London, May 1851
The Marquis of Redvers caught sight of the Honorable Sarah Palmer and her aunt Lady Tallien before they saw him, and quickly slipped away down the nearest aisle. The crowds at the Great Exhibition offered him refuge, the daily attendance of forty thousand a veritable crush beneath the glass barrel vaults of Paxton's brilliant design. Taking no notice of the exhibits, he moved swiftly through the throng, concerned only with putting distance between himself and the two ladies. Sarah, newly out, had set her cap for him--always reason for evasion--while her aunt Bella, one of his many lovers, had begun making demands of him of late. Definitely time to move on, now and in the future.
Quickly glancing over his shoulder, he detected no telltale bobbing pink bonnet feathers in the mass of humanity behind him and, gratified, he determined to make his unavailability crystal clear next time he met the Palmer ladies. But not today, not after two nights of women and carouse; he was damned tired. And if Sarah Palmer didn't understand he wasn't in the market for a wife, her aunt certainly should, as did anyone in the ton with half a brain.
Swiveling around a second too late, he crashed into a lady reading a brochure. She began to pitch backward, her astonished cry swallowed up in the din of the crowd. Reacting instinctively, he caught her arms, pulling her hard against him to keep them both from falling. Her eyes flared wide at the impress of his muscled chest against her breasts, his powerful thighs braced against hers. Stunned, she looked up into dark eyes suddenly regarding her with interest.
She was exquisite--golden-haired, dazzling, graphically voluptuous--and even after two sleepless nights of debauch, the marquis's senses instantly came alert. "Pardon me," he murmured in a deep, low, fascinated tone.
"You're pardoned." A modicum of reserve underlay her words.
But he didn't let her go. Her lavish breasts, shapely thighs, and wide-eyed beauty were too intriguing. "You're French," he said.
"Unhand me, please." Her voice was cool now, her arms held out wide.
A gentleman despite all his profligate ways, he released her and stepped away. But he took note of the brochure in her hand, the machine on the cover a vast conglomeration of gaslights and mirrors. The exact one, he reflected, gazing over her shoulder, on display in the booth behind her--the apparatus set at the head and foot of an operating table. "I've been thinking of buying a dozen of those," he remarked, pointing at her brochure, his smile gracious.
Her surprise showed.
"For my tenants' hospital," he mendaciously added.
"You must have a very large establishment." She was wary. He'd never seen that look before in a woman; his reputation for pleasing women was well known.
"Just a small one at each estate," he improvised.
The caution left her eyes, replaced by a spark of interest. "Do you employ doctors, or just nurses? I've found that nurses often . . ."
Her conversation became quite animated at that point and, guiding her to one side of the stream of traffic, he replied to her questions with answers that further encouraged her passionate interest in the very odd field of patient care. He was infinitely charming, but then he'd had enormous practice.
Was she equally animated in bed? he wondered, debating how best to discover that fact for himself. And if the purchase of a dozen of those light contraptions might entice this dazzling woman into his bed, he decided it would be money well spent.
He invited her to dinner--just a small party of relatives, he spontaneously devised--and her hesitation was rather that of propriety than disinterest.
"You may know my aunt, Lady Markham," he offered. Her dress and manner were of his world; he understood the requirements of protocol.
"My father does," she replied. "Her husband brokered the treaty between Greece and Turkey."
"Ah . . . the freedom fighter." Pasha Duras had served in the Greek government for a time; his name was well known in Europe. "I could send a carriage for you at nine."
"Will your aunt be there?"
If he had to drag her from her bed. "Yes," he said.
"Well, then . . . I'd like that." She finished with a smile that outshone the operating room lights. "My name is Venus."
Perfect casting, he reflected, wondering if she'd inherited her namesake's amorous persona as well. "I'm Jack Fitz-James."
"The Marquis of Redvers," she said with distaste. "I'm afraid I'm busy tonight. If you'll excuse me." And turning abruptly, she walked away.
But the marquis never withdrew from a challenge. Apparently she was planning on staying in London for another fortnight at least. Plenty of time, he mused, watching her disappear into the crowd, for a leisurely seduction.
Found a new woman?" Ned Darlington quirked his brow in sardonic query as the marquis approached the Turkish exhibit. Pushing away from the glass display case filled with the weapons they'd come to see, he added, "Is she blond or blond?"
Jack's gaze narrowed in mild scrutiny. "How the hell can you tell?"
Baron Darlington's tone was indulgent. "How long have I known you?"
"Long enough, apparently." The marquis slowly smiled. "But this one's utterly gorgeous."
"Aren't they all?"
Jack's smile only broadened. "So cynical, Ned, when I'm enchanted."
"No doubt that single-minded fascination accounts in no small measure for your success with the ladies."
"I do like 'em. That's no secret." The marquis's dark brows flickered with pithy import. "The lady calls herself Venus."
"How appropriate, considering your reputation for fucking."
"I rather thought it auspicious."
"So when are you joining her in bed?"
"Since she cut me cold, it might be a few days."
The baron chuckled. "Losing your edge, my fine stud?"
"And obviously doesn't know of your special talents for pleasing the ladies."
Jack's perfect white teeth flashed in a grin. "Apparently she does, and that's the rub."
"So you'll have to change her mind."
"My thought exactly."
"French ladies know what they want. Maybe you're not her style. Have you thought of that?"
"We were having a very pleasant conversation until she discovered my name."
"Along with your propensity for vice." Ned shrugged. "If she's prudish, don't waste your time."
"But I want to."
"You want to assail the impregnable citadel? Since when?"
"Nothing's impregnable," the marquis softly murmured.
The baron cast his friend a speculative look. "That comment almost calls for a wager . . . and if I didn't know your unerring seductive skills, I'd hazard my money."
"She just has to come to know me better," Jack Fitz-James said with a disarming grin.
"I expect she will. Have you ever been refused?"
"Not until today."
Excerpted from Legendary Lover by Susan Johnson. Copyright © 2000 by Susan Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.