That was flattering and encouraging enough to raise her spirits, bolster her confidence, and make her certain that she had made the right decision a few minutes before. She had prayed to be totally ruined, and it was going to happen at the hands of the most sought-after bachelor in Europe, Nicholas DuVille himself! That made it so much better—it gave it a certain flair, a style. In return for sacrificing herself to total ruin to avoid Sir Francis, she was going to have sweet memories to treasure. “I’m not demented, though it must look it,” she began, “and I do have a favor to ask of you.”
Nicki knew he ought to walk away, but he was as strangely captivated by her infectious laughter, her entrancing face, and her astonishing reactions as he was completely bored with the prospect of returning to the ball. “Exactly what is this favor you’re hoping I’ll grant you?”
“It’s a little difficult to discuss,” she said. He watched her reach for whatever it was she’d been drinking. She took a sip of it as if she needed it for courage, and then she raised those large candid eyes to his. “Actually, it’s quite difficult,” she amended, wrinkling her pert nose.
“As you can see,” Nicki responded, suppressing a smile and giving her a gallant little bow, “I am completely at your service.”
“I hope you still feel that way, after you hear what I would ask of you,” she murmured uneasily.
“What may I do?”
“I would like you to ruin me.”
UNTIL THAT MOMENT, NICKI WOULD have wagered a fortune that nothing a woman said could truly surprise him anymore, let alone reduce him to his current state of speechlessness. “I beg your pardon?” he finally managed.
Julianna saw him struggle to hide his shock, and she suppressed another siege of unacceptable giggles. She wasn’t certain whether her urge to laugh came from nervousness or the wondrous, evil-tasting potion that men imbibed to make them feel so much more optimistic. “I asked if you would be willing to ruin me.
Stalling for time, Nicki studied her from the corner of his eye while he reached into his pocket and took out the last of the two cheroots he’d brought with him. “What . . . specifically . . .” he queried cautiously as he bent his head and lit the cheroot, “do you mean by that?”
“I mean, I wish to be ruined,” Julianna repeated, watching him cup his hands around the flame, trying to get a better look at his features. “I mean, I wish to be made undesirable to any and all men,” she clarified. “Rendered unmarriageable. Left on the shelf.”
Instead of reacting, he propped a booted foot on the stone bench beside her hip and eyed her in thoughtful silence, the thin cigar clamped between even white teeth.
“I—I really don’t think I could possibly make it any clearer than that,” she said anxiously.
“No, I don’t think you could.”
She leaned a little closer to his leg and tipped her head back, peering up at his unreadable face as he gazed off into the distance. “You do understand what I meant?”
“It would be difficult not to.”
He did not sound very enthusiastic, so she blurted the first inducement that came to mind: “I would be willing to pay you!”
This time Nicki was able to suppress his shock though not his smile at her ability to cause the reaction. “That makes twice,” he murmured aloud. “And in one night.” Realizing that she was waiting for a reply, he lowered his gaze to her upturned face, bit back a wayward grin, and said gravely, “That’s a very tempting offer.”
“I would cooperate completely,” she promised, leaning forward and looking at him with earnest, hopeful eyes.
“The incentives are becoming more irresistible by the moment.”
Nicki let her wait for his decision while he gazed into the distance, analyzing the situation and the intriguing young woman seated on the bench beside his leg. He still wasn’t certain how old she was, but he had known she was no gently bred debutante long before she’d asked him for a “favor.” The clues had all been there from the first, beginning with the fact that she was alone in a dark, secluded area with a man to whom she’d never been properly introduced, and she’d made no effort to correct either situation.
