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Blame It on the Duke

By:Lenora Bell

Chapter 1


Kama is the enjoyment of appropriate objects by the five senses of hearing, feeling, seeing, tasting, and smelling, assisted by the mind together with the soul.

The Kama Sutra of Vātsyāyana


London, 1820

Ballroom of the Duke of Barrington’s House



Venus rose from the undulating green waves, naked save for her long red-gold hair and a serene smile.

Ethereal harp music rippled through the air.

The small audience of titled gentlemen burst into applause.

“Who is she, Hatherly?” Captain Lear asked.

“She’s mine.” Nick’s gaze caressed the classical lines of his soon-to-be mistress’s lavishly curved form.

Lear grinned roguishly. “Does she have a twin sister?”

“How about the handmaiden?” Nick glanced at the pretty actress with long, flowing brown hair, threaded with white roses, waiting to garb Venus in a robe of sheer pink silk.

“You make off with a goddess and I rate a mere handmaid?”

“What can I say, old friend?” Nick poured Lear more French Armagnac from a glass decanter on the round table in front of them. “It’s my party.”

Nick was infamous throughout society for his hedonistic entertainments. For tonight’s festivities he’d recreated Botticelli’s exquisite painting, The Birth of Venus, searching the opera houses of London for the perfect muse.

No matter that her name was Sally and she hailed from Liverpool.

Tonight she was Botticelli’s Venus.

Art made flesh.

Temptation incarnate.

And tomorrow she’d be transformed back into the reigning goddess of the demimonde.

Lear chuckled, his gaze sweeping over the gentlemen seated around the stage Nick had constructed in the ballroom at Sunderland House, his father’s palatial London mansion. “Just look at ’em. Rapt as babes with their mother’s teat. You’ll have trouble besting this one, Hatherly.”

Nick nodded ruefully. “It’s getting harder to devise new amusements. I’ve seen everything. Done everything.”

“What you need is a change of scenery. Wide open skies, bracing sea air . . .” Lear winked. “Buxom barmaids at every port. Flexible flamenco dancers.”

In polite parlance Lear was known as an adventurer; a ship for hire.

Others called him a pirate.

He certainly wasn’t a true captain in the Royal Navy with his tanned skin, long black hair, and small gold hoop pierced through one ear, but he kept Nick supplied with this oak-aged brandy from France and spiced Portuguese wine, so Nick didn’t ask too many questions.

Lear clapped a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “Come with me on my next voyage. No, I’m serious,” he said as Nick began to protest. “When was the last time you left London? You’re suffocating here in this soot-stained city when there’s a whole world to explore.”

His friend’s words conjured a long-buried memory. Salt spray crusted on his cheeks. Staring over a bleak, gray ocean. In the cabin below, his father, the Duke of Barrington and celebrated orchid collector, feverishly scribbling in his journal, pausing only to fill his inkwell. Endless cramped lines of gibberish, his mind gone murky and as unfathomable as the ocean they crossed.

Nick suppressed a shudder and swallowed the rest of the brandy in his glass, savoring the tart, sweet apple and caramel flavor.

“I’ll never set foot on a ship again,” he said, his voice low and even, but the words ripped from his soul. “Hate the ocean. Hate the boredom. Pacing the deck for months on end. I’d go mad. Only did it for my father.”

Lear searched his face with a puzzled expression.

With an effort, Nick restored his customary expression of amused carelessness. “Only ships I want to see are theatrical props, old friend,” he said heartily, gesturing at the stage where the prow of a ghostly ship, stark against the blue backdrop, was rolling into view, signaling it was nearly time for Venus to sing.

Her talents had been completely wasted in the chorus of that halfpenny opera.

She had a smoky swirl to her voice that quickened a man’s pulse.

This was where Nick belonged.

Here, in the depraved heart of the decadent kingdom he’d built for himself.

If the future held madness, he’d damned well drain every last drop of pleasure out of each moment left.

He’d go insane in grand style, the most envied man in London, with a voluptuous goddess in his bed, and a cellar full of expensive brandy.

“Besides,” Nick said, “you know I can’t leave the duke here alone. His mental derangement waxes and wanes. Today he’s fine. Tomorrow he could be manic like poor old George. Rest his soul.” Mad King George had gone to his troubled grave in the end of January, only four months previous.

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