She searches for priceless treasures stolen from her. He’ll help her find her precious art even if he risks the chance she’ll steal his heart away…again.
Sophia di Contini risks her life to sail to England alone and slip into the homes of those she suspects stole priceless treasures from her family during the wars. Discovered by Victor Cameron, she agrees to search for her art his way even though she’ll live in his house, yearn for his touch, pine for his kisses….
Five years ago, Victor had to give up Sophia. Now he vows to keep her near him and to protect her from men who would destroy her. He’ll help her find her precious art even if he risks the chance she’ll steal his heart away…again.
Excerpt, All rights reserved. Copyright, 2016, Cerise DeLand.
Victor made his way toward the threesome—and stopped in his tracks.
Across the room, a woman stood near the wall. Attired in a simple gown of cream, she portrayed a Greek or Roman queen. Her half mask was white, covering a straight nose and framing eyes that darted and scanned, settling here and there and moving on. Her hair glowed like pale sunlight. Beneath a headband of gold and white satin, her tresses curled in a braid high around her head. In a bow to current fashion, delicate wisps dangled at her ears. But the disarray made her more elegant, more classically beautiful. He could not drink in enough of her—and his mind stalled.
His stomach clenched. Oh, most definitely, this was the elusive housemaid. Or more accurately, Sophia di Bertolla di Contini, the daughter of the famous Italian courtier and poet, Marco di Bertolla.
Why would she come here to this party disguised?
The irony that she should appear here in plain sight when he had searched for her for weeks had him setting his teeth. What game did she play?
The woman had disappeared from Whiting’s house that night in December. He’d run out into the streets to search for her, to no avail. He’d hired men he often employed to track thieves or those who owed him money. But they’d found no one answering her description in any lodgings in greater London. He’d extended their territory to search for her in Dover and Calais, assuming she might seek refuge there to book a packet across the Channel. They had come up short.
But here she was.
No maid’s drab cloth for her tonight. The opposite. Poised, shining and polished as a marble goddess, she surveyed the guests, all grace and purpose. She spoke with no one. In truth, she seemed to hug the walls. Was she here alone?
He made his way across the ballroom. In the crowd, that took him time. Too much, in fact. And as he wove his way among his guests, she left her secluded spot to wander toward the central hall. Odd, that. The ladies’ retiring room was on this wing. If she wondered precisely where, she need only ask a servant who would redirect her. But she didn’t.
She continued toward the foyer. Scurrying, really.
Then she froze. Her eyes rounded.
Victor followed her line of sight.
Dray appeared straight ahead of her in the doorway, his ginger hair mussed by the wind and the half-black mask he wore. She turned aside, deftly weaving around Dray with not so much as a nod of greeting. That easily, she slipped out.
Victor hastened to catch her. But damn the crowd.
Threading his way through the throng required more greetings and diplomacy than he had expected. Next year, by god, he’d stay home. He wished to speak only to this intruder who appeared here as a guest. A creature who perennially danced in his memory like Salome.
Muttering to himself about his failure to eradicate her from his thoughts, Victor picked up his pace toward the hall.
But in his path stood Dray.
“I must speak with you.” Dray stepped toward him, straightening his tailcoat but looking oddly agitated.
“Later.” Victor clasped his step-brother’s hand. “Wait for me, please.”
“This is important. Where’re you going?” He turned as Victor passed him by.
“A guest.” He’d explain her identity later. “She’s headed the wrong way to the retiring room.”
“Put a footman to the task. I have news from Windsor—”
Victor ignored him and hurried away.
At the first floor landing of the staircase, he came to a stop. He turned to one side, the movement of a figure catching his eye. But it was a man, not Sophia.
In a stealthy move, the man shut the door behind him. As the latch clicked, so did knowledge of who the man was.
Otis Underwood. A degenerate of the first order.
Was he stalking Sophia? Was she in that room?
The reason that she might have gone there rose like bile in his throat. Did she seek an assignation with Underwood?
Preposterous. She had better sense than that. Or had years ago. Why would she consider alliance with such a man as he? She had no reason.
But he squeezed his eyes shut a second. Of course, it was her looks. The soft blue eyes that mesmerized a man. The lush rosy lips that inspired erotic fantasies in any man who gazed upon her. Young, old, infirm, any man with blood in his veins took one long look and coveted her.
Distaste for Underwood and his nefarious actions washed away all condemnation of Sophia.
Still, why was she floating around Winterbourne’s house?
She wasn’t a thief. Or hadn’t been that night at Whiting’s.
But was she in that room and if so, what did she want?
Flummoxed, he ripped off his mask and swung about, once more in complete review of the hall. No doubt of it. Unless she’d left the house, she was in that room where she should not be.
He’d root her out. He would.
He took the hall on cats’ feet. With utmost care, he turned the knob and thrust open the door.
Across the moonlit room she stood in profile to him facing Underwood. The man advanced on her, a salacious smile upon his fleshy lips, his hawk-like nose hooked like the predator he was.
So intent on each other, neither of them saw or heard Victor.
Underwood strolled steadily toward her and she stepped backward. “I say, my Grecian lady, you are elusive. I wished to dance.”
“I do not.”
“But you do wish to escape the festivities. I wonder why.”
She glared at her adversary. “I have a headache. I wish to rest.”
“I have a better cure for the megrims.”
“I doubt that.”
Underwood lifted a hand and crooked his fingers at her. “Come here and I will demonstrate.”
By this time, Sophia’s back was to the wall. Trapped between a sideboard and a chair, she could move neither left nor right. And to advance meant she had to push Underwood aside. He was so big, so fat, that would be a chore—and a failure.
