Morgan Drake paused in the doorway of the grand party with his notorious friend by his side. The people here tonight, most especially the British Royal Navy that hunted Black Jack Rhys on a regular basis, would be stunned to learn he was in their midst. But then Jack thrived on danger. He defied death at every turn with a bitter, taunting laugh.
How many times had Morgan seen the man walk up and shake the hand of whatever official had just sworn to catch that black- hearted pirate, or die in that effort?
The one saving grace that kept Jack from the gallows was that he wasn’t what he seemed. In this party of nobility, high officials and spies, Jack Rhys wore the arrogant stoicism, powdered wig and
court dress as if he’d been born to it.
He’d come to this party with his only friend, Morgan Drake, devout Patriot and in Jack’s opinion, devout fool. But Morgan didn’t mind his friend’s epitaph. For he knew the truth of Black Jack Rhys.
Jack Rhys had a heart.
It was a heart Jack did his damnedest to deny, a heart he’d tell anyone he’d been born without. But Morgan had known the man too long and had seen him act contrary to his words too many times not to know the truth of it.
Morgan took a glass of sherry from a passing servant. He waited until they were alone before he turned to Jack. “What name will you be using tonight?” he asked.
“Count Arnaulf Hapsburg, I think.”
Morgan’s lips quirked up in humor at one of Jack’s old favorites. “From Bulgaria?”
“Why yes, young pup,” he said, cloaking his voice in an authentic accent. Bulgarian was one of about fifteen languages Jack spoke fluently. “Is there any other save moi?”
“Very well, Count, I shall leave you momentarily to find your bedmate.”
Jack’s gaze narrowed speculatively.
Morgan turned his head to see an attractive red-head quickly fanning herself next to a group of matrons. Her vivid hair color stood out among all the white and pastel colored wigs the rest of the crowd wore, and that marked her independence even more clearly than her choice of fanning. “I wouldn’t have thought her your type.”
Jack tipped his glass back and drained it. “Since when do you know my type?” His voice was scarce more than a growl meant to intimidate.
But Morgan knew. In spite of Jack’s words and angry tone, Jack had never taken a virgin, nor would he do so tonight. He might dance with the girl, even pass a few words with her. But in the
end, he would go off with a hungry widow.
Jack, for all his caution, was a devout creature of habit.
“Happy hunting,” Morgan said to him as he spotted the Patriot spy he’d come to the party to meet. “I’ll see you back at my ship in the morning.”
Jack inclined his head in a subtle nod, his gaze still riveted by the woman before him as he placed his empty glass on the tray of a passing servant.
Her dress was a pale yellow silk, opened in front to show a quilted yellow panel. The low square neckline showed off the top of creamy breasts he could well imagine taking in his hand.
And her long, graceful neck….
Jack had always been partial to a woman’s throat, to the feel of her heartbeat teasing his lips as her heart raced in response to his expert touch. In his opinion, it was one of the most erotic places on a female.
There was only one part he liked to taste more.
She darted rather quickly out of her current group and crossed the room to stand with two couples. Her harried movements reminded him of a dove being pursued by some beast as it tried to find a
safe place to rest.
Morgan had been right, she wasn’t his usual type. He liked his women tall, thin and breathtaking.
Though attractive, she wasn’t the classical beauty who normally turned men’s heads, and if he didn’t miss his guess, her pale skin was splashed with freckles her white powder couldn’t hide.
But there was something striking about this woman. She had hair as dark and rich as mahogany with golden streaks laced through. She possessed an aura of warmth and happiness that seemed to glow from within her.
Watching her, he felt like a wilted flower that had just received a ray of sunshine after a long, cold winter. It was a strange feeling. One he’d never before known.
And he found himself wondering about the color of her eyes…
Lorelei had spent the last twenty minutes avoiding her next promised dance with Justin. He would have the rest of their lives to stomp her toes. But if she were to carry out his ruse on the morrow, she would need both her feet intact.
Seeing him rise on the tips of his toes to scan the crowd for her, she ducked and moved to stand with Amanda’s mother, Lady Whitney who was talking to the dowager Mrs. Darcy.
“My dear?” Lady Whitney asked Lorelei, her face pinched with worry as she gave her a regal perusal. “Are you all right?”
“I feel a little faint,” Lorelei offered as an excuse for her odd behavior.
