Authors: Elizabeth Thornton
Jack's French was as fluent as his friend's. “You always think the worst of me. I swear on my honor that my intention is not to bed the lady, but to rescue her from a boor. Didn't your mother ever teach you anything about chivalry, Ash?”
“I'm chivalrous, after a fashion.”
Ellie was tempted to blast them both with a few choice words in any language they cared to name. They wouldn't be talking like this if they thought she could understand them. Jack, she absolved. He was more truly the gentleman, then he spoiled the impression with his next words.
“You're right, Ash. She is ‘a pretty piece.' Chivalry be damned! I may not have my usual stamina, but I believe I can keep the lady happy for an hour or two.”
The young soldier was becoming restive. It was obvious that he had not followed the conversation. “You, sir,” he said, addressing Jack, “are a coward.”
“And you, sir, are drunk. Go home and sleep it off.”
Ellie was edging toward the door when it opened and a gust of cold air rushed in along with a boisterous group of Prussian soldiers. Their laughter died when their young countryman called out to them that the English were spoiling for a fight.
What shocked Ellie was that it seemed to be the signal everyone was waiting for. Within seconds, in every corner of the café, men were out of their chairs and closing with whomever they took exception to; women were screaming; glasses and chairs went flying. She had never seen anything like it. The English and the Prussians were supposed to be allies. No one would have known it from the brawl that ensued.
Her one aim was to get out of there with her precious hoard of banknotes intact. The door to the courtyard was blocked, but there had to be a back door leading into a lane or the street behind. On that thought, she began to push and elbow her way down the length of the café. There were others with the same idea, and she followed where they led. All went well until a gun went off and someone shouted, “Militia!” Then it was every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost.
Ellie was pushed hard against the wall as panic took over. Her precious pochette was knocked out of her grasp and fell on the floor. She didn't care about the stampede. Nothing was going to part her from that pochette.
She dropped to her knees and began to crawl toward it. Someone else got to it first. With an almighty lunge, she dived toward it. She was too late. The pochette disappeared. Gasping, sobbing with rage, she came up for air. One of the patrons helped her to her feet, and she found herself gazing into the smiling eyes of Jack Rigg. She wasn't interested in his smiling eyes, only the pochette he held aloft.
“Stay close to me and I'll get you to safety,” he said.
He turned and began to shoulder his way through the crush, the pochette still in his hand.
What choice did she have? Ellie went after him.
His rooms were only one floor up. That's why he chose to dine at the Café des Anglaises—for the convenience. He'd told his manservant not to wait up for him, but Coates had banked the fire in the salon and left a candle lit.
“By the way,” he said, “my name is Jack. And yours is?”
“Aurora,” she replied.
He was fascinated by the way her eyes followed the satin evening bag he held in his hand. On their way up the stairs, he'd taken a quick look inside and was astonished to discover that it was stuffed with banknotes. It led his mind to make all sorts of conjectures about the lady.
“Good,” he said. “No last names. I like that.”
She was waiting to see what he going to do with her bag. Biting down on a smile, he tossed it carelessly on the armchair by the fire. If she wanted it, she would have to ask him to move.
Evidently, she was too canny to betray herself. No mention of the bag. She simply turned, walked to the window overlooking the courtyard, and looked out. As he poured himself a neat brandy, his mind began to speculate.
He was sure of one thing. She was no ordinary demirep, for sale to the highest bidder. No ordinary demirep made the kind of money she had in her bag. Moreover, this woman had quality, style, confidence. He could see her presiding in a lady's drawing room. On the other hand, no lady of quality would risk her reputation by showing her face in the Palais Royal.
She'd worn a mask, but so did many ladies, not so much to conceal their identity, but as an accessory, to add an air of mystery.
Who was she, and what was she?
He thought Ash must be right, that she was the mistress of some wealthy English gentleman who had taken her to Paris to see the sights. That would account for the large sum of money in her bag. Maybe she was keeping it for her protector and they'd become separated. If that was the case, her protector should have known better than to leave her alone in such a place and at such an hour. He was tempting some stray gentleman, such as himself, to make the lady a better offer.
It was a reasonable explanation, but it did not satisfy him. Which was she, a lady of quality or a rich man's mistress? He knew which one he wanted her to be.
When he reached for the decanter to top up his brandy, he winced. That trifling wound he'd taken earlier that evening in the duel outside Tortoni's was beginning to sting like blazes. It shouldn't have happened. He'd drawn the first blood and relaxed his guard. He should have known better. Frenchmen took their dueling seriously. That's why they were so good at it. A little blood didn't put them off. So though they were both scratched, the duel had continued till he'd wrested his opponent's sword away from him.
She spoke to him over her shoulder. “What on earth is going on down there?”
He joined her at the window and looked out. All was pandemonium in the courtyard below. Groups of men were fighting. Red-coated soldiers were dragging people away. Gendarmes were buzzing around like angry hornets.
“The guards,” he said, “have been called out to help the gendarmes keep order.”
“They're clubbing people.”
“That's one way of keeping order.”
Her hair was loose upon her shoulders, kept off her face by silver combs. She was still wearing her mask, so her eyes were in shadow. The temptation to touch and take had to be severely resisted. He wasn't a callow youth like the boy soldier who had molested her. He knew the value of patience.
Looking up at him, she said, “How long is this likely to go on?”
“An hour. Maybe less. Does it matter?”
Her eyes were huge and dark behind her mask, so he wasn't sure whether he was caught in
stare or she was caught in
. She reminded him of someone—he couldn't think who—but it was someone from the past, someone he had once liked and admired. He supposed he was transferring some of the softer feelings he'd felt for the woman he could not remember to the woman who was looking up at him with uncertain eyes.
