"Your life sounds idyllic. Unlike mine of late," Serena said with a fleeting grimace. "But I intend to change that."
Frantic warning bells went off in Beau's consciousness. Had she deliberately
come on board? Were her designing relatives even now in hot pursuit? Or were they explaining the ruinous details to his father instead? "How, exactly," he softly inquired, his dark eyes wary, "do you plan on facilitating those changes?"
"Don't be alarmed." She suddenly grinned feeling gloriously alive again after so many years. "I have no designs on you."
He laughed, his good spirits instantly restored. "Candid women have always appealed to me."
"While men with yachts are out of my league." Her smile was dazzling. "But why don't you deal us another hand," she cheerfully said, "and I'll see what I can do about mending my fortunes."
She was either completely ingenuous or the most skillful coquette. But he had more than enough money to indulge her and she amused him immensely.
He dealt the cards.
And when the beefsteaks arrived some time later, the cards were put away and they both tucked into the succulent meat with gusto.
She ate with a kind of quiet intensity, absorbed in the food and the act of eating. It made him consider his casual acceptance of all the privileges in his life with a new regard--but only briefly, because he was very young, very wealthy, too handsome for complete humility, and beset by intense carnal impulses that were profoundly immune to principle.
He'd simply offer her a liberal settlement when the Siren
docked in Naples, he thought, discarding any further moral scruples.
He glanced at the clock.
They'd be making love in the golden light of dawn...or sooner perhaps, he thought with a faint smile, reaching across the small table to refill her wineglass.
"This must be heaven or very near ...." Serena murmured, looking up from cutting another portion of beefsteak. "I can't thank you enough."
"Remy deserves all the credit."
"You're very disarming. And kind."
"You're very beautiful, Miss Blythe. And a damned good cardplayer."
"Papa practiced with me. He was an accomplished player when he wasn't drinking."
"Have you thought of making your fortune in the gaming rooms instead of wasting your time as an underpaid governess?"
"No," she softly said, her gaze direct.
"Forgive me. I mean no rudeness. But the demi-monde
is not without its charm."
"I'm sure it is not for a man," she said, taking a squarely cut piece of steak off her fork with perfect white teeth. "However, I'm going to art school in Florence," she went on, beginning to chew. "And I shall make my living painting."
She chewed a moment more, savoring the flavors, then swallowed. "Portraits, of course. Where the money is. I shall be flattering in the extreme. I'm very good, you know."
"I'm sure you are." And he intended to find out how good she was in other ways as well. "Why don't I give you your first commission?" He'd stopped eating but he'd not stopped drinking and he gazed at her over the rim of his wineglass.
"I don't have my paints. They're on the Betty Lee
with my luggage."
"We have to dock in Lisbon to alert the authorities to the man Horton. Why not buy your paints there? How much would you charge for my portrait?"
Her gazed shifted from her plate. "Nothing for you. You've been generous in the extreme. I'd be honored to paint you"--She paused and smiled--"whoever you are."
"Beau St. Jules.""The
Beau St. Jules?" She put her flatware down and openly studied him. "The darling of the broadsheets...London's premier rake who's outsinned his father, the Saint?" A note of teasing had entered her voice, a familiar, intimate inflection occasioned by the numerous glasses of wine she'd drunk. "Should I be alarmed?"
He shook his head, amusement in his eyes. "I'm very ordinary," he modestly said, this man who fueled the scandal sheets and stood stud to all the London beauties. "You needn't be alarmed."
He wasn't, of course--ordinary in any way. He was the gold standard, she didn't doubt, by which male beauty was judged. His perfect features and artfully cropped black hair reminded her of classic Greek sculpture; his overt masculinity, however, was much less the refined cultural ideal. He was startlingly male.
"Aren't rakes older? You're very young," she declared. And gorgeous as a young god, she decided, although the cachet of his notorious reputation probably wasn't based on his beauty alone. He was very charming.
He shrugged at her comment on his age. He'd begun his carnal amusements very young, he could have said but, circumspect, asked instead, "How old are you?" His smile was warm, personal. "Out in the world on your own?"
"Twenty-three." Her voice held a small defiance; a single lady of three-and-twenty was considered a spinster in any society.
"A very nice age," he pleasantly noted, his dark eyes lazily half-lidded. "Do you like floating islands?"
She looked at him blankly.
"Oh, yes, of course." She smiled. "I should save room then."
By all means, he licentiously thought, nodding a smiling approval, filling their wineglasses once more. Save room for me--because I'm coming in...
Excerpted from Wicked by Susan Johnson. Copyright © 1997 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.