Excerpt from Silk is For Seduction
The instant the interval began—and before the other audience members had risen from their seats—the Duke of Clevedon entered the opera box with the Comte d'Orefeur.
The first thing Clevedon saw was the rear view of the brunette: smooth shoulders and back exposed a fraction of an inch beyond what most Parisian women dared, and the skin, pure cream. Disorderly dark curls dangled enticingly against the nape of her neck.
He looked at her neck and forgot about Clara and Madame St. Pierre and every other woman in the world.
A lifetime seemed to pass before he was standing in front of her, looking down into brilliant dark eyes, where laughter glinted . . . looking down at the ripe curve of her mouth, laughter, again, lurking at its corners. Then she moved a little, and it was only a little—the slightest shift of her shoulders—but she did it in the way of a lover turning in bed, or so his body believed, his groin tightening.
The light caught her hair and gilded her skin and danced in those laughing eyes. His gaze drifted lower, to the silken swell of her breasts . . . the sleek curve to her waist . . .
He was vaguely aware of the people about him talking, but he couldn't concentrate on anyone else. Her voice was low, a contralto shaded with a slight huskiness.
Her name, he learned, was Noirot.
Having said to Mademoiselle Fontenay all that good manners required, he turned to the woman who'd disrupted the opera house. Heart racing, he bent over her gloved hand.
"Madame Noirot," he said. "Enchanté." He touched his lips to the soft kid. A light but exotic scent swam into his nostrils. Jasmine?
He lifted his head and met a gaze as deep as midnight. For a long, pulsing moment, their gazes held.
Then she waved her fan at the empty seat nearby. "It's uncomfortable to converse with my head tipped back, your grace," she said.
"Forgive me." He sat. "How rude of me to loom over you in that way. But the view from above was . . . "
He trailed off as it belatedly dawned on him: She'd spoken in English, in the accents of his own class, no less. He'd answered automatically, taught from childhood to show his conversational partner the courtesy of responding in the latter's language.
"But this is diabolical," he said. "I should have wagered anything that you were French." French, and a commoner. She had to be. He'd heard her speak to Orefeur in flawless Parisian French, superior to Clevedon's, certainly. The accent was refined, but her friend—forty if she was a day—was an actress. Ladies of the upper ranks did not consort with actresses. He'd assumed she was an actress or courtesan.
Yet if he closed his eyes, he'd swear he conversed at present with an English aristocrat.
"You'd wager anything?" she said. Her dark gaze lifted to his head and slid down slowly, leaving a heat trail in its wake, and coming to rest at his neckcloth. "That pretty pin, for instance?"
The scent and the voice and the body were slowing his brain. "A wager?" he said blankly.
"Or we could discuss the merits of the present Figaro, or debate whether Rosina ought properly to be a contralto or a mezzo-soprano," she said. "But I think you were not paying attention to the opera." She plied her fan slowly. "Why should I think that, I wonder?"
He collected his wits. "What I don't understand," he said, "is how anyone could pay attention to the opera when you were in the place."
"They're French," she said. "They take art seriously."
"And you're not French?"
She smiled. "That's the question, it seems."
"French," he said. "You're a brilliant mimic, but you're French."
"You're so sure," she said.
"I'm merely a thickheaded Englishman, I know," he said. "But even I can tell French and English women apart. One might dress an Englishwoman in French fashion from head to toe and she'll still look English. You . . . "
He trailed off, letting his gaze skim over her. Only consider her hair. It was as stylish as the precise coifs of other Frenchwomen . . . yet, no, not the same. Hers was more . . . something. It was as though she'd flung out of bed and thrown herself together in a hurry. Yet she wasn't disheveled. She was . . . different.
"You're French, through and through," he said. "If I'm wrong, the stickpin is yours."
"And if you're right?" she said.
He thought quickly. "If I'm right, you'll do me the honor of riding with me in the Bois de Boulogne tomorrow," he said.
"That's all?" she said, in French this time.
"It's a great deal to me."
She rose abruptly in a rustle of silk. Surprised—again—he was slow coming to his feet.
"I need air," she said. "It grows warm in here."
He opened the door to the corridor and she swept past him. He followed her out, his pulse racing.
* * *
Marcelline had seen him countless times, from as little as a few yards away. She'd observed a handsome, expensively elegant English aristocrat.
At close quarters . . .
She was still reeling.
The body first. She'd surreptitiously studied that while he made polite chitchat with Sylvie. The splendid physique was not, as she'd assumed, created or even assisted by fine tailoring, though the tailoring was exquisite. His broad shoulders were not padded, and his tapering torso wasn't cinched in by anything but muscle.
Muscle everywhere—the arms, the long legs. And no tailor could create the lithe power emanating from that tall frame.
It's hot in here, was her first coherent thought.
Then he was standing in front of her, bending over her hand, and the place grew hotter still.
She was aware of his hair, black curls gleaming like silk and artfully tousled.
He lifted his head.
She saw a mouth that should have been a woman's, so full and sensuous it was. But it was pure male, purely carnal.