He wanted to see her without her mask and wondered what she would do if he reached out to take it. The mask wasn't the only thing he wanted to take from her.
He must have betrayed what he was thinking, for her breasts began to rise and fall and her breathing quickened.
“It matters,” she said. “I was supposed to meet my husband in the café. He must be worried out of his mind, wondering what has happened to me.”
“Aurora,” he said gently, “I know there's no husband. You don't wear a ring.”
She held out her left arm with the glove that sheathed it to well above her elbow, then looked up at him. “You can't know that!”
He gave a helpless shrug. “My chivalry is only skin-deep, I'm afraid. When I took your hand to help you up the stairs, I took the liberty of feeling for a ring. There wasn't one.”
Her eyes glittered up at him. Her voice was cool. “And would a ring make a difference, Jack?”
He nodded. “Regrettably, yes.”
“There is nothing that dampens my ardor more than the sight of a wedding ring on the finger of a beautiful woman.”
She tilted her head to one side as she gazed up at him. “Well, here is something else to dampen your ardor. I'm not interested. Now what do you have to say to that?”
There it was again, that feeling of déjà vu. The way she tilted her head, challenging him, reminded him of . . . The memory wouldn't come to him.
Maybe if he removed her mask, all would become clear.
“Allow me,” he said, and before she could prevent it, he had the mask in his hand.
Her eyes were green. Or were they gray? “We've met before, haven't we?” he said.
“Have we?” Her voice was shaken, breathless.
He reached out to remove the combs from her hair and let out a choked gasp when she gave him a hard shove. Clutching the wound under his armpit, he staggered to the nearest chair and slowly, carefully eased himself down.
“What did I do?” she cried.
“Nothing.” His teeth were clenched. “It's only a trifling wound that I got dueling. I think my shirt must be stuck to it.”
She gave a soft gasp when he removed his fingers from under his armpit and she saw the blood. Moving quickly, she crossed to him and knelt down. “Let me see,” she said.
There was no need for alarm. In fact, now that he'd adjusted his position, the pain had gone. He knew that all he had to do to stanch the bleeding was keep his arm close to his side. But he decided that he liked the anxious look on her face, liked the soothing touch of her fingers as she eased the edges of his jacket aside.
She shook her head. “This won't do. I can't see anything. Let's get your jacket off, then your waistcoat.”
He wasn't one to argue with fate. She wanted to get his clothes off, and he was happy to oblige. Besides, he liked being fussed over. Fawning, pursuit, lures, and snares—that was his usual treatment at the hands of women. No woman had ever looked at him with such sweet concern.
At the gentle pressure of her hands, he edged forward in the chair. She went behind him and, murmuring soothing words of encouragement, eased his jacket off. This done, she kneeled in front of him and began on his waistcoat. Her fingers could not work the buttons free.
ing, she removed her gloves, inch by slow inch, and set them aside.
The unconscious feminine gesture evoked lurid pictures in his mind, and warm pleasure rose in him. Breathing harshly, he spread his legs to give her easier access. The position was highly suggestive. She must have been aware of it, too, because her fingers trembled as she undid each button. The air between them was becoming charged.
He could hear the soft sound of her breathing, smell the faint fragrance of flowers. “Aurora.” His voice was husky.
Her fingers stilled and she looked up at him.
Her eyes were huge and dark in her pale face. He brushed the back of his fingers against her cheek and smiled when her lids grew heavy. His fingers moved on, gently tracing the line of her jaw, her ears, her neck. When he felt the frantic pulse in the hollow of her throat, he took her fingers and pressed them to her own throat, then to his.
“See what you do to me?” he murmured. “See what I do to you?”
What was she thinking, feeling? He had to know.
He used his good arm to draw her closer. There was no resistance, and when his mouth took hers, she twined her arms around his neck. His lips parted over hers, not demanding, but hungry for the taste of her. Everything about her was unfamiliar, her taste, her flavor, her fragrance, the feel of her in his arms, yet he couldn't shake off the impression that she wasn't a stranger. They'd known each other from before.
A shadow of doubt crossed his mind. He could not make up his mind about her. She seemed too innocent to be a woman of the world, and too worldly to be an innocent. Who was she? What was she?
Raising his head, he gazed down at her. Her eyes were closed, her breasts were rising and falling with each labored breath. His body was aching to take her, but he wouldn't seduce her. This had to be what she wanted, too.
She opened her eyes and gave him a sleepy smile. Cupping his neck with one hand, she brought his head down and kissed him slowly, voluptuously, thoroughly.
Everything was going to be all right.
When he cupped her breasts, she responded by pressing herself into his embrace. She was soft and womanly and so sweetly giving. The smallest pressure of his hands on her breasts brought little whimpers of pleasure from her throat. As she became pliant in his hands, he became hard. He gritted his teeth until he had himself under control, then he began to think of logistics.
He couldn't take her here in the chair. He wanted to take his time with her, explore her intimately, thoroughly. Instinctively, he brushed his fingers along her shoulders, her throat, her neck, reassuring her even as he enticed her to accept more.
He said hoarsely, “Aurora, I want to make love to you.”
She sucked in a breath and pulled back a little.
She breathed and crooned, “It's what I want, too.” She covered his lips, face, and throat with fiery kisses. Her arms slipped around his waist.
He groaned with pleasure as her hands moved over him. But in the space of a single heartbeat everything changed. In her ardor, her hands pressed against his wound and his body clenched in pain.