James Cordier is all blue blood and entirely dangerous. He's a master of disguise, a brilliant thief, a first-class loverâall for King and Countryâand, by gad, he's so weary of it. His last mission is to "acquire" a packet of incriminating letters from one notorious woman. Then he can return to London and meet sweet-natured heiressesânot adventuresses and fallen women.
Francesca Bonnard has weathered heartbreak, scorn, and scandal. She's independent, happy, and definitely fallen; and she's learned that "gentlemen" are more trouble than they're worth. She can also see that her wildly attractive new neighbor is bad news.
But as bad as James is, there are others far worse also searching for Francesca's letters. And suddenly nothing is simpleâespecially the nearly incendiary chemistry between the two most jaded, sinful souls in Europe. And just as suddenly, risking everything may be worth the prize.
Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear
You should not, I'll describe it to you exactly:
'Tis a long cover'd boat that's common here,
Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly;
Row'd by two rowers, each call'd 'Gondolier,'
It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.
Lord Byron... Beppo
Tuesday, 19 September 1820
Francesca Bonnard thoughtfully regarded the ceiling.
A century or two ago, the Neroni family had gone mad for ornamental plasterwork. The walls and ceilings of the palazzo she rented were a riot of plaster draperies, fruits, and flowers. Most fascinating to her were these winged children called putti. They crawled about the ceilings, lifting plaster draperies or creeping among the folds, looking for who knew what. They clung to the frames of the ceiling paintings and to the gold medallions over the doors. They vastly outnumbered the four bare-breasted women lolling in the corners and the four muscled adult males supporting the walls.
They were all boys, all naked. Thus the view overhead was of many little penisesâforty at last count, though there seemed to be more today. Were they reproducing spontaneously or were the buxom females and virile adult males getting up to mischief when the house was asleep?
In her three years in Venice, Francesca had entered a number of ostentatious houses. Hers won the prize for decorative insanityânot to mention quantity of immature male reproductive organs.
"I shouldn't mind them so much," she said, "but they are so distracting. The first time visitors call, they spend the better part of the visit dumbstruck, gaping at the walls and ceiling. After giving the matter serious thought, I've decided that Dante got his idea for the Inferno from a visit to the Palazzo Neroni."
"Let them gape," said her friend Giulietta. She rested her elbow on the arm of her chair and, chin in hand, regarded the deranged ceiling. "While your guests stare at the putti, you might stare at them as rudely as you like."
They made a complementary pair: Francesca tall and exotic, Giulietta smaller, and sweet-looking. Her heart-shaped face and innocent brown eyes made her seem a mere girl. At six and twenty, however, she was only a year younger than Francesca. In experience, Giulietta was eons older.
No one would ever call Francesca Bonnard sweet-looking, she knew. She'd inherited her mother's facial features, most notably her distinctive eyes with their unusual green color and almond shape. Her thick chestnut hair was her French paternal grandmother's. The rest came from Sir Michael Saunders, her scoundrel father, and his predecessors. The Saunderses tended to be tall, and she wasâcompared, at least, to most women. The few extra inches had caused the caricaturists to dub her "the Giantess" and "the Amazon" in the scurrilous prints they produced during the divorce proceedings.
Her divorce from John Bonnardârecently awarded a barony and now titled Lord Elphickâwas five years behind her, however, as was all the nonsense she'd believed then about love and men. Now she carried her tall frame proudly and dressed to emphasize every curve of her lush figure.
Men had betrayed and abandoned and hurt her once upon a time.
Now they begged for her notice.
Several were coming today for precisely that purpose. This was why Francesca did not entertain her friend in the smaller, less oppressive room, the one adjoining her boudoir, in another, more private part of the house. That comfortable, almost putti-free...