An Unconventional Arrangement
Tall, handsome, and highly sexed, the Darington twins are the toast of Victorian London—and they both adore Maria Paladino, a wayward and willful beauty. Together, the two of them love her as no one man ever could, conspiring to take her to the heights of secret sensual ecstasy...again and again. Yet there must be a Darington heir and only one man can marry her. Jason or Jude? Maria makes her choice...and then her fiancé vanishes! Now the chase is on, from the most elegant brothels of Europe to the high seas—everywhere Maria goes, wicked pleasure abounds...
Kensington Aphrodisia (October 26, 2010)
"I foresee sexual ecstasy and joy juxtaposed with excruciating pain," Rubio whispered as he studied the Tarot cards on the table. "Deception, yet revelation . . . a journey into the unknown. Loss of love and life as you now know it, dear sister."
As her younger brother tightened his hold on her hands, Maria Palladino turned away with a puzzled frown. "How can you predict such nonsense? Jason Darington's the man of my dreams, and tomorrow when I marry him—"
"Have I every deceived you, Maria? Knowingly led you astray with my abilities?"
Maria paused, unconvinced. "If you made such grim predictions for members of Queen Victoria's court, you'd not remain London's most celebrated medium for long!" She widened her eyes at Rubio. "Mama didn't tell you to say that, did she? While we loved her dearly, she never drew a happy breath her whole life. I refuse to believe in gloom and doom, the way she did!"
Her brother shook his head poignantly. "I received her gift of second sight, yes, but not her eternal sense of darkness or damnation." His shoulder-length hair fell in artful disarray around his striking face, framing the relentless brown eyes that had captured many a lady's fancy at his séance table. The reds and purples in his flowing paisley shirt seemed to glow with his rising agitation. "While I agree that the future Lord Darington is indeed the perfect match for you, I sense trouble . . . a separation that will tear at your sweet, loving soul. Disparaging remarks and damage to your reputation, through no fault of your own."
"And what do you mean by that?" she demanded. "I see nothing of the sort in these cards! I have better things to do than—"
"I only reveal what my guides tell me, and for your benefit, Maria. Forewarned is forearmed, you know." His eyebrows rose expressively as another idea occurred to him. "And what happens with Jude when you become his brother's wife? You can't turn the poor man's affections off as though he had a spigot."
Maria's cheeks prickled with heat. "And why is that your business, little brother?"
"Because no matter whom you marry, you will always be my sister. I will always watch out for you, even though—"
"I hate it when you use your powers to spy on me!" She rose from her chair and swept her brother's Tarot spread from the table. The rest of his well-worn deck scattered on the floor, too, save one card that fluttered to the toe of her kid slipper.
Rubio's dark brows peaked. "The Tower. Harbinger of sudden surprises. Bolts out of the blue." He stood beside her, entreating her with his troubled gaze. "I meant no harm, Maria, and you know it! I shall escort you home, in case—"
"You'll do no such thing!"
"—evil lurks between my door and yours."
Maria grabbed his head between her hands, gazing pointedly into his hot-coffee eyes. "The only evil here lurks in your imagination, Rubio! Your dire predictions will not spoil my wedding tomorrow!" She left his studio with a swish of her skirts, driven by a sudden urge to be on her way—away from the brother whose pronouncements often struck too close to the truth.
And that's what bothers you, isn't it?
As Maria stepped from Rubio's dim reception parlor into the light of the early summer day, she regretted her brusque tone . . . the way she'd mocked his efforts to protect her. Damn it all, he was too often accurate in what he foresaw, and on this day before her glorious wedding she wanted nothing to come between her and the happiness she'd awaited for so long. She was nearly thirty. High time she walked up the aisle. And Rubio's talk of excruciating pain—loss of love and deception—well, she could not allow such predictions to block her path to happiness!
