For eight years Gabriel Vaughan, Marquis of Halross, has believed he was duped by a clever, money-grabbing harlot. Left at the altar, he was to witness his betrothed in the arms of another man. Now a chance meeting in Venice brings all the old hurts and bitterness to the surface.
Although Athena Frances Fairchild claims to be innocent, maybe this is just another of her deceptions. It's time to exact a little revenge. With Athena in need of a safe passage back to England, where once Gabriel would have been proud to have her accompany him as his wife, now he will insist she travel ... as his mistress.
A small portion of the book takes place in London, but for the most part Venice is the star of this story. The city, its history, and traditions all play important parts in this story and give the book a mood that is rather unusual.All About Romance
The Defiant Mistress: Excerpt
Gabriel heard a soft rustle of skirts. He turned his head to see a woman being shown onto the balcony by a page. For a moment her face was hidden in shadows, then she stepped into the light.
Gabriel was standing still, but the shock of what he saw had the same impact as slamming into a stone wall. His lungs froze. He couldn't breathe. Disbelief rang in his ears, blocking out all other sounds. His vision narrowed until he saw nothing and no-one but the woman in front of him.
It couldn't be Frances, here in Venice. Surely the resemblance was just a trick of the morning light. Talk of Beresford's devoted young wife had raised the ghost of another, less than devoted bride in his mind. Memories he'd tried to forget had disturbed his sleep. Somehow he'd now superimposed Frances's face onto that of another blonde woman.
He deliberately closed his eyes for a few seconds. Remembered to breathe. Rubbed his temple. Opened his eyes. Stared at the woman.
She stared back, shock in her blue eyes. Her lips slightly parted. Colour drained from her face. There was recognition in her stunned expression.
It was Frances.
His blood began to pound sluggishly through his veins once more. The tempo of his heart beat began to increase. He didn't hear a word of Sir Walter's introduction or explanation. He forgot the Ambassador was even on the balcony. His attention was locked on the woman who had betrayed him so badly.
She'd changed her hairstyle, but a single blonde curl had escaped to lie against her cheek, just as he remembered it. Her skin was soft and smooth, unlined by the passing of time. Her eyes were still an entrancing blue. The colour of cornflowers, he'd once claimed in a foolish poem. Her lips were full, her mouth a little wider than true beauty required. But there had been a time when he's sworn her lips had been created for laughter - and for his worshipful kisses.
His gaze was drawn irresistibly lower. He'd once thought she was the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Her waist was still as trim as he recalled. How he'd longed for the moment when he would remove her boned bodice and touch her warm, yielding flesh. Today she wore a simple blue gown with an elegance few other women could match. The full silk sleeves of her bodice ended at her elbows, but the soft white cambric sleeves of her chemise extended an inch or two further and were trimmed with a graceful fall of lace which reached almost to her wrists. Matching lace decorated the neckline of her bodice and the hem of her skirt.
He could see the merest hint of the soft swell of her creamy breasts above her bodice. His eyes locked onto that small part of her anatomy. The place he had seen another man kiss her on the very day planned for their own wedding.
For a few seconds he was back in the bawdy house, watching in agonised disbelief as she turned willingly into her lover's arms. His hands clenched into fists at his sides. He heard again her mocking laughter as he sank into the painful oblivion of unconsciousness.
The slow chug of shock exploded into boiling rage. His lip curled into a snarl. Every muscle in his body tensed. Coiled to spring.
'... and please allow me to introduce you to Lord Halross.' Gabriel heard the Ambassador's voice as if it came from a great distance. 'As I mentioned to you last night, he intends to return to England in one of his own ships. I'm sure he can provide you with a safe passage home.'
Frances opened her mouth, but no words emerged. It was clear she had not expected to see him. Her lips were pinched and pale. Gabriel wondered if she was about to faint and thought savagely that it would be poor justice compared to his own humiliating fate eight years ago. He'd woken in darkness to find he'd been left lying in a stinking ditch outside the City walls. It was only by luck and God's good grace he hadn't been stripped of his clothes, and perhaps even his life, while he was unconscious.
And Frances had given the order for his degradation.
She had laughed at the prospect of it.
His muscles twitched. Power surged through his body, but he didn't move an inch. He had made a fool of himself once over this woman. He would not do so again. He drew in a deep breath. His lungs burned. It felt like the first breath he'd ever taken. He took another breath. Air seared through his throat like fire, but when he spoke his voice was harsh and cold as hoar frost.
'Is it my protection you crave, Madam? Or my indulgence? I -'
'Neither!' Frances's chin snapped up. Hot colour suddenly burned in her pale cheeks. 'I ask nothing of you, my lord. I am sorry to have intruded upon you.'
She whirled about in an angry swish of skirts, clearly intending to leave the balcony.
Fury speared through Gabriel when he saw the disdainful way in which she turned her back upon him. He would not allow her dismiss him so lightly a second time. He took two long strides towards her. Reached out to seize her arm -
But he was thwarted in his intentions by the sudden appearance on the balcony of the Ambassador's secretary. The man stepped between Gabriel and Frances. He uttered appropriate greetings to Gabriel and Sir Walter, but it was Frances who occupied his attention.
'Mrs Quenell, if you have rested sufficiently from your journey I would be honoured to show you the sights of Venice,' Roger Minshull said, bowing ingratiatingly.
