Excerpt: Touch of a Scoundrel
The Touch of Seduction, Book 4
Lord Devonwood halted beside the hydrangea to take a longer look at the fetching young woman seated on the stone bench. It’s not every day a man finds a nymph in his garden before breakfast.
His full given name was Griffin Titus Preston Nash, but no one had called him by anything but his title, or its diminutive “Devon” since his father had died. He’d even ceased to think of himself by any other name. However, the young woman in his garden was comely beyond the common. His blood quickened as if he were still young Griffin, as if he were not weighed down with the responsibilities of a vast estate and all the lives dependent upon him for every morsel in their mouths and each coin in their pockets.
Women usually preened like peahens when presented to Devon since he was judged to be eminently “eligible” by the matrons of the ton. This lady was preoccupied with a sketchbook and completely unaware of his presence. He could indulge in looking his fill at her unassuming beauty without concern over whether someone would take note, calculate his interest, and hope to capitalize on it.
A bachelor who wanted to remain in that happy state couldn’t be too careful.
The lovely woman in his garden was an unexpected windfall of distraction from the pounding in his temples. Devon almost blessed the grinding headache that had made him decide to take a turn in the fresh morning air before he sought his bed. He’d expected to be soothed by the scent of sweet lavender, the drowsy hum of bees in the St. John’s Wort, and the patter of the fountain. The shaded alcoves of the garden behind his London town house eased his light-sensitive eyes. His quiet little Eden often relieved his suffering when he overused his “gift.”
The alternative was turning to hard drink, which muddled his thinking, or opiates, which obliterated thought entirely. Devon was determined to resist those remedies as long as possible.
Fortune had been kind through the long night of gambling at his club. While he frequently lost money in the stock market, a deck of cards never lied to him. His gift of touch allowed him to make up shortfalls in the estate’s balance sheet over a game of whist or poque.
Devon moved further along the path and peered at the girl from behind the topiary. Instead of admiring the flora his gardener spent so much time pruning and fussing over, she focused on the statue of an inebriated Dionysus. Head bent, pointed pink tongue clamped between her teeth in concentration, she labored over her drawing.
Ever since it had been noised about that Queen Victoria was a dab hand at sketches and water colors, every woman in England fancied herself an amateur artist.
But that still didn’t explain the young lady’s presence in his garden.
Devon moved around behind her, brushing past the roses to get a better angle from which to view her unobserved. A thorn nicked the back of his hand. He gave it a shake and brought it reflexively to his mouth to suck at the small wound while he eyed the supple line of the woman’s spine. Her spreading skirts emphasized a narrow waist.
A single auburn curl had escaped her bonnet and trailed damply on her nape. Her tender skin appeared dewy and pink in the warm morning sun. He was surprised by the urge to plant a kiss on that spot, but tamped down the inclination at once.
Not that Devon was a monk. He was simply careful not to involve himself with the sort of woman who looked as if she might require a trip to the parson should a man take liberties. With her buttoned-down collar and crisply starched sleeves, this woman seemed that sort, even though the tight bodice displayed a full bosom.
But what man didn’t prefer taking liberties when he could?
He moved closer so he could peer over her shoulder to see her artwork. She’d neatly captured Dionysus in every detail, even down to the arc of water spewing from the god’s flaccid member into the basin of the stone fountain. Judging from the accurate rendering on the page, the lady possessed more than passing talent with a pencil.
And more than adequate understanding of male anatomy.
“You’re blocking my light,” she said without looking up.
Devon stepped aside so his shadow wouldn’t continue to darken her page. He was treated to a clear view of her delicate profile. The slight upturn of her nose pleased him. It meant that while she was spectacularly pretty, she wasn’t perfect.
Perfection was boring. And often demanding.
“The sketch doesn’t seem to have suffered for my intrusion,” he said. “You have an excellent drafting hand, if I may say so.”
“You may.” Her lips curved upward in a satisfied, feline smile over his compliment. “No harm done. I’m nearly finished as it is.”
No harm done? Did she expect an apology when she was the one trespassing in his garden? Her flat accent and brazen self-possession betrayed her as a Yank.
“American, are you?”
She flicked her gaze at him and rolled her large brown eyes at his grasp of the obvious. “Born and bred.”
An Englishwoman would require a formal introduction before starting a conversation with a total stranger. Yanks were incredibly lax about that sort of thing. Devon settled beside her on the bench. It was his garden, after all, and his head still throbbed in time with the blood pounding through it. He ought not to stand on ceremony, especially when the lady didn’t seem to mind informality.
“It’s not only the accent that gives you away, you know.”
“Really?” Her attention was riveted back to the page, where she added some crosshatched shading to the god’s musculature. “What else makes you assume I’m an American?”
English women of his acquaintance tended to have more angular features, even bordering on coltish. The apples of this lady’s cheeks were sweetly rounded, and she had that snub-nosed pertness so often found in those from across the Atlantic. With wide-set eyes, full lips, and a delicate chin, hers was a thoroughly charming, almost pixyish face, but he decided it wouldn’t be politic for him to say so.
