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London, May 27, 1820
SEDUCTION WAS NOT foremost in Lady Juliana Ivers's thoughts. However, the same could not have been said for her escort, Mr. Engelheart. The moment she had agreed to step out onto the upper garden terrace with him, her amiable supper companion at Lord and Lady Lettlecott's prestigious ball had turned into a lecherous, brutish knave.
So naturally Juliana ended up in the Lettlecotts' hazel tree.
Juliana pressed her lips against the comforting trunk and uttered a brief prayer of appreciation for the beautiful old tree that had been coppiced in its youth, four distinct trunks radiated out from the ground at thirty, fifty, and seventy-degree angles. In spite of the hindrance of her evening dress, she had managed to use one of the opposing low-lying trunks as a step as she carefully inched her way high enough for the foliage to conceal her.
Her beautiful dress was ruined.
The stylish frock of white satin with pearl and jet beads dangling from the short sleeves was now etched with smudges of dirt and lichen from the trunk of the tree. The higher confusion of corkscrew branches and spiky serrated leaves caught at the jet beads and flounces adorning the bottom of her skirt and her upswept hair. Even her sandal slippers and white kid gloves had not been spared the abuse.
Maman would likely despair over the loss. The tumultuous five years following her husband's unexpected death had cast their family on the precipice of financial ruin. Maman had done her best to provide for their basic needs and the considerable investment needed to launch Juliana and her two older sisters, Cordelia and Lucilla, into polite society. When Maman had summoned a modiste from London to their rather unassuming house in Norfolk, the widowed Marchioness of Duncombe had vowed to see each of her daughters married and their future secured.
She would undoubtedly be shocked to see Juliana perched in a tree as she tried to escape the potential suitor.
She froze at the sound of Mr. Engelheart's voice. In the distance, Juliana could hear the merry tempo of string instruments and a tambourine as the musicians in the ballroom played the old ballad "Blow the Candle Out." It was a cautionary tale of a young lady and her apprentice lover. Without a doubt, the song added a certain irony to Juliana's predicament. One that would be likely lost on her lovelorn supper companion.
Juliana had hoped Mr. Engelheart would have given up by now. After she had broken free from his unwanted embrace, she had spun around and escaped down the polished stone steps that led into the Lettlecotts' expansive back gardens. The moonlight and flickering lanterns that lit up the meandering paths had bolstered her nerve. She had assumed that the gentleman would have surrendered with dignity.
Sadly, the man's head was as thick as his hands were clumsy.
Her illuminated path to freedom also fired Mr. Engelheart's passion to catch his slippery quarry. She veered off the gravel paths into a small thicket. The time had come for drastic measures.
Hence the hazel tree.
"Lady Juliana?" Mr. Engelheart was close enough that she heard the fine tremor in his inflection. "You have nothing to fear from me. I just want to escort you safely into the ballroom."
He paused and listened to the night sounds for some clue to her whereabouts.
Juliana's lips thinned as she wondered how long would she have to remain in the tree? Minutes? An hour? The rest of the evening?
Juliana shifted her body in an attempt to scoot down from her perch. A faint hiss escaped Juliana's lips as the sharp point of a broken branch punctured her stocking and scratched her left calf. Leaves rustled a warning as she struggled to free herself. Her struggles only made matters worse. Portions of her skirt were snagged, and the more she moved, the higher the hem crept up her legs. She was soundly caught by this wretched tree!
Then soft feminine laughter floated like pollen on a spring breeze, and Juliana came to a halt at the throaty sound.
"Catch me if you dare," the unidentified woman called out to someone, probably her lover, as she unknowingly raced toward the tree Juliana was starting to view as her own.
There was the sound of multiple footfalls on the gravel path and a brief tussle. It was followed by a high-pitched burst of laughter. Clearly the lady had been caught by her male companion.
However, sheer panic set in when a dark-haired woman adorned in a black bombazine dress carelessly brushed against the nearby shrubbery and staggered toward the bench next to the hazel tree. She slipped onto the bench and extended her outstretched gloved hand to the man casually strolling into Juliana's line of vision and for some reason her heart immediately began to pound.
