Behind the Courtesan’s Mask

BOOK: Behind the Courtesan’s Mask
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Behind the Courtesan's Mask
Marguerite Kaye

London, 1818

Troy Templeton, the Earl of Ettrick, has been tasked with the strangest job of his diplomatic career: visit London's most notorious courtesan, La Perla, to warn off the ambassador's besotted son. Instead, he's irresistibly drawn to her beguiling combination of sensuality and unexpected innocence.

Little does he realize that “La Perla” is actually her twin sister, Constance. Staying in her sister's home, Constance is aroused by its erotic ambience and dreams about the sinful delights that have taken place within its walls. And as La Perla, she can finally experience such pleasure for herself with Troy—if she can maintain the ruse….

Chapter One

London, Summer 1818

Constance gazed admiringly at the portrait. A likeness, she noted, taken by one Thomas Lawrence in May 1817. Barely a year ago. The subject, with her famed rope of pearls providing a lustrous contrast to her olive skin, was reclining on her stomach on a red chaise longue, her luxuriant auburn hair trailing down over the curve of her back. She was all but naked, a lace peignoir draped casually over her bottom, her back, ankles and feet bare, and so much of her full breasts on display that Constance was almost certain she could see a hint of nipple. The smoldering beauty was not looking directly out of the portrait, but at some other point, some male lover perhaps, her heavy-lidded gaze seductive, her full lips pouted into a lazy smile.

It was a provocative portrait, blatantly erotic, which Constance found somewhat disturbing. Touching the pearls, now worn around her own neck, she felt as though she was looking at another version of herself. A mirror image she had not known existed. A sensuous alter ego that had been trapped, for all those years, within the constraints of the respectable life she had led.

A gauze of tears blurred her vision.
Annalisa!
She had never known her in the full bloom of beauty and the notoriety that had made her La Perla, the most sought-after and exclusive courtesan in London. The frail woman who had arrived so dramatically and unexpectedly on Constance's doorstep had been a pale shadow of the lustrous beauty in the portrait, her body wasted by the consumption that was eating its debilitating way through her body.

Annalisa. La Perla. Her identical twin.

Constance wiped her eyes on a lace-edged kerchief. Annalisa's kerchief, as was the house she was occupying, the dress she was wearing. It had felt strange at first, this urge to inhabit her sister's life, but instinctively she felt that by doing so, even just for a few hours, she might somehow come to know and understand the exotic creature whose very existence she had been unaware of until six months ago.

Turning away from the portrait, Constance ran a hand over the satin bedcovers. Crimson. Scarlet. Vermilion. The color of sin. A frisson of excitement shivered like a puff of summer wind across her skin. Sinful. Redolent of sin. That is how Granville, her departed husband, would have described Annalisa if he had ever met her. Granville, the man of the cloth, who had performed his marital duties as he performed his Sunday confessions, with something akin to fastidious distaste. Yet the little Annalisa had disclosed about her sinful life had made it sound illicitly and shockingly pleasurable, enough to make Constance wonder, to make her wish, just once, to experience such pleasure for herself.

Above the bed, fitted into the ceiling, was a large mirror. Beside the bed, in a polished walnut chest, lay a selection of exotic items, the uses for some of which Constance could not even begin to imagine. Rope sheathed in velvet, large plumes of colored feathers. The sweetly smiling faces and elaborate dresses of what she took at first to be dolls concealed a length of carved ivory shaped to simulate, Constance realized blushingly, a man's shaft. Not that Granville had ever been so hard or so large.

Dipping her fingers into scented oils, slipping her wrist through what looked like a swansdown manacle, Constance tried to conjure up the dark and pleasurable world that her sister had inhabited. What would it be like? How would it feel to be her? To sin with a virile man, a potent man, a desirable man? A man who found no shame in indulging his desire? She closed her eyes, caressed her cheek with the feathers of the manacle and shivered. Here in this temple of the flesh, which was Annalisa's domain, it was almost possible to imagine the exquisite pleasure that might result. Arousal rippled through her.

Giving herself over to the decadent ambience, Constance wandered through to the dressing room, where another chest contained swaths of exotic undergarments. Sumptuous colors, gorgeous textures, clearly designed to tantalize, excite, provoke. Slowly, she put on a pair of black stockings, enjoying their silky caress as she rolled them over her legs. Another cupboard was full of slippers with jeweled heels. She selected a scarlet pair, to match the ribbons on her garters, lifting her gown to view the seductive effect in the mirror. She smiled provocatively, emulating Annalisa's portrait, and found she no longer recognized herself. The woman who stared back at her was a familiar stranger. Confidently alluring. Voluptuous. Constance had never thought her curves voluptuous before.