As she approached the post office, Maria glanced about at the passersby. She entered the building with a secretive smile and walked to the back of the stuffy lobby area, toward the larger commercial boxes along the wall. Seeing no one, she stood in front of number 111 and then twisted the knob to the right . . . the left . . . the right. Without stopping to read the addresses, Maria slipped the week's letters into pockets secreted in the side seams of her belled skirt. Moments later she strode down the sidewalk again, her mission nearly accomplished.
And how will you keep your sideline a secret, once you become Mrs. Darington? What if those blasted servants snoop in your trunks and armoire drawers before you can dispose of—
"Miss Palladino! How fortunate that I happened by!"
Maria nearly ran into the slender fellow who had stepped into her path while she was lost in thought. And why was the butler from the Daringtons' townhouse gazing at her as though he could see through her clothing? Just at the moment she'd been thinking about servants? "Ah, yes—Quentin!" she stammered. "I was attending a few last details before the wedding!"
"A lovely day for it, too. At your service, dear lady." He bowed before offering her an elbow. Although he looked excruciatingly proper in his dark frock coat and fresh white shirt, McCallum's hooded eyes gave him a furtive air. "If you're returning home, it would be my pleasure to escort you."
She'd met him just two days ago, when she'd moved her belongings from her apartment, and she was not fond of answering to anyone about her comings and goings! Experience told her this man could not possibly detect the stash of letters beneath her worsted skirt, yet he seemed so intent on accompanying her. "Thank you, Quentin, but that won't be necessary! I would hate to detain you from—"
"Not at all, Miss Palladino. Were your groom to learn I'd let his beloved walk these streets alone, I'd be out of a job! And rightly so, don't you think?"
How could she answer that? He was correct, damn it, but she was tired of the men in her life always being right! "Your secret would be safe with me."
Wrong thing to say!
Quentin's sideburns shifted with his smile, suggesting he knew too much already. "Very kind of you, Miss Palladino, but please! It would be my pleasure to walk with you. A nice alternative to spending time at Mrs. Booth's beck and call."
Maria chuckled. The imperious housekeeper found every excuse to order Quentin around, on the pretext he was much younger and more agile than she. "Please excuse me if I seem impertinent," she replied more politely. "I'm not accustomed to servants-"
"And we in the Daringtons' employ will be most happy to indulge your every whim. It's good to have you and your Jason living in town, giving the two of us something useful to do." Quentin squeezed her hand in the crook of his elbow as they started down the street. "You've no idea how Ruthie baits me with her innuendo and improper advances when it's just her and me! And frankly—" The butler shook his head dolefully. "She's beyond that sort of thing, you know? All the pity and politeness in the world won't compensate for slack thighs and saggy—"
"Quentin!" Maria stopped to stare at him, yet couldn't keep from laughing.
"I've gone and done it now," he said with a sigh. Then he fixed his stricken gaze on her. "Please excuse my indiscretion, Miss Palladino! I had no call to carry on about—"
"Mrs. Booth—Ruthie?—propositions you?"
"Yes, miss, and I'm running out of excuses, too! She fancies herself as my personal goddess-the one to instruct me in the ways of ladies, you see. It's downright embarrassing!"
While the mental image of the matronly Mrs. Booth shaking a wrinkled thigh at Quentin astounded her, Maria wondered why the butler was revealing his plight to her. Wouldn't he be better off to air his grievance to Jason? Or to Jason's father, Phillip, Lord Darington, who owned the townhouse?
"I can't tell just anyone, you see, because they won't believe me. And Mrs. Booth would deny it all, of course."
"Of course," she murmured. She looked at him more closely: while his teeth shone in white contrast to his tawny skin and silky dark hair, his facial shape reminded her of Jemma Darington's pet ferret. Even so, she could foresee the distinguished features Quentin McCallum would acquire with age—if Mrs. Booth let him live that long. The old biddy was prone to fits of temper, which might explain why so many butlers had come and gone at the Daringtons' London address. It was a joke among members of the family, but this beleaguered young man didn't find it funny.
"Thank you for your kind indulgence, Miss Palladino. I promise to never insult you with my own petty problems again," he murmured. "A bride's got better things on her mind."
"And I hope one of those things would be her groom!"
