DescriptionLeila Beuamont is a gorgeous and talented portrait painter trapped in a loveless marriage with her profligate husband, Francis. Though long ago, Francis very much played the hero, rescuing and wedding the orphaned 17-year-old Leila - Francis' more recent hedonistic lifestyle of drinking, drugging and womanizing has not only earned him quite a few enemies in London, but lost him the love of his wife.
When Francis turns up dead in the Beaumont townhouse, right after a loud and vitriolic argument with his wife, Leila is seen as the primary suspect, innocent though she is. Because of Francis' many enemies and victims, government officials instigate a quiet investigation, many of whom fear fallout from Francis' numerous blackmail and extortion schemes.
The man they call on - the sexy blue-eyed Comte d'Esmond - is a man of many talents who has spent the past ten years as one of the government's most trusted covert operatives; a man who also has a dark and treacherous past.
Neither Leila, nor d'Esmond is especially happy to be working together - their relationship is one of intense attraction accompanied by intense resistance. Leila had long ago given up on the idea of love and saw her husband as a means of propriety in London, but now she finds the dangerous Esmond's seductive charm nearly irresistible.
But work together they must: Esmond, with a carefully hidden identity that would shock Leila to the core and Leila with her own secrets to keep...
It's danger that unites them and it's danger that chains their hearts: Esmond's virility and bold touch enflame Leila's blood...and draw her into the most irresistible intrigue of all...truly passionate love.
Reader Rating: (4 Ratings)
Twilight had fallen over Venice, to plunge the marble corridors of the palazzo into gloom. The sound of unfamiliar masculine voices made seventeen-year-old Leila pause at the top of the stairs. There were three men, and though she couldn't make out the words, the rhythms of their low-pitched speech told her they weren't English.
She peered down over the elaborately carved balustrade. As her father emerged from his study, one of the men moved toward him. From her lofty vantage point, Leila could see only the top of the stranger's head, shimmering gold in the light of the open study doorway. His voice was an easy, friendly murmur, smooth and soft as silk. But Papa's wasn't smooth. The edginess she heard in his tones made her anxious. Hastily she retreated round the corner and hurried back down the hall to her sitting room.
With shaking hands she took out her sketchbook and forced herself to focus on copying the intricate woodwork of the writing desk. It was the only way to take her mind off whatever was happening on the floor below. She certainly couldn't help her father—if he needed help, and perhaps he didn't. He might simply be vexed by the interruption at teatime. In any case, she knew very well she was supposed to keep out of sight. Papa's work for the government was difficult enough. The last thing he needed was to be worrying about her.
And so, left to her usual companions—her sketchbook and pencil—Leila Bridgeburton awaited the arrival of the tea tray, sadly aware that today, just like yesterday and the day before, it would contain only service for one.
The man with the shimmering gold hair was Ismal Delvina, twenty-two years old. He had recently arrived in Venice after a most unpleasant voyage from Albania. Since he'd spent most of that journey recovering from poisoning, he was not in particularly good humor. His angelic countenance, however, evinced only the sweetest amiability.
He hadn't noticed the girl above, but his servant, Risto, had heard the swish of skirts and looked up an instant before the girl retreated.
As they followed Jonas Bridgeburton into the study, Risto softly mentioned the discovery to his master. The master's infallible instincts did the rest.
Ismal smiled at his unwilling host. "Shall I send my servant upstairs to ascertain the girl's identity?" he asked, making Bridgeburton start. "Or would you be so kind as to spare him the trouble?"
"I haven't the least idea—"
"I pray you will not tax our patience by pretending there is no girl, or that she's merely a servant," Ismal smoothly interrupted. "When my men become impatient, they forget their manners, which are not so elegant in the first place."
Bridgeburton glanced from the huge Mehmet, leering down from his six-and-a-half-foot height, to the dark-featured countenance of the smaller but more openly hostile Risto. The color draining from his face, the Englishman turned back to their master. "For God's sake," he croaked, "she's only a child. You can't—you won't—"
"In short, she is your child," said Ismal. With a sigh, he dropped into the chair behind Bridge-burton's untidy desk. "A most unwise father. Given your activities, you should have kept the girl as far from you as possible."
"I did—she was—but the money ran out. I had to take her out of school. You don't understand. She doesn't know anything. She thinks—" Bridgeburton's panicked gaze shot round the study, from one pitiless countenance to the next. He glared at Ismal. "Damn you, she thinks I'm a government agent—a hero. She's no good to you. If you let these filthy bastards near her, I'll tell you nothing."
Ismal merely flicked a glance at Risto. As the latter moved to the door, Bridgeburton lunged at him—but Mehmet moved in the same instant and dragged the Englishman back.
Ismal took up a letter from the heap on Bridge-burton's desk. "You will not alarm yourself," he said. "Risto goes to administer laudanum, that is all—merely to ensure there will be no interruptions while we complete our business. You will not make any unpleasantness, I hope. I prefer not to make you childless, or the little girl an orphan—but Risto and Mehmet—" He gave another sigh. "They are barbarians, I regret to say. If you find it difficult to cooperate quickly and fully, I fear it will prove impossible to soothe their turbulent spirits."
Still perusing the letter, Ismal sadly shook his head. "Daughters can be so very troublesome. Yet so valuable, are they not?"
Leila remembered waking—or dreaming she was waking—and the prompt onset of sickness. There was movement, and a man's voice. It was reassuring, but it wasn't Papa's. And it couldn't calm her churning stomach. That was why, in the night of the dream or the actual night, the carriage had stopped and she had stumbled out and fallen to her knees. Then, even after the retching stopped, she had not wanted to get up again. She had wanted only to stay there and die.