Mrs. Darcy touched her lightly on the arm. “I know exactly what you mean, Lori. I regret that I had my maid lace my stays so tightly tonight. Been near fainting myself.”
With an imperial flick of her hand, Lady Whitney motioned for Amanda to join them.
Once Amanda was there, Lady Whitney turned to Lorelei. “Can you have your father arrange an introduction for Amanda to meet Count Hapsburg?”
“Count who?” Lorelei and Amanda asked simultaneously.
“Count Arnaulf Hapsburg,” Mrs. Darcy said with a childish giggle. She put her gloved hand up to shield her mouth as she spoke them in a loud whisper. “Why girls, don’t tell me you haven’t seen him?”
“I don’t remember a Count Arnaulf Hapsburg being on the guest list,” Lorelei said, wondering who the stranger was.
“Well, someone must of brought him,” Mrs. Darcy said excitedly. “I heard he’s descended from the royal family!”
Lady Whitney lifted her chin and looked down her hook nose to Mrs. Darcy. “I have no doubt. You can see his good breeding. Twould be obvious to anyone that he is royal.”
Lorelei and Amanda exchanged frowns.
Then, there was a flurry of feminine voices near them. Some of them quite silly and high pitched.
“Count Hapsburg is coming this way!” someone said. “Pass me my smelling salts.”
“He’s going to ask someone to dance,” another woman said.
“Please, let it be me,” the first woman begged.
Lorelei strained to see this mysterious count, but she was too short to see over the high wigs of the older women. In fact, she couldn’t even tell from which direction he was supposed to be coming.
“He’s after my Amanda,” Lady Whitney said, her voice filled with glee. “Pinch your cheeks, Dear, and for Heaven’s sake straighten up.”
As Lorelei searched the crowd for the newcomer, she caught Justin’s eye. He raised his eyebrows in relief, smiled, and headed straight for her.
Oh, bother, he was after her now. Her toes twitched in memory of those polished black boots crushing them.
“Excuse me, please,” she said to her group as she sought to find another safe corner of the room.
Lorelei was still looking back over her shoulder to where Justin was making strides through the crowd, when she suddenly ran into a wall.
Only it wasn’t a wall, she realized as she placed her hand upon it to steady herself.
It was a broad, rock-hard chest.
Her sight focused on the elegant black silk, double breasted cut away beneath her hand. She slowly trailed her gaze up the embroidered cream waistcoat to his stand-fall color and stark white lace-edged stock and then to his…
Eyes of pewter stared down out of a face she’d never before seen in reality. It was the face of some perfect, ancient statue. His features sharp and angular, there was something predatorial in his gaze. Something that reminded her of a hawk watching a hare it wanted desperately to devour.
He gave her a smile that turned her legs to jelly.
“Forgive me, mademoiselle,” he said in a deep, stunning timbre, his voice rich with a foreign accent.
Lorelei wanted to respond, but for the first time in her life, words failed her.
“I trust you’re unharmed?” he asked.
She returned his beguiling smile, her throat loosening enough to where she could finally speak. “I’m fine, thank you. I only hope I didn’t offend you too much with my clumsiness.”
He gave a low, rich laugh that made her insides flutter. “Please, feel free to run into my arms anytime you feel the urge.”
“There you are, Lori,” Justin said, coming up to stand beside her. His gaze raked the stranger with malice and it was only then she realized her hand hadn’t left the stranger’s chest.
Lorelei jerked her hand away with a very undignified gasp.
“I don’t believe I know you, sir,” Justin said with ice in his voice as he forced himself between her and the man.
“Count,” the man corrected in a voice every bit as arctic. “Count Arnaulf Hapsburg.”
Arnaulf turned his gaze to Lorelei and she grew warm inside at his heated perusal. “And you, mademoiselle?”
She sensed the anger and jealousy in Justin, but too much a gentleman to show anything save proper manners, he answered for her. “Allow me to present my…” he paused for emphasis, “fiance, Miss Lorelei Dupree.”
Nervously, she extended her hand to the count and gave a proper curtsy.
His warm hand covered hers. Long, tapered, and well manicured, his fingers were obviously those of a gentleman and yet she felt rough calluses on his palm that belied the noble title.