At the sound of that resonating bass voice, Maria turned to smile at Jason Darington. At last, a man to chase away the perplexing words of her brother and this butler! "And what brings you home in the middle of the day, Jason?"
"Why, you, sweet Maria," he crooned with a suggestive grin. The sun burst out from behind the clouds as though to announce his arrival, and in his natty double-breasted suit of deep blue he seemed the handsomest, most dashing man on earth. Jason tugged his red print bowtie from beneath his collar, and as it dangled provocatively in his hand, he unfastened his top two shirt buttons. "What else could I possibly be thinking of?"
"Aarrrrrgh! Naughty wench! There's no help fer yer wicked soul save to tie yer pretty arse to the mast and spank it! Like so!"
The smack! of Jason's hand on her bare bottom made Marie squeal and clutch the bedpost. Blindfolded, with her wrists bound to the bed by his red bow tie, she laughed and then cried out again as he playfully slapped each half of her backside.
"Do ye repent of yer lewd and lascivious ways?" he teased near her ear.
"And what fun would that be?"
"Are ye sorry fer baitin' poor Quentin? Leadin' him astray with yer feminine wiles?"
"No! Never!" Maria squirmed with need as his warm breath tickled her neck. How she loved it when he took her captive! Jason kissed her relentlessly, until her knees went weak. As he wrapped his hot, bare body around her from behind, his erection throbbed between her thighs, preparing for entry.
"I thought as much. Ye've had yer eye on me young butler ever since ye met him!" He claimed a breast in each hand and held her firmly against his chest. "There's no help fer ye then, save to let Blackbeard have his way with ye. Plunder and pillage, it is! Assume the position, lass. I'm comin' in!"
Her moan joined his in a lusty duet as Jason entered her, bending her forward over the bed to find the best angle. He thrust into her fully, until she thought she might die from the exquisite pressure when his long cock found that sensitive spot deep inside her . . . held her absolutely still, with her eyes squeezed shut beneath the blindfold. Her jaw dropped in a silent scream. This man knew precisely how to control her, how to bend her to his will with his skilled finesse.
When she thought she might faint from the mounting suspense, the sharp sensation of feeling nailed to the bedpost, Jason eased his cock out until its tip tickled her rim. Then he began to rock, slowly and rhythmically . . . in, and then out . . .in, and then out, until they breathed and pulsed as one. The pace between them quickened as need overtook the urge to play.
"You drive me mad with hunger, woman," Jason rasped against her neck. "I swear it was all I could think of from the time I arose-your hot, sweet cunt swallowing my cock. Poor Blackbeard finally stayed so hard for so long, he nearly got severed by the seam of my trousers. I had to leave the office because I could sit no longer! Were it not for my suit coat, everyone would've seen I was a man about to shoot like a cannon."
Maria held her breath to keep from crying out. All the while he talked, Jason was stroking her wet passageway, quickening the pace. "I—I hope we're not agitating poor Quentin with our noise," she rasped. "And Mrs. Booth! She looked appalled when you grabbed my hand and we went flying up the stairs—"
"They'll have to live with it, my love," Jason purred. His lecherous laugh reverberated all the way down her spine. "It's why Mother insisted we live here rather than at Wildwood, you know. Our amorous outcries would be the undoing of her prim and proper sensibilitie—-not to mention an education for young Jemma. But why are we talking about them?"
He leaned her farther down, slapping his thighs against the backs of hers in his urgency. Gasping her name in a frenzied whisper, Jason stiffened—and then cut loose in a series of shudders and moans.
Maria clutched the bedpost. Like a whip her climax snapped inside her, surging into a cataclysm of clenching muscles and inner spasms. On and on it continued, until her lover had spent himself inside her. She was vaguely aware that Jason untied her wrists. They landed in a sweaty, heaving heap on the bed, still a-tingle from nerve endings teased beyond tolerance . . . laughing and kissing and sucking in air until they could breathe normally again.