An instant later she was looking up into a eyes of a rare color—a green like jade—while a low masculine voice caressed her ear and seemed to be caressing parts of her not publicly visible.
She walked quickly as they left the box, thinking quickly, too, as she went. She was aware of the clusters of opera-goers in the corridor making way for her. That amused her, even while she pondered the unexpected problem walking alongside.
She'd known the Duke of Clevedon was a handful.
She'd vastly underestimated.
Still, she was a Noirot, and the risks only excited her.
She came to rest at last in a quieter part of the corridor, near a window. For a time, she gazed out of the window. It showed her only her own reflection: a magnificently dressed, alluring woman, a walking advertisement for what would one day—soon, with a little help from him—be London's foremost dressmaking establishment. Once they had the Duchess of Clevedon, royal patronage was sure to follow: the moon and the stars, almost within her grasp.
"I hope you're not unwell, madame," he said in his English-accented French.
"No, but it occurs to me that I've been absurd," she said. "What a ridiculous wager it is!"
He smiled. "You're not backing down? Is riding with me in the Bois de Boulogne so dreadful a fate?"
It was a boyish smile, and he spoke with a self-deprecating charm that must have slain the morals of hundreds of women.
She said, "As I see it, either way I win. No matter how I look at it, this wager is silly. Only think, when I tell you whether you're right or wrong, how will you know I'm telling the truth?"
"Did you think I'd demand your passport?" he said.
"Were you planning to take my word for it?" she said.
"That may be gallant or it may be naïve," she said. "I can't decide which."
"You won't lie to me," he said.
Had her sisters been present, they would have fallen down laughing.
"That's an exceptionally fine diamond," she said. "If you think a woman wouldn't lie to have it, you're catastrophically innocent."
The arresting green gaze searched her face. In English he said, "I was wrong, completely wrong. I see it now. You're English."
She smiled. "What gave me away? The plain speaking?"
"More or less," he said. "If you were French, we should be debating what truth is. They can't let anything alone. They must always put it under the microscope of philosophy. It's rather endearing, but they're so predictable in that regard. Everything must be anatomized and sorted. Rules. They need rules. They make so many."
"That wouldn't be a wise speech, were I a Frenchwoman," she said.
"But you're not. We've settled it."
"You wagered in haste," she said. "Are you always so rash?"
"Sometimes, yes," he said. "But you had me at a disadvantage. You're like no one I've ever met before."
"Yet in some ways I am," she said. "My parents were English."
"And a little French?" he said. Humor danced in his green eyes, and her cold, calculating heart gave a little skip in response.
Damn but he was good.
"A very little," she said. "One purely French great-grandfather. But he and his sons fancied Englishwomen."
"One great-grandfather is too little to count," he said. "I'm stuck all over with French names, but I'm hopelessly English—and typically slow—except to jump to wrong conclusions. Ah, well. Farewell, my little pin." He brought his hands up to remove it.
He wore gloves, but she knew they didn't hide calluses or broken nails. His hands would be typical of his class: smooth and neatly manicured. They were larger than was fashionable, though, the fingers long and graceful.
Well, not so graceful at the moment. His valet had placed the pin firmly and precisely among the folds of his neckcloth, and he was struggling with it.
Or seeming to.
"You'd better let me," she said. "You can't see what you're doing."
She moved his hands away, hers lightly brushing his. Glove against glove, that was all. Yet she felt the shock of contact as though skin had touched skin, and the sensation traveled the length of her body.
She was acutely aware of the broad chest under the expensive layers of neckcloth and waistcoat and shirt. All the same, her hands neither faltered nor trembled. She'd had years of practice. Years of holding cards steady while her heart pounded. Years of bluffing, never letting so much as a flicker of an eye, a twitch of a facial muscle, betray her.
The pin came free, winking in the light. She regarded the snowy linen she'd wrinkled.
"How naked it looks," she said. "Your neckcloth."
"What is this?" he said. "Remorse?"
"Never," she said, and that was pristine truth. "But the empty place offends my aesthetic sensibilities."
"In that case, I shall hasten to my hotel and have my valet replace it."
"You're strangely eager to please," she said.
"There's nothing strange about it."
"Be calm, your grace," she said. "I have an exquisite solution."
She took a pin from her bodice and set his in its place. She set her pin into the neckcloth. Hers was nothing so magnificent as his, merely a smallish pearl. But it was a pretty one, of a fine luster. Softly it glowed in its snug place among the folds of his linen.
She was aware of his gaze, so intent, and of the utter stillness with which he waited.
She lightly smoothed the surrounding fabric, then stepped back and eyed her work critically. "That will do very well," she said.
"Will it?" He was looking at her, not the pearl.
"Let the window be your looking glass," she said.
He was still watching her.
"The glass, your grace. You might at least admire my handiwork."
"I do," he said. "Very much."
But he turned away, wearing the faintest smile, and studied himself in the glass.
"I see," he said. "Your eye is as good as my valet's—and that's a compliment I don't give lightly."
"My eye ought to be good," she said. "I'm the greatest modiste in all the world."