In a locked box, beside her jewelry, were Annalisa's potions, presumably the arts she used to prevent the consequences of all that sin. They were both childless, though for Annalisa it had been a choice, for Constance a tragedy. Barren, Granville had called her. His barren wife. Wincing, as the familiar pain squeezed her heart, Constance quickly locked the box again.

As she did so, the front doorbell clanged, making her jump. There were no servants in the house, Annalisa having closed it up when she left, knowing she would not be returning. Constance hesitated. Who could it be? No one knew she was here. The bell clanged again. Picking up the navy blue satin of her half robe, she made her way cautiously down to the entrance hall. The layers of lace petticoats rustled seductively. Her satin slippers with their ridiculously high heels clacked on the marble tiles. The scarlet garters that held up her stockings fluttered. The bell clanged again and again. The knocker had been removed, but a heavy fist began thumping impatiently on the door.

Constance wrestled back the locks and flung it open, almost colliding with the solid bulk of man on the other side. A strong arm steadied her. She looked up. And up. Into a face so forbiddingly handsome, she drew a quick, sharp breath. Glossy black hair, worn unfashionably long, the ends curling over the pristine white of his intricately tied neck cloth. Thick black brows over sooty-fringed eyes, which must be dark brown, but looked darker. A strong nose. Surprisingly sensual mouth. Dark skin, almost swarthy, as if he spent too much time in the sun. A shadow of black stubble on his cheeks, a dark cleft in the middle of his chin. Black as sin. As if her imaginings had been made flesh, she though fancifully.

When he let her go, she staggered back, clutching the brass door handle. He was real enough then, and extremely well dressed, she noted. Superbly cut tailcoat, almost the same color as her own robe. A plain gold fob tucked into his pale blue waistcoat. Gray pantaloons. Black boots polished to a sheen. “Can I help you?” Her voice sounded breathless, she noted.

“I most sincerely hope you can, madam.” Troy Templeton, the Earl of Ettrick, pushed the door wide enough to allow him to enter, then firmly pulled it closed behind them.

“What are you doing—I do not recall inviting you in, sir,” Constance said, trying to keep the panic from her voice.

“Given the nature of my business with you, I do not consider it appropriate to conduct it on your doorstep.”

Troy strode over to the door on the right, giving his unwilling hostess no option but to follow him. It was a pretty salon, decked out in rose pinks, all gilded chairs and knickknacks, a deliberately feminine room, designed to complement the artfully feminine woman who plied her trade in it.

He had only been in one such salon before. At nineteen, a Johnny Raw in every sense, he had been experiencing the delights of his first London Season when he was introduced to the Incomparable Stella Margate, the Season's highest flier. As a result of their acquaintance he was left scarred for life, when it came to affairs of the heart. Stella had taught him a harsh lesson and certainly not one he would wish upon any other green young whippersnapper. Which, he thought to himself purposefully as he dragged back the curtains of the pink salon to let in the light, was precisely why he was here.

He took his time inspecting this most notorious and highly paid of London's highfliers, noting the fiery streaks in her thick curls, the heaviness of the loose top knot. Her hair was long, it looked as if it would reach all the way down her back. Perfect skin that seemed to owe nothing to artifice. That surprised him. Her beauty was famed, but still, the freshness of it, the heart-shaped face, her huge almond eyes, the plumply sensual curve of her mouth, took him aback. Here was no painted whore. Seeing her now, he understood quite clearly why she was so infamous, and why that young fool of a boy who was the ambassador's son was so besotted.

“So, you are the infamous La Perla.”

Constance flinched. It hadn't occurred to her, as she opened the door in Annalisa's finery, that she would be taken for her, but now she realized how foolish she had been. Was this handsome stranger a prospective lover? Did they customarily turn up on the doorstep like this? Were all her lovers so very attractive? Sinfully attractive.
Sin.
The word would not leave her alone. Annalisa would sin with this man, and men like him. Her own sister. She shivered, but not from cold.

“Will you at least tell me who you are, sir,” Constance asked.

The stranger hesitated. “You may call me Troy.”

Unusual enough to be anything other than true, Constance reasoned, but he obviously intended to give little else away, for whatever reason. It made her hesitate to declare her own identity. “And what precisely is the nature of your business here? What do you want with my—with me?”

