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Authors: Susan Johnson

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance

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BOOK: A Touch of Sin
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She laughed at something he said shortly after and he was charmed. Her smile was warm, expansive as she lounged back in her chair; her eyes held his for a glittering moment.

It must be the wine, she thought, startled at the sudden rush of desire.

I'll unbutton the small pearl buttons at her prim collar first, he thought, watching the flush rise on her beautiful face. Very slowly, and then…

"Isn't the fire absolutely wonderful," she suddenly said, shaken by her unexpected feelings, by Pasha Duras's dark, heated gaze. "So pleasant on a cool evening. It reminds me of home… not this room of course," she nervously went on, "considering Richelieu's no-expense-spared approach, but the quiet and warmth and—Wherever do you get
applewood
in the midst of the city?"

"I'm not sure." Gratified by her agitation, her heightened blush, he watched her twist her fingers in her lap. "Would you like me to ask Jules?"

"Oh, no… really, that's not at all necessary. I only meant—that is—
Must
you look at me like that?"

"You're very beautiful." He smiled faintly. "I'm enthralled." Was she truly so innocent? Or was Langelier's lush hostage more skilled than most at playing the ingenue? Such bountiful femaleness and artlessness seemed incongruous.

"You said we were just eating."

He hadn't, of course. He'd been very careful not to say that. "The food should be here soon." Was she actually trembling? His voice was gentle when he said, "Let me add a bit more champagne to your glass."

"No."

But her sharp refusal ended in a wavering vibrato, he noticed as he leaned forward to pour a small portion into her glass and she didn't move to stop him. "Champagne helps just about anything," he soothingly said.

She clenched her fingers tightly against the overwhelming urge to reach out and touch him. His body was disconcertingly close, his virility overpowering: the startling width of his shoulders beneath the fine silk of his shirt; the flexed muscles of his thighs when he half rose from his chair: the raw strength of his large hands grasping the bottle and her glass. "You have to sit down," she said, taut and low.

His gaze briefly raked her, his expression shuttered, and then, with a small deferential inclination of his head, he set her filled glass down and dropped back into the chair.

It seemed suddenly as though they were alone in the universe, the last two people on earth. Quiet expectation strummed in the air. Blatantly male, dark as the devil, sinfully handsome, he exuded brute power and lust on a primal level, as unbridled desire burned in his heavy-lidded eyes. And long-forgotten memories of sensual pleasure, of vaunting need stirred within her.

His nostrils flared as if he could scent her willingness.

"How long must we wait"—her voice caught—"for the food?"

"It won't be long now," he murmured, his large form utterly still, a sensual undertone to his innocuous words.

Bolting upright, Beatrix leaped from her chair, knocking over her glass in her desperate need to escape. Champagne dashed across the carpet, the shimmering flash flame gold against the firelight.

Leaning forward, Pasha picked up the stemware and placed it back on the table, but his gaze followed her as she paced the perimeter of the small room. Returning a few moments later, she stood behind her chair, as if shielding herself from temptation. Gripping the upholstered back, she crushed the moss green needlepoint, her fingers white with the intensity of her emotions. "I don't want you," she said. "I don't want this. I have no intention of being seduced tonight. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly."

"Good." A clipped, firm utterance.

Very good indeed, he mused; her desire was almost palpable. "Let me ring for Jules and see what's keeping supper."

Tense and agitated, she stood unmoving as he walked to the bell-pull, her mind in turmoil, shame flooding her senses. How could she respond to him with such inexplicable wantonness when she'd only just met him under the most bizarre circumstances? How was it possible that his stark maleness drew her so when the last thing on her mind should be sexual longing? How could she be so perverse after being witness only short hours ago to a brutal murder?

Turning back to her, Pasha pleasantly said, "Please… sit down. Would you be more comfortable if Jules remained in the room when he returns?"

How worldly he was, seemingly immune to the tumult and agitation convulsing her mind, Beatrix thought.

"Whatever you decide is perfectly fine," Pasha went on when she failed to respond.

"Langelier rather eroded my faith in men," she finally said, unable to verbalize the entire complex disorder of her thoughts.

"I understand." Pasha poured himself another glass of champagne. "Here's to speedy oblivion of unhappy memories." As he raised the glass to her, a soft knock sounded on the door, and swiftly downing the contents of the glass, he bid the individual enter.