Women were unpredictable when it came to masculine opinions on their appearance. Honestly, why would his sister ask if a particular pattern in the fabric of a frock made her look plump unless she wanted an honest answer?
Devon decided to settle for something safer.
“Your choice of subject declares your nationality, for one thing. An English miss would sketch the tea roses, not a nude statue,” Devon explained as he studied her work. If the image was any guide, her knowledge of the male species was detailed and unflinchingly accurate. Perhaps he’d misjudged her on the basis of her severe wardrobe. This American miss might be entirely open to his taking a few liberties.
She fixed him with a direct gaze, her widening pupils darkening her eyes to the color of rich coffee. The effect was hypnotic.
A man might lose his way in those Stygian depths.
“Choosing to draw flowers instead of this magnificent statue speaks volumes about the insipid nature of the English miss,” she said with conviction.
Devon stifled a chuckle. Even though he agreed with her assessment, someone had to stand up for English womanhood. “And yet tea roses are highly regarded on this little isle.”
“No doubt, but lovely as it may be, a tea rose does nothing to engage the emotions, has no intensity of feeling. There’s simply no potential for the drama necessary to true art.”
“No? Suppose the flowers were presented to a lady who refused them and tossed them onto the garden path,” he suggested, not that he put much stock in anything as ephemeral as a feeling. “Wouldn’t that mean someone’s emotions were engaged?”
“Point taken, but mere flora still can’t compare to the seething possibilities in that statue. I mean, just look at him.” She waved a slim hand toward Dionysus. An ink smudge and a slight callus marked the longest finger of her right hand. Evidently she was as well acquainted with a writing pen as a drawing pencil. “Dionysus is a study in contrasts, sublime and corrupt, physically strong and morally weak.”
Not to mention that he was completely naked. “His state of undress doesn’t distress you?”
“I wouldn’t dream of fitting him with a fig leaf,” she said without a trace of heightened color in her cheeks. “The beauties of the human form are not the least prurient.”
Devon smiled. A woman who wasn’t silly enough to be undone by the sight of a naked man. He’d lay odds she didn’t feel the need to call a piano leg a ‘limb’ either. She was a refreshing oddity. “Ah, but this Dionysus fellow isn’t meant to be human, you know.”
“No, but the Olympians were simply humanity writ large,” she said, swiping at the deep auburn curl that had escaped her bonnet and fallen across her forehead. A few strands glinted copper amid the darker tresses. “Unless I’m mistaken, this statue is a replica of an ancient one, circa first century, judging from the attention to realism. It would be sacrilege to alter it. If the ancients had no compunction about portraying their deity in such a state, who are we to demur?”
A replica? Devon had paid the earth for the damned thing. The gong of pain sounding in his head grew louder. “What makes you think it’s not an original?”
She slanted a look at him. “The marble has been distressed to give the appearance of extreme age, but I’ll warrant it’s not more than two or three hundred years old. Don’t be dismayed. It’s an excellent copy. Quite subtle. No doubt it would fool most.”
It had fooled him. “So you’re an expert in ancient art?”
“Hardly, but I know one who is,” she said crisply, drawing her spine straight and lifting her chin. “My father is Dr. Montague Farnsworth, one of the world’s foremost Egyptologists, though his knowledge of Roman and Greek cultures is extensive as well. If I know something about those subjects, it is because I have the honor of assisting him in his work.”
Devon had never heard of Dr. Farnsworth, but then, his interests didn’t lie in antiquities. He’d bought the statue to satisfy his mother’s whim to have a classically-themed garden. The countess had hoped for something like Lady Hepplewhite’s collection of marble dryads.
“A veritable Grecian urn sprung to life,” she’d claimed about Lady Hepplewhite’s garden statuary.
Privately, Devon suspected his mother had never closely inspected an ancient urn. They were frequently peopled with figures engaged in extremely earthy endeavors, the sort the Countess of Devonwood would be certain to frown upon should any of them be reenacted in her garden.
He massaged his right temple in a gesture he hoped appeared thoughtful. Devon tried to hide his pain as much as possible. “So help me understand. You’re a visiting antiquarian who’s invaded this garden for the sake of sketching its art?”
“Nonsense. I’m merely drawing to pass the time. I’m here to meet Lord Devonwood,” she said. “But apparently his lordship has been larking about London all night and hasn’t found his bed yet.”
After his night of gaming, Devon’s pockets were lined with banknotes and IOUs. So long as he played only with those who could well afford to make good on their vowels, he suffered no pangs of conscience over the advantage his special ability gave him.
It was rarely such a benevolent gift. He reckoned the skull-splitter he experienced now more than paid for the privilege of using it.
“Out all night, eh? Larking about London?” He arched a brow at her, trying not to wince at the additional pain that slight movement caused him. “You make Lord Devonwood sound a perfect scoundrel.”
“My thoughts precisely,” she said with a conspiratorial grin.