“Isn't it obvious?” Troy had been leaning against the window, but now he closed the gap between them. The dress she wore was low-cut, revealing just enough of her full breasts to make him want to see more. The pearls caressed her skin, nestling in the dip of her cleavage. “La Perla,” he said, catching the end of the long strand, lacing it through his fingers. “Cool and smooth,” he murmured ambiguously. Her bosom rose and fell hypnotically. He was surprised to find himself hardening. Knowing what he did of her reputation, he had not expected to find her so attractive. In his book, such women were as out of bounds as other men's wives. He wound the pearls round his fist, drawing her toward him. “La Perla. I hope you are not, like these famous beads of yours, beyond price.”

“Let me go.” Constance fought to control her breathing. She was not frightened. He thought she was Annalisa. She was beginning to think it herself, the way he was looking at her, the way he was touching her, the way she was allowing him to do both. No, she was not frightened, but she was—she was—something. She didn't know what. His physical proximity was unnerving. He was too male. Too big. Too powerful. Heat and something else emanated from his body. Something almost feral. She reached for the pearls, tried to tug them from him to free herself, tried to muster the resolution to put him straight as to her identity, but his hand closed over hers. A large hand. Warm. Long, strong fingers.

“Let me go,” she said again, though even to her own ears, her request sounded just a bit unconvincing.

“You know you don't mean it.” Troy coiled a strand of her hair round his other hand, effectively binding her to him. “Mock resistance is your stock-in-trade.”
And it was working.
He didn't want to let her go. What he wanted to do was kiss her. She was intoxicating. The brush of her breasts against his chest, the rustle of her silks against his legs, the scent of her, like an exotic flower. It occurred to him, serendipitously, that if she kissed him back it would be evidence of a sort. But he needed more tangible proof than signs and indications. He released her.

Constance sank onto one of the fragile-looking chairs, but her relief was short-lived, for now he loomed over her. She sat up straight, trying to dispose her skirts more elegantly, but the silk and lace rustled seductively, and the pearls seemed to glow against her skin, where he had touched them. Touched La Perla. Touched her. “What do you want?”

“You.”

The answer, so starkly put, gave her goose bumps. And a shocking frisson of excitement. No one had ever said such a thing to her before. No one was actually saying it to her now. Troy wanted Annalisa, not Constance. But Constance was Annalisa, for now, so he wanted…

“Me?”

“Why else would I be here?” Troy dropped onto the chaise opposite her, crossing one elegantly booted leg over the other. Almost, he could believe her surprise to be genuine. Diplomacy and dalliance, Troy excelled at both, but if this was part of her act, as surely it must be, then he had never encountered a more accomplished performer. No wonder the ambassador's lad had been so taken in. Soon enough the boot would be firmly on the other foot. The moment she agreed to his offer, La Perla would discover, to her cost, that she had made a fatal mistake. “I'll give you five hundred guineas,” he said casually.

“Five hundred guineas?” Constance repeated faintly, for surely she had misheard.

“For one night with you. The infamous La Perla.”

“But I'm not….” She hesitated, her wits thrown into disorder by the unexpected turn in the conversation. To one whose entire housekeeping budget for the year had been two hundred and five pounds, such a sum was unimaginable. So unimaginable as to seem quite unreal. Was it customary for one to barter over such arrangements? How high would he go? Not that she had any intention at all of accepting, but she couldn't resist the impulse to discover the value he gave to her company—La Perla's company.

“You are not what?” Troy asked, sounding impatient.

Constance bit down the bubble of slightly hysterical laughter and managed a very credible shrug. “I am not available for such a derisory sum.”

“A thousand then.”

She caught her jaw just before it dropped. “Pin money,” Constance heard herself saying, astonished at her ability to dissemble, wondering if this was what Annalisa would do, instinctively feeling as if it was. Across from her, Troy uncrossed his legs. He had good legs. Too many men were either too fat or too thin to wear these knitted pantaloons, but not this man.

“Fifteen hundred.”

“I'm still not interested,” Constance replied, quite intoxicated now with her game, too taken up with it to notice the very real excitement quivering through her body. He really was incredibly well-built, this man who desired her to the tune of fifteen hundred guineas—an astronomical sum. He was not much older than herself, maybe early thirties. His skin would be smooth, not wrinkled like Granville's. His muscles would feel hard against her skin.

BOOK: Behind the Courtesan’s Mask
7.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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