Jules arrived bearing food and trailed by a multitude of other servants who proceeded to set a table with fine linen and silver, crystal and flowers. A nearby sideboard was soon laden with a variety of savory dishes, the lady's choices along with several enticing delicacies Pasha's chef decided were de rigueur for a late-night supper a deux—oysters, chocolate cream, a magnificent
gâteau
Pithiviers, scrambled eggs with creamed asparagus, molded pears, a syllabub for the lady, iced curaçao for Pasha, and a score more entrees and delicacies.

It had been so long since she'd seen such sumptuous fare, Beatrix found herself salivating. How she would have liked Chris to keep her company at such a feast. Their own household had been frugally run for so many years, she'd forgotten such splendor.

"Please, Madame," she heard Pasha say with an emphasis she realized was that of repetition. Refocusing her gaze, she found him standing at her side, his arm held out.

"Forgive me." She placed her hand on his arm, another temptation being offered her by this man notorious for his personal allure. "The food is quite glorious."

"Michelet will be pleased," Pasha replied, escorting her to the table. "Jules, offer the lady's compliments to the chef." Helping her into a chair, he signaled to the servants with a brief nod of his head and sat down opposite her.

Each dish was offered her and depending on Beatrix's response, Pasha had the item left on the table or returned to the sideboard. So long bereft of pleasure, she found herself seduced by the most basic human needs—food, companionship, personal kindness. But at the twentieth dish presented, overwhelmed by the multitude of items, she said, "Please, stop. There's too much."

Pasha glanced at Jules, a silent message in his gaze, and within moments Jules had directed the servants from the room. The vanished bustle and activity left a hushed silence in its wake. She looked up from the lobster before her, beautifully presented atop a bed of saffron rice and truffles, and apprehension flickered briefly in her eyes. For a second Pasha considered asking the lady again whether she required a chaperone. The impulse passed as quickly; he wasn't quite so self-sacrificing.

Smiling over the rim of his wine glass, he said, "Lobster is one of Michelet's specialties. He's originally from Marseilles. Do you like it?"

The simple phrases seemed to put her at ease; the fear vanished from her eyes. "Yes, very much, thank you."

"He prides himself on his sauces. A mark of an accomplished chef, I've found."

"Papa used to say as much." She allowed herself to relax. Pasha was enchantingly amiable. Marveling at the degree of his charm, she set aside the last of her apprehensions. "Papa took to cooking himself when our finances no longer allowed for a multitude of servants. I've fond memories of our kitchen at Burleigh."

"Do you cook then?" He'd never had the opportunity to ask that question of a lady.

"Occasionally when Mrs. Orde's arthritis is bothering her. You smile. Is that so strange?"

He was picturing any of the noble ladies he bedded with a soup ladle in their hand. Repressing his smile with difficulty as the Comtesse Dreux with her taste for role-playing came to mind, he said, "It is, in my bachelor world—granted, a very narrow venue. You must enjoy the informality of your life."

"Do you work at all?" she asked, her gaze suddenly pointed.

"My mother has gold mines and my father a shipping line. I've been known to participate in those businesses." He was in fact a highly motivated participant and a strong factor in their profitability. "Is that better?" he lightly teased.

"Yes, actually it is. Men without purpose are a plague on society," she added with a touch of bitterness, memories of her husband's wastrel drunkenness unpleasantly recalled.

"You speak from experience?"

"I do indeed. Please pass me the
pommes
Anna, if you would."

Apparently the subject was closed, he decided, passing her the golden, buttery potato cake. "Save room for the strawberry
soufflé," he suggested, courteously moving to less personal conversation, "or Michelet will pout for days."

"Gladly. I see Chantilly cream as well," she added with a smile, wishing to dismiss any reflections concerning her husband—a habit of long standing. "Do you eat strawberry
soufflé or is it a delicacy for ladies only?"

"I eat just about anything."

"But not tonight," she noted, glancing at his empty plate.

"I haven't slept much the last few days. Fatigue takes away my appetite."

"Don't let me keep you up."

His libido was keeping him up at the moment, his appetite of another kind. "I don't need much sleep. And I enjoy your company."