This gentleman was no Mr. Engelheart. He moved stealthily, like a well-fed predator in his prime. His dark hair was long and straight. Most of the length was tied in a queue at the back of his nape. However, some of the dark, glossy ends had escaped during his playful romp with his lover and the ends curled slightly at his jawbone. Juliana could only see intriguing glimpses of his face. Her elevated position and the shadowy thicket deprived her of details, but Juliana sensed his gaze was fixed on the lady beckoning him to join her on the bench.
"I have been waiting all evening for this," the woman purred.
Juliana's forehead furrowed in puzzlement. The woman's voice sounded dreadfully familiar.
"Half the fun is the chase," the man said, his low, smooth tones trailing down Juliana's spine like phantom fingers. He clasped his companion's wrist, drawing her up so that her breasts were flush against his chest. "Besides, I doubt you want an audience when we fuck."
Juliana's breath caught and she found her eyes locked on this depraved gentleman in fascination.
He lowered his head and claimed the woman's lips. For a few minutes, the only sounds were breathy gasps and moist sucking sounds of fervent kissing.
"Or maybe you do," the man chuckled with something akin to admiration in his silky, rich tone. He tugged on her full sleeve and bared her left shoulder. The woman clutched him tightly and moaned when he put his mouth on the exposed flesh.
Juliana peeked down as the woman uttered a wordless sound of need. She slipped her hands into the man's coat, her fingers splayed over his inner waistcoat. From her perch, Juliana recognized the bird egg– sized diamond pinned to the front of the woman's gown. Juliana's lip curled into a sneer. She had been wrong about the color of the dress. It was a dark blue rather than black. The gaudy diamond winked at her. The amorous lady below was her hostess, Lady Lettlecott. The same odious woman who had cheerfully paired Juliana earlier with the lecherous Mr. Engelheart. She did not recognize the lady's companion, but he was not Lord Lettlecott.
"Sin, it has been too long since our last meeting," the countess said breathlessly, losing her concentration when he cupped the swell of her right breast and worshiped the flesh with his mouth. "I—I was beginning to feel . . ."—she sucked in her breath—"undesired."
Sin paused in his sensual ministrations and touched Lady Lettlecott's cheek with undisguised affection. "If you move your hand lower, you can feel my desire, Abby. All the same, let's not complicate our friendship with messy sentiment that neither one of us wants. Our needs are pathetically basic. Fortunately for you, I'm in the mood to accommodate you."
Juliana blinked at the man's detached bluntness. She hugged the tree trunk, watching Lady Lettlecott struggle about in Sin's embrace as if she was trying to raise her hand to slap him. The man seized the lady's wrists with one hand as he delivered a firm swat to her backside.
"Behave!" he growled.
Juliana grinned at the countess's well-deserved comeuppance. This was more entertaining than any drama Juliana had ever witnessed in a ballroom, and the ton was notorious for public spectacles.
"Do you really want to fight me, Abby?" Sin separated the countess's hands and nipped one of her palms with his teeth. For chastisement, it was mild and oddly sensual. Juliana's stomach fluttered in response.
Lady Lettlecott evidently agreed with Juliana's private assessment. The lady ceased her futile struggles and leaned heavily against him. She moaned, signaling her surrender to his overwhelming dominance.
"You are so wicked, Sin. If I had any sense, I should leave that preening cock you are so proud of stiff and aching."
Sin released her wrists and stepped back. "Then leave," he replied, sounding almost bored by her threat. He sat down on the bench, resting his left arm casually on the back of the bench. "This quiet spot and my hand are more than enough for the delicate chore, my dear."
Juliana's eyes widened in shock and she craned her neck to glimpse even more of the gentleman who Lady Lettlecott thought was worth the risk of inciting her husband's wrath. She could not see Sin's face at all from this angle, though she deduced from his confidence and movements that he was undoubtedly handsome. She had met the Earl of Lettlecott on her arrival. He possessed an admirable face, and Juliana doubted his wife would settle for an inferior specimen of manhood.