"God above, but I love you, woman!" he whispered reverently. He removed her blindfold so she could see the adoration in his smile. "Who else would play my pirate games? Who else excites me so much that I feel sorry for the chaps coming tonight, to bemoan the last of my bachelorhood?"
Maria yanked off his eye patch and then coyly widened her eyes at him. "I don't know. Who?"
Jason held her in a long, glorious hug. What a man he was, all taut body and smooth skin, large enough to wrap himself completely around her like a cocoon. With a bandanna still tied rakishly on his head and a slender mustache that shimmered whenever he grinned, Jason looked the part of the pirate he often played when they made love: randy and powerful in a way that always made her pulse skitter, even after he'd sated her.
"You're incorrigible!" he muttered into her hair. He inhaled deeply, sighing his appreciation. "And in my haste to plunder your fine body, I nearly forgot something! Check the pocket inside my suit coat."
Prickling with curiosity, Maria slipped off the tall bed to find Jason's jacket among the garments strewn around the room. When she fumbled beneath its lapel, her fingers felt a fine mesh chain . . . a flat, shaped piece of metal, cool and smooth on one side . . . pronged and bumpy on the other. As she pulled it out, its brilliance made her gasp. "Oh, Jason! Jason, it's—it's so beautiful! And you know how I love butterflies!"
Her fianc&egravis; rolled to his side to watch her with a lazy grin. "A gift for you on the day before we wed, sweet Maria. I told Jude to spare no expense when it came to the stones. Did he choose well?"
Holding the pendant up to catch the light, Maria could only gaze in disbelief: if Jason's twin had fashioned this exquisite piece, these colorful gems were genuine. Never in her wildest dreams had she hoped to own such stunning jewelry. "What have I done to deserve such—"
"Deserve?" Her beloved bent his arm to rest his head on his hand. "You've shared your heart and soul with a man whose only thought was of his next adventure—a man who spent his days avoiding matrimony. Until I met you."
Fully stretched out, naked, with his dark chestnut hair in disarray beneath his bandanna, Jason Darington was the picture of a rakish aristocrat whose ambition burned behind his shining brown eyes. Or was that a love like she'd never hoped to know, glowing like the stones his brother had so expertly arranged for her? "Thank you, Jason, but this piece must've cost you—"
"Nothing, compared to what you have given me, Maria." He smiled sweetly. "In the years to come, I hope you'll realize my family's wealth and possessions are merely . . . decoration. Window dressing." Jason rose from the rumpled bed to take the pendant from her. With utmost care, he fastened it around her neck and then steered her toward the cheval mirror. "Now here's a picture worthy of Matisse or Renoir! True wealth of spirit and affection, without a stitch of clothing or pretense to hide behind! You, Maria. Simple, yet simply everything to me."
She swallowed hard. Fixed her eyes on his in the glass, praying the devotion she saw there would never waver. "You could have chosen any woman you fancied. Certainly a more socially acceptable-"
"Acceptable?" His finger drifted along the column of her neck before following the pendant's chain to rest directly above her heart. "Pay no attention to my mother's blather about one's station in life, or what passes as acceptable in her circles, Maria. You're like this butterfly: free and uniquely beautiful, because you follow no one else's preconceived ideas about love and marriage. You came to me—gave yourself to me—expecting nothing in return. Have you any idea how refreshing you are?"
She smiled shyly, only now allowing herself to relish the gemstones that shimmered in the hollow of her collarbone. The butterfly's body curved slightly, in beads of onyx. Lustrous sapphires and rubies formed the lower wings and then swirled into spiral antennae. Diamonds and blue topaz made the upper wings seem to flutter when they caught the afternoon light. "I&mdash,I don't know what to say."
"Then I've performed a miracle! I've left you speechless!" He brushed his lips against her temple. "I hope you'll accept this pendant as a token of the love I intend to rejoice in every day, for the rest of my life."
Jason grinned wickedly, cupping her breasts. "And to think I could have been sailing off on one of Father's ships to once again lose myself in Jamaican rum, island women, and gambling! No, thank you!"