She set her flatware down and he wondered if he'd somehow spoken amiss. Leaning back in her chair, she said, "I want to thank you. It's been a month since I haven't been afraid—or hungry. Since I was able to dismiss fear from my thoughts. You're very kind."

"I'm sorry someone didn't know of your plight earlier."

"
I'm
sorry I was so naive as to accept Langelier's offer of aid." Leaning forward, she once more took up her knife and fork. "It won't happen again."

"It was unfortunate you had to meet Langelier when you first came to Paris. Might I offer my family's help with your inheritance?"

She shook her head. "A month of captivity in Langelier's apartment gave me ample time to think. I decided it had been a gross mistake to petition for my son's inheritance. Christopher is quite content with our life in Kent." She shook her head again. "At least I'm firm on that point now. We'll manage as we have in the past. The Clo"—she caught herself in time—"Christopher's father's family can rest easy."

"Why don't I see you to the coast," Pasha offered, shocked to hear himself utter the words.

"Thank you, but you needn't." Her smile was gracious.

Relieved and simultaneously guilt-ridden to be saved from his errant impulse, he said, "Let me at least arrange for some funds for you."

She looked up from the serving of compote d'abricots she'd spooned on her plate. "Whatever for?"

"As an apology for Langelier's abuse."

"Are you a relative?" Her gaze held his for a moment and then she said, "You needn't be Langelier's conscience. The two thousand francs is sufficient. That at least is possible to repay."

"Since I've plenty of money and you don't, why not accept a small loan?"

"That I could never repay."

He
had
a conscience, he realized, because the method of repayment that immediately came to mind went unspoken. "Perhaps you'll marry again. Call it a long-term loan."

"Pour me some more champagne, Pasha, and that will be quite enough. I can't take your loans."

He liked that she'd said his name with a captivating warmth in her voice; he liked that she enjoyed his champagne. And her resistance to his offer of money could be overcome, he knew. In his experience, women always accepted his gifts.

He did eat as it turned out, coaxed by Trixi to try some of Michelet's stuffed mushrooms. And he shared some of her
soufflé when she offered him spoonfuls, necessitating a closer proximity than the length of the table allowed. He pulled up a chair nearer hers, and they diminished Michelet's bouffant concoction in playful intimacy, first she feeding him and then he her.

"I'm full," she said at last, at ease, leaning back in her chair and exhaling a great sigh. "How glorious a feeling…"

What a glorious sight, he thought. Her hair was a mass of spun gold in the candlelight, tendrils tumbling from her upswept coiffure, her pale skin flushed a delicate pink, her lush bosom raised high as she arched her back and stretched. "There's nothing more you'd like then?"

She smiled—a winsome, half-seductive smile he'd not seen before. "However often I've tried to dismiss the inexcusable sensation in the hour past," she murmured, "I find myself wanting to say… perhaps"—her voice dropped to a whisper—"one thing."

His pulse rate soared.

"I'd be more than pleased to oblige you," he quietly said.

Her direct gaze held his for a moment. "I know."

"And?"

"I'm still"—her brows rose the faintest distance, the extent of her desire scandalous—"debating."

"I see."

"Perhaps it's the champagne." She looked for some reason such urgent desire spurred her senses. She'd already blamed the food, the firelight, her fatigue, his blatant sexuality, the shock she'd sustained at Langelier's.

"Perhaps." Polite, obliging, he smiled.

"You're not helping," she charged, restless under her unusual, sharp-set urges.

"You want an excuse?" He slid lower in his chair and gazed up at her from under his long lashes. "You're asking the wrong person." His libido flamed bright in his eyes.

She grasped the chair arms to steady herself against her own inexplicable susceptibility. How intoxicating he was, tautly muscled beneath his lounging pose, honed to a fine pitch despite his languid sprawl, ready and waiting.

He seemed carnal lust personified and she found herself wanting to make love to him—a scandalous thought. Her feelings were so intense and pervasive she wondered at her sanity. How would it feel to be engulfed by his potent virility and strength, touch his strong, corded neck, run her palms over the swelling muscles of his shoulders, slide her hands down his lean torso… and lower, where his mesmerizing arousal stretched the fine black wool of his trousers?

BOOK: A Touch of Sin
10.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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