The Devil's Bargain by Edith Layton
ISBN: 0380818647 HarperCollins Publishers
Would he choose love...or revenge?
Katherine Corbet abhors injustice — and is happy to assist the disturbingly attractive Sir Alasdair St. Erth quash the brazen schemes of a marriage-minded opportunist. But appearing on the arm of the dark, dashing rogue at London balls as his interest will never be more than a sham — no matter how Katherine's aching heart yearns for more.
This naive country miss is ideal! With Katherine's unsuspecting assistance, Alasdair can at long last take his revenge on an old, hated enemy — though it pains him to use such an innocent in this unscrupulous manner. Worse still is the longing she inspires within him, a passionate need to taste the sweetness of her lips. Alasdair knows his vengeful plan could destroy a fragile, blossoming love. And when he finally releases Katherine from his devil's bargain, will he truly be able to let her go?
Excerpted from Chapter One
The gentleman was up to his neck in hot water. It seemed to please him very much. He stretched out his long powerful naked body and relaxed. Arms outflung to either side against the rim of the pool, head back, he let the rest of his body float. This seemed to interest the young woman in the gauzy gown who came wading toward him through the long shallow pool. She balanced an urn on one shoulder like a woman on an ancient Greek frieze. Her rounded hips moved to an even more ancient rhythm. The water in the pool came to her upper thighs, making it abundantly clear she was wearing nothing but that gown, the urn, and a smile.
The pool had a mosaic-tiled floor, the theme of which was more Roman than Greek, in that it had more to do with an orgy than a philosophical discussion. The room was white, a domed ceiling soaring overhead. Skylights poked in it showed only the night sky, but flaming torches everywhere made it bright enough for the bather to see that the young nymph with the urn was as pretty as she was scantily clad. The sheerness of the gown and the dampness in the room made her look bare as any of the many life-size replicas of Greek statues that stood by the pool.
The room made a halfhearted attempt to show Classical Greece in the heart of London Town. No one was there to study history. White marble benches were obviously for the use of bathers to sit before removing their clothing. Removal of it was necessary for more than just bathing. Settees and cots at the side of the room were for fellows who preferred to do their thrashing without splashing. There were private roomsupstairs, but this converted orangerie was a new attraction of one of the most popular brothels in town.
Such baths weren't new in London. Apart from the ancient Romans, Hummum's in old Covent Garden had lent its name to them in its day. But everything old is new again, and London doted on anything new.
The gentleman opened his eyes as the young woman with the urn neared him. He smiled at her. But there was nothing but lazy good humor in that slow smile. She looked down at his body and sighed. There was a wondrous lot to see, but all of it as banked and tempered as his smile. None of it offered her any encouragement.
"More hot water, sir?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Thank you, but I'm fine."
"Should you like anything else, sir?" she asked hopefully. "I mean, anything?"
"Oh, I know very well what you mean, love," he said in his rich deep voice, "but I'm fine, thank you. Perhaps some other time?"
She nodded, and waded away toward a man who was watching her from the other end of the pool.
"Can't be feeling fine," a voice steeped in irony commented. "Not if you turn down the likes of that. You must be ill, Alasdair."
The reclining gentleman's eyes opened again, humor sparkling in their midnight depths. He looked up at the man who'd paused at the side of the pool. A slender young gentleman, fully dressed in the height of fashion, gazed down at him.
"If boredom is illness, then behold me dead," the man in the water said. "Care to resurrect me?"
"My word!" the other man said. "If she can't do that, then you are dead. Or changed beyond recognition."
"Or here for other reasons than play. If I wanted steam and hygiene, I'd go to a Turkish bath. This place is full of wenches — and gossip. How have you been, Leigh?" the man in the pool asked. He gathered himself, then stood in one easy motion, looking like Prometheus rising from the waves.
Water sheeted off him. As unconcerned about that as his nakedness, he offered his friend his hand. In truth, he was no more naked than any of the stone fellows standing nearby. His body was a similar masterpiece, only of smooth burnished skin and well-knit muscle. He was a young Hercules rather than an Apollo. His heavily muscled frame was made of massive bones, but altogether well formed, down to the high arches in his narrow, classically molded feet. If it weren't for the masculine pattern of dark hair on that rock-hard chest and the shield of it below, he might have been the model for one of those statues. Except for that — and his face. It would never have graced any Greek statue. The ancients believed only balance and harmony made for masculine beauty.
Sir Alasdair St. Erth was not remotely beautiful.
Only his mouth was well shaped, deceptively tender. His face was a collection of plateaus and planes, his forehead too broad, jaw too pronounced, chin too large. His nose arched at the bridge and turned down at the end like a bird of prey's, ruining any chance it had for beauty. Much that mattered. What he had was too irresistibly human to translate to marble.
Surprisingly luxuriant lashes softened that angular face. The eyes gleamed like starlight on shards of coal at midnight, his teeth were even and white. His dripping hair was stygian black, and would be even when it dried. The occasional melting look that came into the fathomless eyes was beguiling, as dangerous as an undertow. The man was dark as a thundercloud and slick as oil on water, and devilishly attractive in all his imperfections. And the devil knew it, they said. A great deal was said about him. His close friends knew there was more that wise men only hinted at.
"I was going to come round to see you tomorrow," Alasdair said, running a hand back over his sopping hair. "Yes, I'm back. As for tonight, this is just a way of..."
© 2005 Edith Layton. All rights reserved.