He bowed low before her upraised hand. His warm breath tickled her flesh, sending chills all the way up her arm. And when his lips touched the back of her hand, he gave an impudent nip with his
Startled, she felt her blood race through her veins and straight to a foreign part of her body that thrummed in sudden need.
“Tis the greatest pleasure to meet you, mademoiselle,” he said in that voice that wavered somewhere between thunder and warm honey.
When he neglected to release her hand right away, Justin clicked his heels together and made a curt bow to draw the count’s attention. “I am Lieutenant Justin Wallingford.”
Immediately, the count dropped her hand. His features grew still and masked, and some heated emotion sparked within the count’s eyes. It was raw and primeval, and if she didn’t know better, she’d swear it was hatred.
“So, you’re the youngest son of Gabriel Wallingford.”
“You know my father?” Justin asked, stiffening his spine with pride.
The count’s smile was cold, formal. “Why, yes, yes I do. He’s an old family friend.”
There was definitely something hidden in those words. Lorelei was certain of it.
The count continued to scan the crowd. “Is he by chance here this evening?”
Justin shook his head. “He’s not due back into port for another week.”
Disappointment flashed across the count’s features an instant before he hid the emotion. “Pity.”
The count turned to face Lorelei. “I see the dancers are getting ready for the next set. Might I have the pleasure of your company, Miss Dupree?”
“Lorelei doesn’t like to dance,” Justin inserted before she could even part her lips to respond.
The count ignored him and gave her a bold, assessing look. “Mademoiselle?”
“I would love to,” Lorelei said before she thought better of it.
By the look on Justin’s face, she could tell it was the wrong answer. So be it. She could handle him well enough. He would forgive her on the morrow. He always did.
She took the count’s proffered arm and he led her to the floor. As soon as they took their place, the music started.
Surrounded by his strong arms, Lorelei felt jittery and nervous like a young girl facing her first dance at her debutante ball. The count’s appealing scent of sandalwood and ash filled her head.
With every precise, perfect step he took, she could feel the raw power of him. He was like a caged lion just waiting for the chance to pounce as he swept her around the floor.
Against the dandies and pale faces of the crowd, his tanned, handsome face stood out. But it was more than that. There was definitely something dangerous about this man, as if he were hiding
something from her.
She could feel it deep within her soul.
Was he a Patriot spy, or perhaps a double-agent working for England? He could even be one of the blockade runners that had been flooding into Charleston since the British had overtaken the port city and sealed it off.
“Have you been in the Colonies long?” she asked.
“I’ve never been anywhere long.”
“Not even Bulgaria?”
“Lately,” he added with a disarming smile. “I haven’t been anywhere long lately.”
Again, she sensed he was hiding something from her and she was determined to find out what. “Might I a be so bold as to ask who invited you to the party?”
His eyes danced with humor. “I don’t want to talk about me, mademoiselle. Tell me about you.”
“Me?” she asked with a frown.
“Yes, tell me how an enchanting creature such as yourself became engaged to a pasty-faced Englishman.”
Anger flared and she sputtered for a moment. “Justin is not pasty-faced.”
He looked to where Justin stood to the side of the floor watching them like a cat protecting its kitten. “He is no match for you, milovidnost.”
“I don’t understand that last word.”
“It’s Bulgarian, and you are avoiding my point.”
Regaining her lost composure, she looked up at him from under her lashes. Lorelei was a master when it came to the art of flirtation and she knew the ploy he was using. It was one she’d confronted
numerous times disparage the competition. How many times had a man belittled the object of her affection while holding himself up as the very model of her perfect mate?
Taking the upper-hand, she decided to spoil his advantage. “And just what sort of man would you suggest for me?” she asked coyly. “Yourself perhaps?”
His arms tensed around her and his eyes turned dull. “Forgive me, mademoiselle. I have overstepped my bounds.” He broke off their dance and left her standing in the middle of the ballroom looking after his departing form.
Lorelei frowned. He wasn’t supposed to do that. She had assumed he would pass words with her, not leave her standing in the middle of her party like some discarded kerchief.
Of all the bizarre men….
Justin approached her and led her from the floor. “Is anything amiss?”
Lorelei shook her head as she glanced back to where the count had vanished. How could she possibly explain to Justin this strange feeling inside her?
Dare tell him that for one mere instant, she had actually been attracted to another man?