Maria's lips curved wryly as she thrust into his caress. "That is a miracle."
"That's what Father said. Jude is just damned thankful I haven't gotten myself killed during some of my wilder forays," he added with a chuckle. "Nothing he fears more than bearing up under the mantel of family responsibility, you know. In his way, he's every bit the vagabond I am. Just indulges in more artistic pursuits."
"And he's very, very good at it, too." She teased her fingertip along the prongs of the butterfly's jeweled wings. "I'll wear this tomorrow, instead of the pearls Jemma loaned me. Your mother will fuss, but—"
"My mother has a chest of jewelry that rarely catches the light of day. So many exquisite pieces she's demanded over the years, as payment for Father's perceived shortcomings."
"What a shame! And what a sad commentary on their marriage." Maria's hand flew to her mouth. "I'm sorry! It's not my place to judge or—"
"You hit the nail on the head. And your outspoken honesty is one more reason I love you," he murmured. "It's also another means of defying their authority when they insisted I marry on their terms. So you're perfect. Absolutely perfect for me."
Once again her throat tightened with emotion. While Jason Darington often showered her with compliments and encouragement, this afternoon was a rare treat: his words shone as brightly as the jewels he'd just given her. Maria watched him dress in a fresh shirt and suit then, openly admiring his fine body . . . his casual donning of the Darington wealth and its trappings. Would she ever forget her meager years of scraping by, looking after her younger brother, when their mother's untimely death had left them alone on foreign soil?
Or was this a dream? A vision that would disappear like morning mist in the bright light of day?
"Have a good time tonight," she offered.
"Oh, my friends will see to that." He deftly tied a fresh necktie and then folded his shirt collar over it. "I'm only succumbing to tradition, spending this evening at the club to avoid loving the night away with my bride. Not that I give a damn about tradition."
Maria smiled. She smoothed the broad shoulders of his serge suit, a hounds-tooth check in shades of umber and cinnamon. "You look very handsomely put together—"
"Jude chose the fabric. Says it complements my eyes."
"—except your hair looks like, well—a pirate's, after he's romped with a wayward lady."
Jason laughed and checked his reflection. "I should leave it this way. Give the boys something to speculate about, eh?" He swept a comb through his chestnut hair as though good grooming was the furthest thing from his mind. "There. Better?"
"Until I get my fingers in it again, it'll have to do."
"Can't happen soon enough." Jason bent to kiss her, quickly taking her beyond a going-away peck into those realms of passion that once again had her succumbing . . . surrendering. With a sigh, he released her. "Damn. Better get going before Blackbeard overrules my better judgment."
He strode briskly toward the bedroom door and then turned to gaze at her. "By this time tomorrow, I'll be the happiest man alive because you'll finally be mine, sweet Maria. Pleasant dreams tonight, love."
As his boots beat a rapid tattoo on the stairs, Maria's body prickled with a premonition. Ecstasy and joy juxtaposed with excruciating pain. Loss of love and life as you now know it.
"Oh, stifle yourself, Rubio!" she muttered. While she had a glimmer of second sight now and again, Maria preferred to let her renowned brother be the medium—and sometimes one bearer of future tidings was too many. She watched out the window until Jason's horse-drawn carriage rolled smartly into the street. And then she listened.
Stillness. A hint of baking beef wafted up from the kitchen, but otherwise the townhouse felt deliciously peaceful.
Maria gathered up the skirt she'd stepped out of before Jason could feel how heavy it was, to pluck the letters from the deep pockets she'd sewn into its sides. Quickly she crossed the bathroom that adjoined their separate bed chambers, grateful this house had been built with a master and a lady's needs in mind. Jason intended to sleep with her every night, but having her own room made it easier to keep the one secret no one but her brother knew. Still, it would be a challenge to carry on her career in the presence of a husband, not to mention the servants—
Was that the swish of skirts in the hall?
Maria yanked open the bottom drawer of the armoire, cringing when it creaked. She dropped her mail into it. Was shoving it shut with her foot when someone tapped lightly on her door.