“But there’s probably good reason for an earl to be abroad all night,” he said, feeling he ought to defend himself, though for the life of him, he didn’t know why. This girl, though very attractive, was nothing to him. “You may regret your first impression of him.”
“Regret is a waste of time,” she said with certainty. “First impressions are generally correct. If Lord Devonwood insists on behaving like a perfect scoundrel, it’s more than likely that’s what he is.”
He longed to plant his lips on the dimple that marked her cheek. Then he’d show her just how a perfect scoundrel steals a real kiss. Merely thinking about it eased the ache in his head as blood rushed to another part of his body altogether.
“Tell me. Why are you here to see Lord Devonwood?”
“I’m not in the habit of discussing my personal business with strangers, but if you must know . . .” She chose that moment to flip to a fresh page in her sketchbook and accidently dropped her pencil.
In hindsight, Devon would come to realize he never should have bent to retrieve it, but his mother had tried to raise a gentleman. If the countess failed in some areas of her son’s upbringing, she succeeded soundly in others. As soon as his fingers closed over the wood, the world around Devon faded to muted colors and a vision poured into him, more real than his next heartbeat.
Her breath streamed across his lips, warming as a sip of brandy. She tipped her chin up to meet his gaze, her dark eyes wide.
Devon didn’t wait for another invitation. His mouth covered hers, slanting to create a firm seal. Her uniquely feminine scent tickled his nostrils. Sweet and ripe, like a peach in the sun.
He kept his eyes open as he kissed her, but hers fluttered closed. Dark lashes trembled in feathery crescents on her cheeks.
She made a small noise into his mouth, a needy sound that went straight to his groin. He pulled her flush against his body, wishing her boned corset would allow him to feel her breasts yield to the solid expanse of his chest.
The mere thought of those soft mounds roused him to aching hardness.
Hunger roared inside him, every fiber of his body vibrant with straining life. He deepened the kiss, sweeping in to explore the hot, moist cavern of her mouth. He made rough love to her with his tongue, thrusting and teasing.
She answered his invasion with her own, nipping and suckling his bottom lip, her kiss urgent and needy. She arched into him, pressing herself against his hardness.
His hands found the buttons on her bodice . . .
The pencil slipped from his fingers and the connection with his gift shattered. The vision evaporated like morning mist as his headache resumed its persistent throb. Miss Farnsworth’s face came into sharp focus.
“Well, it appears neither of us can keep hold of this pencil,” she said as she bent to pluck it from the clipped grass.
He reached for it as well, half-hoping for another few seconds of his vision, but he caught her hand instead. Her skin was warm and smooth and his headache suddenly lifted. The pain wasn’t masked or dulled. It was completely eradicated. He held her fingers for a fraction longer than necessary, reveling in the unexpected sensation of normalcy.
“If you don’t mind . . .” She gently tugged her hand away and the relentless ache slammed back into him.
The vision itself had been a welcome one for a change. He’d have liked to let the pleasant interlude spool out to its sweet conclusion.
One thing was certain though. Sometime within the next twelve hours, the farthest edge of his foreknowledge, he and Miss Farnsworth were destined to become better acquainted.
Much better acquainted.
Lord, she was sweet. Soft and pliant and responsive. The vision left him crowding his trousers.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, cocking her head at him, a hint of panic in her taut features.
He was saved from a reply when a voice called from behind him.
“Oh, there you are, Devon.”
When he turned, he was surprised to see his younger brother, Theodore, coming toward him. Always the sartorial peacock, Teddy was well turned out for mid-morning. His natty hat was rakishly askew and the boots that crunched along the garden path were spit-shined to a high gloss. An older gentleman in a tweed jacket trailed in his wake. Devon rose and strode forward to meet his brother, hand extended in welcome.
“You weren’t due home for another week, Ted. If you’d sent a wire, I’d have met you at the pier.”
“Plans change, brother. And I’ll confess to being too preoccupied to send word.”
Theodore’s handsome face was thinner than it had been when Devon had seen him last, but his skin was so deeply tanned, his smile was blinding. Ted’s half-year tour of the major cities ringing the Mediterranean had obviously agreed with him. He pumped Devon’s hand while peering around him to smile at the woman. She had risen from the bench and approached them with graceful steps.
“I say, old chap,” his brother said, “you’re not trying to steal my girl, are you?”
“What? No.” His girl? Devon’s gut churned furiously. “What do you mean?”
Teddy pushed past him, put his arm around Miss Farnsworth’s waist, and cinched her close. “Emmaline, I’d like you to meet my curmudgeon of a big brother, Lord High and Mighty, the Earl of Devonwood. Call him Devon, if you like. We all do.”
Then Teddy turned to him with a triumphant grin. “All our lives, you’ve been first, brother. First to ride a pony, first to go away to school, first at everything. But I always intended to be first at something. Devon, may I present to you Miss Emmaline Farnsworth?” The gaze Teddy cast toward her was filled with such adoration, it bordered on idolatry. “My fiancée.”