"There was a time when you claimed that you liked it best when I used my hands on your flesh," the countess said, edging close enough so that her skirts brushed his knee.
"Did I?" he said; his soft, patronizing tone was enough to make Juliana grit her teeth.
Sin had slumped down into an informal sprawl on the bench, his long legs spread out in front of him. Lady Lettlecott seemed to be staring between his legs intensely. Juliana conceded that she was curious, too, about this so-called magnificent testament of maleness concealed within his trousers. As she had lived a sheltered life, her knowledge of the male body was woefully incomplete. What was it about Sin that warranted such rapt attention from Lady Lettlecott?
To Juliana's surprise, Sin did not seem troubled by the countess's frank perusal. In fact, Juliana sensed that he was enjoying his companion's brazen actions. Without making a sound, Juliana lifted her upper torso slightly to the left of the sturdy branch. She ignored the burning sensation in her eyes as she strained to see beyond the enigmatic shadows just above the man's muscular thighs.
Lady Lettlecott slowly moved into the V created from Sin's outstretched legs. Wordlessly she knelt down between his legs so her upturned face was inches from the buttons adorning the front of his trousers. "Perhaps a demonstration is in order, my lord." Her hands lovingly stroked the intimate contours on display.
Here? No! She would not dare! . . . Would she?
Not trusting herself, Juliana clamped her hand over her mouth. Egad, this was not happening! The faint sounds of fabric sliding over fabric and the countess's sigh of appreciation at what she had uncovered confirmed that Juliana was about to become the unwilling spectator of a lovers' tryst. It took an immeasurable amount of inner fortitude to quell her mounting panic.
"Oh, Sin, my love, I will perish if you deny me a taste!"
Juliana cringed, unwilling to dwell on what portion of Sin the countess wanted to taste. Juliana had never kissed a man, let alone examined his—what had the countess called it?—his preening cock? Lady Lettlecott, conversely, seemed to have an unnatural obsession and familiarity with it.
If she and Sin discovered Juliana, what would they do to her? Offer payment for her silence? Threats? Violence? She felt her throat constrict as half a dozen choices flashed through her mind like repeating lightning strikes on her skull.
A murmur of encouragement rumbled deep from Sin's throat. Juliana shivered at the wild masculine sound of abandonment. She rubbed the sudden ache in her breasts. The poor constricted flesh was mashed by her corset and the unyielding hardness of the trunk. She yearned for the moment when her maid would free her from her clothing to ease the tightness that she felt all the way down to her stomach. Below, Sin widened his stance, giving the kneeling woman better access to his defining attributes.
Juliana bit her lips to suppress her soft groan. Her legs instinctively tightened around the trunk of the hazel tree, pressing the hard roughened surface against her feminine core. In spite of the coolness of the evening, she felt hot and light-headed. If she did not calm her rattled nerves, she was going to do something to give herself away like fainting and falling out of the cursed tree!
In an agitated gesture, she dragged her hand from her hair, causing the unexpected to happen. One of the tiny white plumes tucked into her upswept tresses slipped free. Without thinking, Juliana reached out to grasp the errant two-inch curl of fluff that was destined to be her downfall. The lissome plume evaded her fingers, dancing on the breeze created by her frantic motion. It silently drifted down to the couple.
Juliana brought her fist to her mouth and silently prayed. Both Lady Lettlecott and Sin were distracted for the moment. Perhaps the tiny feather would remain unnoticed. The husky moans and disconcertingly wet smacking noises coming from below heartened Juliana.
Until the fragile white plume landed on the top of the countess's dark tresses. Even in the moonlight, it was a stark beacon. Juliana held her breath. She mentally willed the plume to catch another breeze and disappear into the inky blackness of the ground.
Excerpted from All Night with a Rogue by Alexandra Hawkins.
Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Hawkins.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.