Athena hardly noticed when the secretary took her hand. She saw only Gabriel. Heard only Gabriel. Even when she turned her back on him every fibre of her body was attuned to every movement he made.
Lord Halross, the Ambassador had told her yesterday. She'd been prepared to encounter Gabriel's brother this morning. She'd fretted over it all night. She didn't want to meet any member of Gabriel's family. But she'd calmed herself with the thought that she'd never met either of his older brothers. There was no reason for Lord Halross to know that she'd ever had an association with his younger brother.
But it was Gabriel who turned his head to look at her when she walked out onto the balcony. Shock seized her, paralysing her mind and body. But she'd been thinking about Gabriel all night. Wondering how to present herself to one of his brothers. It was a devastating but short step to understand that it was Gabriel himself who stood before her. In some distant corner of her mind she realised his brothers must be dead. There was no other way he could have inherited his father's title. But that wasn't important now. The only thing that mattered was that Gabriel was here - standing only a few feet away from her. She stared at him, hungry to look at the man for whom she had sacrificed so much.
He was as tall as she remembered. Perhaps even taller. She did not remember him as this grand, imposing figure. Eight years ago he had dressed soberly, as befitted his status and the austerity of Cromwell's London. And in her memories he was much younger. A man certainly, but flushed with the fresh enthusiasm of youth.
The Gabriel who confronted her today was a male in the prime of his power. Sure of his authority and his strength. Arrayed in all the magnificence of a wealthy nobleman. His coat of burgundy velvet was edged with gold lace at the cuffs and on the front facings. His coat sleeves ended at the elbow to reveal a contrasting cascade of white lace that extended almost to his wrists. His cravat was edged in a deep band of heavy Venetian lace. His dark brown hair fell in rippling waves around his shoulders. The early morning sunlight gilded a few shining strands with an aura of gold, so that he seemed to be clad from head to toe in extravagant riches.
But the fine clothes could not conceal his raw masculine power. The man who wore the soft velvet was lean and hard-muscled. The fine lace beneath his chin emphasised the unyielding line of his square jaw. Hatred and fury burned in his amber eyes.
His hostile gaze sliced through her, deadly as a sword to the heart. Her very soul reeled beneath his silent assault upon her. She couldn't move. Couldn't speak. She saw his body coil with furious intent and still she was held prisoner by the scalding fire in his eyes.
When he spoke, his voice was so laden with contempt she hardly recognised it.
She didn't understand his anger or the significance of his question - he'd not cared enough to turn up at the church, so why was he angry now? Her first shock receded. Pride came to her rescue. She lifted her chin, found the words to answer him, and turned to leave.
She felt Gabriel's sudden movement towards her, but then the Ambassador's secretary stepped between him. She barely noticed the secretary take her hand. All her senses were attuned to Gabriel behind her.
She jumped and looked at the secretary in confusion. Realised he had asked her a question and was waiting for her answer. She replayed his last few words in her mind.
'...I would be honoured to show you the sights of Venice.'
'Oh. That is very kind of you ... ' She couldn't remember his name. Somehow she managed a semblance of a smile instead. 'Sir, but I ... if you don't mind, I think I may ...'
'I'll show you.' Gabriel's hand closed around her arm, just above her elbow.
Her heart jolted at the sudden contact. The anger thrumming through his powerful body almost overwhelmed her senses, splintering her thoughts. It was quite beyond her to frame a coherent response to the secretary or to Gabriel.
She saw the secretary's eyes widen in surprise. Heard the Ambassador say something but didn't catch his words. Then Gabriel compelled her to leave the balcony. He strode the length of the portego, his hold on her arm unrelenting.
Athena had no choice but to go with him. Her legs were unsteady with shock and she nearly stumbled. Gabriel hauled her mercilessly upright. He didn't slow his pace. She was forced into a scrambling run keep up with his long stride.
He propelled her out of the portego and onto the outside staircase. She tripped. If not for his iron grip on her elbow, she would have pitched headlong down the flight of stone steps.
He muttered furiously under his breath. Clamped his arm around her waist and carried her unceremoniously down to the courtyard. Her heart hammered in her chest, but she was too confused and shaken to be angry at his astounding behaviour.
She could feel the barely-controlled rage within him. This was not the Gabriel who had courted her so tenderly eight years ago. She didn't know this man who threatened to erupt with fury at any moment.
He set her on her feet and hauled her through the ground floor hall.
Athena dug her heels in, her feet slipping on the smooth stone paving. 'Let me go!' She tried to wrench her arm out of his hold.
Without a word he picked her up and carried her through the watergate.
'Get in,' he ordered.
There were several gondolas floating in front of the palazzo. The one he directed her into was painted the customary black, but seemed far more luxurious than the vessel Pieter Breydel had hired yesterday to bring the small party to the Embassy. It possessed a cabin-like structure which could be enclosed to protect the occupants from the weather - or to provide them with privacy. When she stepped into the cabin she saw it was furnished with a fine carpet and curtains. And the reclining seats were covered with black velvet.
She stopped short at the sight of those couch-like seats, her overstretched nerves jangling at the prospect of almost lying beside Gabriel in his present mood.
'Sit down,' he said in her ear.
She trembled at his proximity and did as he commanded, perching upright on the very front of the velvet cushion. The gondola rocked gently as Gabriel stepped into it.
'Where are you taking me?' She watched nervously as he sat down beside her.
'To see Venice.' His smile was all predator.