Furthermore, the gown she was wearing was enticing in the extreme, seductively low cut to show off her swelling breasts and tightly fitted to emphasize her narrow waist. No respectable Society matron alive would have permitted her innocent daughter to appear in such a gown. It was a gown for a daring married woman—or a courtesan. She was not wearing a marriage ring, which left only the latter possibility. That conclusion was reinforced by the fact that it had become quite the thing, especially among the wealthy young bucks, to escort their lightskirts to masquerades as sort of a joke. Some of London’s most beautiful and sought-after courtesans were in evidence at this masquerade, and Nicki assumed the angelic-looking one beside him had quarreled with whomever had brought her here. After crying her heart out, she was now looking for a replacement. He knew damned well she’d been “ruined” long before and often since, just as he knew she had absolutely no intention of paying him, but the latter approach was so marvelously creative that he was impressed. She was not only entrancingly lovely, she was unique. And extremely entertaining. With her looks and imagination, her soft, cultured voice, she was not going to have to look very far or very long for a new protector. In fact, if she proved to be half as entertaining in his bed tonight as she’d been thus far, he’d be sorely tempted to volunteer for the role.
In an agony of suspense, Julianna stared at his firm jaw and unreadable expression as he gazed off into the distance, his hands thrust into his pockets, his cloak thrown back over his shoulders. His eyes were creased at the corners, and it seemed almost as if he was smiling a little bit, but that may have been caused only by the way he was holding the cheroot clamped between his white teeth.
Unable to endure the wait any longer, Julianna said shakily, “Have you decided yet?”
He shifted his gaze to her face, and Julianna felt the full impact of the lazy, devastating smile that swept across his face. “I would not come cheaply,” Nicki joked.
“I haven’t a great deal of money,” she warned, and Nicki bit back a chuckle that erupted into a shout of laughter when she actually started digging into her little reticule, searching for money.
Extending his arm to her, he said, “Shall we find a place more conducive to . . . ah . . .”
“My ruin?” she provided helpfully, and he sensed a slight hesitation that was gone before it materialized. Standing up, she squared her shoulders, put up her chin, and, looking like a queen going bravely and determinedly, announced, “Let’s be at it, then.”
He led her deeper into the maze, guided by a long-ago memory of the time when Valerie and he had been lost inside it for hours because they’d missed the secret path. It occurred to him as they walked along at a leisurely pace that introductions were in order, but when he mentioned this, she told him that she already knew who he was. “And you are?” Nicki prompted when she showed no inclination to volunteer him the information.
Somewhere in Julianna’s hazy mind, tangled up in the dreamy unreality of the night and the moon and the handsome, desirable man at her side, caution finally asserted itself. Trying to think of a false name to give him, she glanced down at her gown. “?‘Marie,’?” she provided after a momentary pause. “You may call me ‘Marie.’?”
“As in ‘Antoinette’?” Nicki mocked, wondering why she was lying.
In answer, she threw up her left arm in exuberation and called cheerfully, “Let them eat cake!” A split second later she stopped dead. “Where are we going?”
“To my bedchamber.”
Julianna mentally recounted the possibilities for ruination. Three dances with the same man. Allowing a man to show partiality. And being alone in a room with a man. Room. Bedchamber. She nodded agreeably. “Very well, I suppose you know more about it than I.”
I doubt it, Nicki thought dryly.
d along in companionable silence, and Nicki liked that about her too. She did not feel a need to talk incessantly. When she finally broke the silence, even her timing was right, although her topic was another stunning first in his vast experience with females. She’d been looking down at the ground when she lifted her head and said very solemnly, “I often find myself wondering about worms. Do you?”
“Not as much,” Nicki lied drolly, swallowing back a laugh, “as I used to do.” He couldn’t remember laughing this much in an entire week.
“Then consider this and see if you can think of an answer,” she suggested in the grave tones of a puzzled scientist. “If God meant for them to crawl about on the ground as they do, why don’t they have knees?”
Nicki stopped dead, his shoulders shaking with helpless mirth as he turned fully toward her. “What did you just say?”
A heavenly face lifted to his, eyes shining, breasts swelling invitingly above her bodice, generous lips forming words: “I asked why worms don’t have knees.”