She didn't remember climbing back into the carriage, but she must have returned to it somehow, because when she woke again, it was to the same bone and belly-wrenching bump and rattle. She began to believe she was truly conscious, because she was thinking: Italy's roads were nothing like the smooth, macadamized roads of England, and the carriage wheels were surely made of stone or iron, and the Venetians had not yet invented carriage springs.
Leila smiled weakly because maybe all this was funny. She heard an answering chuckle, as though she'd told a joke. Then the masculine voice said, "Coming back at last, are we?"
Her cheek was pressed to wool. When she opened her eyes she saw it wasn't a blanket, but a man's cloak. She looked up, and even that slight motion made her so dizzy that she clutched at the cloak to keep from falling. Belatedly she realized she couldn't possibly fall. She sat on the man's lap, securely cradled in his arms.
She was vaguely aware that it wasn't right to be there, but everything in the whole world was wrong. Since she had no idea what else to do, Leila began to cry.
He pushed a large, crisp handkerchief into her shaking hands. "Laudanum can be very sick-making if you're not used to it."
Between sobs, she managed to choke out an apology.
He pressed her closer and patted her back and let her sob until she was done with it. By that time, it was too late to feel afraid, even if he was a stranger.
"L-laudanum," she stammered when she found her voice again. "B-but I d-didn't t-take any. I n-never—"
"It doesn't last forever, I assure you." He smoothed her damp hair back from her face. "In a very short while, we'll stop at an inn, and you'll wash your face and have some tea, and feel more yourself again."
She didn't want to ask the question. She was afraid of the answer. But she reminded herself that being afraid didn't help or change anything.
"Wh-where is P-Papa?"
His smile faded. "I fear your father got himself into serious trouble."
She wanted to close her eyes and lay her head on his shoulder again and pretend it was a bad dream. But the dizziness was subsiding, and her mind painted chilling recollections: the three foreigners in the hall below...her father's edgy voice...the little maid trembling as she carried in the tea tray...the odd taste of the tea. Then dizziness...and falling.
And she understood, without having to be told. Those men had killed Papa. Why else would she be in this fast-moving carriage with an Englishman she'd never seen before?
But he was holding her hand and urging her to be brave. Leila made herself listen while he explained.
He'd come to deliver a friend's note to Papa and arrived just as a badly beaten servant had staggered out of the palazzo. The servant had hardly finished explaining how foreigners had invaded the house and killed the master when he spotted one of the villains returning.
"We managed to take the brute by surprise," the man went on, "and learned he'd been sent back for you."
"Because I saw them." Leila's heart thudded. They'd come back to kill her.
He squeezed her hand. "It's all right now. We're going away. They'll never find you."
"But the police—someone must—"
The sharpness in his tone made her look up.
"I scarcely knew your father," he said. "But from the looks of things, it's plain he'd got himself involved with some very dangerous people. I strongly doubt the Venetian police would trouble themselves with protecting a young English female." He paused. "I was told you had no other connections in Venice."
She swallowed. "Or anywhere. There was only…Papa." Her voice broke.
He was dead, killed in the line of duty, just as she'd dreaded ever since he'd told her about his secret work for England. She wanted to be brave, and proud of him, for he'd died in a noble cause, but the tears fell anyway. She couldn't help grieving, and she couldn't help feeling utterly, hopelessly alone. She had no one now.
"Not to worry," the man said. "I'll take care of you." Tilting her chin up, he gazed into her tear-stained face. "How would you like to go to Paris?"
The carriage's interior was gloomy, but there was light enough to make out his face. He was younger than she'd assumed at first, and very handsome, and his gleaming dark eyes made her feel hot and muddled. She hoped she wasn't going to be sick again.
"P-Paris," she echoed. "N-now? W-why?"
"Not exactly now, but in a few weeks—because you'll be safe there."
"Safe. Oh." She eased her chin away from his smooth fingers. "Why? Why are you doing this?"
"Because you're a damsel in distress." His mouth wasn't smiling, but she heard a smile in his voice. "Francis Beaumont would never abandon a damsel in distress. Especially such a pretty one."
"Francis Beaumont," she repeated, wiping her eyes.
"Yes. And I shall never abandon you. Rely upon it."
She had no one and nothing else to rely upon. She could only hope he meant it.
Not until they reached Paris did Francis Beaumont reveal the rest of what the servant had told him: that the father she idolized was a criminal who trafficked in stolen weaponry and had apparently been killed by displeased customers. Leila screamed that the servant was a liar and wept hysterically in her rescuer's arms.
But weeks later, Andrew Herriard, a solicitor, arrived, and she couldn't deny the facts then. He was, according to the will he showed her, her guardian. He also had her father's private papers, along with copies of police documents, which more than confirmed what the servant had told Mr. Beaumont. The Venetian police had blamed Leila's disappearance on her father's killers. In the circumstances, Mr. Herriard felt it was safer not to correct that impression. There was nothing to object to in his wise and gentle counsel, even if she'd had the heart. But she hadn't. She listened and agreed, her head bowed, her face hot with shame, all the while aware she was worse than alone. She was an outcast.
But Mr. Herriard promptly set about giving her a new identity and rebuilding her life, and Mr. Beaumont—though under no similar legal obligation—helped arrange for her studies with a Parisian art master. Though she was the daughter of a traitor, the two men stood by her and looked after her. In return, she gave them all the gratitude of her young heart.
And in time, innocent that she was, she gave Francis Beaumont a great deal more.