, of course. She had just explained that she had planned it herself.
Stefan reached for her. "Come, Sophia, moi skarb."
The duchess staggered back with his pull and fell onto his lap. Adrian watched, a forgotten presence. Stefan began caressing her arm while he held the goblet to her mouth.
Adrian turned to go. This promised to be a distasteful task. Still, it was essential for him to complete it. A lot was riding on this foolish, debauched woman. Quite possibly the future of England itself.
He glanced back to the chaise longue. Stefan had loosened her gown from one shoulder and now worked on the other. Her head lolled on his shoulder but her dull reaction did not deter Stefan in the least. She sat limply while the man undressed her.
Adrian stepped back onto the dais just as Stefan bared the duchess's pretty breasts.
"Perhaps in your amorous zeal you have not noticed, my friend, but the woman is no longer with you. She is out cold."
Stefan was pulling the canopy's drapes closed. "Mind your own affairs."
"Gentlemen rarely mind their own affairs when a lady is about to be raped. But then, you would not know how gentlemen react, would you?"
Stefan rose indignantly and the duchess slid away into a half-naked heap on the chaise longue. "How dare you insinuate that I am not a gentleman. I will have you know that I am a prince of the royal house of Poland."
"Are you? What are you doing in Paris? With your countrymen fighting to throw out the Russians, shouldn't a prince be leading an army somewhere? Or are you one of those princes who doesn't like war much?"
"Now you call me a coward!"
"Only if you are really a prince, which I will wager you are not. I suspect that, in truth, you clawed your way out of the Warsaw gutters and have been living off women since you left home."
Stefan's eyes bugged with fury. Adrian casually dragged red silk discreetly over the duchess's naked breasts. "Exactly how do you employ yourself, Stefan? When you aren't whoring for rich women, that is, and helping them plan orgies?"
"I am a poet," Stefan snarled.
"Ahhh. A poet. Well, that makes all the difference, doesn't it? Women do not keep you, they patronize you."
Adrian bent and slid his arms under the duchess. "I am taking the duchess to where she can recover. Interfere, and I will kill you."
Stefan sputtered with indignation, but his expression quickly turned taunting and mean. As Adrian lifted his burden, Stefan moved to block their way.
"I am serious, Stefan. Stand aside or I will call you out and kill you. Since you are a scoundrel, it will not even ruin my day."
Stefan was almost drunk enough to ignore the threat, but, to Adrian's disappointment, not quite. With a scowl he moved away.
Adrian carried the duchess off the dais. Movement caused the loose garment to shift so that a breast peeked out of the red silk. Noting once more that her breasts were quite lovely, he bore the duchess out of the seraglio with as much dignity as he could muster for the two of them.
The old butler lurked in the corridor. Adrian called for the man to accompany him.
"Charles, sir. She insists that we all use our Christian names here. The French influence, I'm afraid."
The evidence that the duchess harbored some frivolous egalitarian notions was not welcome news. "Are any of the other servants English besides you, Charles?"
"Her maid, Jenny, that is all. The rest are French, and there is an assortment of Poles and Austrians and Bohemians feeding at the trough, but they are here to serve their own masters, who in turn are permanent guests, as it were."
"How many permanent guests?"
"Four at the moment."
Charles flushed to the top of his balding pate and nodded. "Artist types. Writers and whatnot. They are known in the city as Miss Raughley's Ensemble. All of them full of the high sensibility. My lady is a great patroness of the new romantic style in the arts." He looked at his mistress's lolling head with affection, and delicately reached to ease some silk over her bare breast. "I would like to say that this is not like her. Since hearing of her father's death, she has not been herself."
"Terrified's more like it. Not much love between her and the duke. It's why we are here, isn't it? But the news affected her badly. It is as if she knows that she cannot hide anymore."
They had reached the grand staircase. "Show me her chambers, Charles, and call for Jenny and two other women whom you trust. Then I will give you instructions for packing. The duchess will be leaving Paris. If you have any doubts regarding my authority to initiate these plans while she is indisposed, I should tell you that I have a letter from King William himself summoning her home."
"The King!" The news rendered Charles suitably impressed until they reached the second landing. "I do not think it will be possible to affect a departure so quickly."
"If closing the house proves complicated, you will stay behind and do it. The duchess comes with me at once."
"I do not think she will agree to that."
Adrian had no intention of letting Sophia Raughley's lack of agreement interfere with his mission. Charles pointed him down a corridor and they stopped at a large double door. "Why will she want to delay, Charles? If it is because of Stefan, I will deal with that."
"I was not thinking of the Polish poet. It is the animals. She would never leave without them."
"A small matter. We can take them. I have a good hand with dogs."
Charles turned the doors' handles. "As it happens, not just dogs."
Adrian entered and stopped in his tracks. Dozens of inhuman eyes peered at him from around the chamber.
He had escaped the harem only to find himself in a menagerie.
"There are more," Charles said.
Of course there were. Adrian strolled around the opulent sitting room. The bright plumed birds had ceased their noise, but the little monkey was still throwing a tantrum because his mistress's arrival had not meant freedom from the cage. There was an odd-looking reptile in a glass case, and two large snakes in another. An ocelot skin stretched under the window. Unlike the pelts in the drawing room, this one still had the animal inside it.
And, of course, there were indeed dogs. Three of them. Mean-faced mastiffs. They posed like soldiers in front of the hearth and tensely eyed Adrian's neck. The feminine shrieks coming from the dressing room had put them on edge.
"The big ones are at the country house," Charles explained. "Well, one can hardly house a giraffe and a lion and such here in the city, can one?"
"Indeed not. I tried that once with my giraffe and lion and they destroyed the library." Adrian threw himself into a chair right in the middle of the mastiffs and proceeded to stare them down.
More screams sounded from the dressing room where three servants were bathing the duchess. With luck, at least half of her wits would return so he could explain what was going to happen.
Hopefully she would not remember the first few moments of her reawakening. Jenny had turned out to be a little thing, and the two French servants were even smaller. They could not lift the duchess, so he had been forced to carry her in when the bath was ready.
In the interests of modesty he had lowered her into the water still clothed, but the wet silk adhered like a second skin and created an image much more erotic than mere nudity. The duchess had thoroughly quashed his sexual reactions by regaining consciousness upon submersion. She half came to, absorbed her situation, and then awoke with a roar.
At which point she had gotten sick.
Yes, this was turning out to be quite a night.
Two of the mastiffs assumed positions of submission at his feet, but the third refused to budge, bow, or blink. Adrian intensified the contest while his memory perused the last hour's events, pausing longer than it should on various images of Sophia Raughley soaked, in dishabille, or bare-breasted.
The duchess's angry voice could be heard, threatening the sack to one and all. Charles shot Adrian a beseeching glance.
"You may leave. You know what to do," Adrian said.
The last hound broke and lowered his tail. Adrian permitted some friendly sniffing, then gestured for the animal to lie. He poured some of the wine brought in for his refreshment, stretched out his legs, and waited.