“I would leave. And you will permit me to pass.”
With a sound of frustration, she whipped off her mask. In the move, she dislodged her satin hair band and it fell to the floor. Her hair cascaded down in a riotous glory. Ruffled, her waves wended down her shoulders in glowing ripples lit by the light of the moon. She muttered to herself in Italian.
Underwood growled, lunging forward.
“I would not touch her if I were you,” Victor warned him, feral in his defense of her.
The two of them gasped.
The man peered at him. “Go away, Cameron.”
“No.” Victor advanced. He had an inch or two on the man in height and managed to convey his own predatory nature with a feigned smile. “The lady is under my protection. You will leave now and we will say no more of this.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Winterbourne takes umbrage at anyone who commits crimes in his home. And last I heard, you wished to have his cooperation for your new shipping venture in the Indies.”
That took the wind from Underwood’s sails. He ground his teeth and gave a small bow. “As you wish.”
With a glare that was a threat of violence, he considered Sophia for a second and left the room.
When the door latched shut, Victor turned to his Grecian lady.
She stared at him, wary.
“Madam,” he addressed her and she lifted her chin. “I do believe you have lost your way.”
She had no response.
He stepped toward her. And when the fragrance of lilacs hit his nostrils, desire rippled along his spine. He stiffened in an effort to stay focused, wanting to put his hands on her and shake some sense into her. He could swear he heard her heart pound. But he walked to within an inch of her, arrested by her abject beauty and his confusion about why in god’s name she wandered in this house. “Weeks ago, you were a maid in Lord Whiting’s house. Now you are a guest here and you roam this house. I am curious.”
Her lips formed words but she shook her head, remaining silent.
“Can’t explain it? I’m positive you remember the incident with a certain Lord Lester. I saw you, Sophia.” Your frightened eyes. Your appealing lips. “I do recall the evening. You must recall as well, since you disappeared immediately after you kicked him. Why?”
“I never meant to hurt him,” she said, straightening her back, her voice that melodious mix of good English and warm Italian.
“No matter. He deserved what hurt you caused him that night.” Victor admired her ethereal beauty in the soft flush of moonlight. “And my friend, Lord Whiting, wished to apologize to you for the disservice done you in his house. But that was impossible. Because you fled.”
She nodded, licked her lips and said, “I had to.”
“Si. That man with the surly lips was terrible. He…he handled me.”
“He accused me to be a thief, too.”
Victor arched his brows. “I thought you were innocent.”
Those luminous blue eyes of hers softened into curiosity. “You did?”
“You were never a thief.” A liar. A very good one. He stepped nearer. The scent of lilacs rocked him, delicate as the first buds of spring. His mouth went dry. “You have our childhood years together to commend you to us. And you are related to Dray. To me also by law. As family, we have affinities. Why wouldn’t we think you innocent?”
Her mouth curved with relief. “I am grateful.”
“Grateful. Yes. As now I would be too if you would do me a favor.”
Wary, she regarded him. “What?”
“Be so kind as to tell me what in hell you are doing here in England.”
Only her eyes flashed, registering her recoil from his vehemence. She lifted her chin. “I—it’s a story that is complicated.”
“Oh, of that I am certain. First you are a maid, then you appear weeks later, attired as a Grecian lady at a masque where you are, shall we say, admiring the contents of a nobleman’s house?”
“I had to work. I took a position in the household. I did not think I would see you or Drayton.”
“Obviously. But why did you have to work?”
She bristled, her delicate chin up and defying him. “I needed money.”
She looked broken, tender. Fierce. Without funds, a woman would be at the mercy of any scoundrel. “Why do you need money?”
Her brows knit. “The reasons anyone needs it.”
That was a blow. Why did she have no funds? Did her husband cut her off? Her brother? “And why are you here tonight?”
She stared at him, her ethereal blue eyes clouding. “I have my reasons for what I do.”
“No doubt.” He had worked for more than two years among the Italians near Rome, Naples and Florence to oust Napoleon from power there. He spoke some Italian. But it didn’t take knowledge of the language to spot prevarication. He knew wily women when he met them. His history with her had shown him she could evade the truth among the best. His instinct assured him that tonight she was attempting not to lie. At least not about her employment as a maid. “You must share them with me.”
She drew herself up, dignity and authority in her stance. “I am in search of a few items that belonged to my parents.”
“I see.” Absently, he considered the room. Winterbourne’s library. “And you think you will find them among these books?”
“I did.” She squared her shoulders, defeat turning down her mouth.
Dammit, she confounded him. “And what would that be?”
She narrowed those beguiling eyes at him, though they flashed bright blue dangers at the moment. “I need not tell you. I owe you nothing.”
That was a lie but he couldn’t let her get the best of him. He had to challenge that. “Really?”
“I must go.” She stepped around him.
That incited his anger. “Perhaps if I summon Lord Winterbourne, you might find him more interested in your explanation?”
She whirled to face him. “Please do not.”
He had to push her to acknowledge her folly. “Did you know that lately a burglar robs London houses of money, jewels and art?”
Her blue eyes went round. “No.”
She was too sweet, too appealing and he was such a fool to protect her from others when he could not protect himself from her. “Should I hand you to the authorities?”
She grasped the edges of his cape. “No.”
A roar of voices cut the air.
He cocked his ear.
“What is that?” She froze, alarm widening her eyes.
He frowned, considering for a moment the hall and the commotion. “Something’s amiss.”
“More than,” she breathed.
“Wait here,” he told her. He strode to the door, but turned about. “I will return. Do not leave this room.”