Max knew it was Aurelia the instant she sat down at the table. Or rather, the moment she plopped into the chair across from him. The black gown she wore was so indecently tight she wasn’t capable of sinking into her seat with any standard of grace. Her ridiculous disguise could not hide her from him.
He stilled, his entire body going rigid. The dress. Her. At this table. None of it was right or proper. Familiar ice chugged through his veins at the unexpected sight of her here of all places. The most illicit of clubs. Young ladies of privilege weren’t supposed to know places like this even existed, much less step across the threshold. He shouldn’t be surprised. Aurelia had never fit Society’s vaunted criteria for young womanhood.
The laughter and buzz of conversation faded to a dull growl around him as his gaze tunneled through copious cigar smoke to peer at Aurelia. He tracked her every curve, missing nothing. Not the absurd wig of golden hair piled atop her head. Not the olive-hued skin. Nor the whiskey-warm eyes.
His body reacted instantly. How could it not? He was a man in possession of healthy appetites, and however much he did not care for the chit, she was thoroughly beddable in that scandalous dress. He’d known she was voluptuous, but he had no idea she had been hiding a courtesan’s body beneath her clothes these many years. And that was what every man in this room thought as they devoured the sight of her. That she was a whore for the taking. A quick glance around confirmed that.
The backside he had glimpsed before she sat down was well-rounded with generous cheeks that would fill a man’s hands. He eyed the narrow waist that pooled into flaring hips. His mouth dried. Her body was made for sex. No quick and gentle mating that ladies with delicate sensibilities engaged in under the cover of darkness. She would take everything a man could give and revel in it. All he could give. Rough and fast. Base and primal. She wasn’t a fragile piece of crystal that would break beneath a hard shag.
He leaned back in his seat as though needing to insert additional space between them. His hand slid beneath the table to adjust his cock were it had grown achingly hard. He huffed out a breath, furious that she should make him feel this way. He did not like her. He’d sooner take a viper into his bed than this chit that had caused him such grief.
No one called him Cockless Camden anymore. At least not to his face, but it took years to put an end to that. Even now he knew the slur was still whispered behind his back. People thought it. The repercussions of that caricature followed him still. Every time he got naked with a woman, he read the surprise in her eyes. The relief.
“Gentlemen,” she greeted, her gaze fixing on him. The taunting light in the brown depths made his skin tighten with familiar battle-readiness. “Room for one more?”
“Always room for so beautiful a lady,” the man to Max’s left replied as he shuffled cards.
What the bloody hell was she doing here? He stared hard at her, letting his gaze convey his outrage.
She smiled prettily, her plump lips curving beneath her scarlet domino. The domino was a joke. As was the wig. Anyone who was more than a passing acquaintance with Aurelia would recognize her. Which only made her ten kinds of a fool for even stepping foot in Sodom. Even right now her cousin, Declan, was upstairs.
“Thank you.” She treated each man at the table to her smile. “What is the wager, gentlemen?”
Everything in him clenched hard. He wanted to wrench her up from the table, drag her from the club and stuff her into a carriage for home. Only that would call more attention than necessary. Not that she didn’t deserve a little public shaming, God knew, he had suffered enough of that over the years. Thanks to her. Pummeling anyone who dared call him Cockless Camden to his face and shagging half the women in the country had gone a long way in proving his virility and dismissing the moniker.
But if Aurelia’s presence here went public it would ruin her. He couldn’t do that to Will or Declan. Instead, he traced the rim of his glass as he stared at her, hoping she grasped the full extent of his fury. Hoping she was afraid.
“We play for high stakes.” He raked her with his eyes. “Too high for you, I am certain.”
He knew the dig would wound. He knew because he knew of her brother’s dwindling funds. Her pin money could not be very prodigious.
She sniffed and pulled back her shoulders. An action that only pushed out those magnificent breasts. Everything in him twisted tight as the edge of an areola, dusky-dark where it met her olive-hued skin, came into view. Reaching for his glass he downed it and signaled for another one.
And he wasn’t the only one getting an eyeful. Every man at the table was looking, salivating at the sight of her flesh. Scowling, he took in each of their hungry stares before returning his gaze to her.
“High stakes don’t frighten me,” she announced.
“They should,” he growled and then added beneath his breath. “Daft girl.”
She heard him. Or read his lips. The hands that rest on the top of the table curled into fists. “What’s amiss? Afraid you will lose?”
“One night upstairs,” the man to his left blurted, boldly tossing down the gauntlet. “Winner claims one night with you in an upstairs chamber,” he clarified as though his meaning wasn’t evident. The bastard then winked at Aurelia.
Max arched an eyebrow, waiting for her to flee. Now she would surely see. Now she would understand that she had gotten in over her head. He watched, waiting for her to come to her senses and excuse herself.
Her brown eyes locked on his as she asked, “And if I win?”
He slid his hands beneath the table and gripped his thighs, his fingers digging deep as he leaned forward. Mad chit. She was not doing this. He shook his head once at her. Hard.
“Whatever you want. Name your prize,” one of the other men offered, leering at her chest as he did.
Her gaze roamed over each man at the table, assessing. Four in all, counting him. She thought she could best all of them? She was playing with fire and she knew it.
“I’ll have…” Aurelia paused, her gaze resting on him again, considering. “Your clothes.”
The man beside him choked. “Our clothes?”
She nodded, smiling pertly.
“You’ll have each of us strip down to our bare arse right here?” another demanded.
“You cannot think to win. You will lose,” Max hissed, letting that sink in her fool head. She would lose and be at the mercy of one of them. In that moment, he did not think she would prefer to be subject to him. Not as furious as he was.
She shrugged one shoulder. It looked as smooth as marble, and he imagined touching it, stroking the flesh and discovering if it was as soft as it appeared. One of the men at this table could very well win that privilege if he let her do this. Daft female. He should just walk away. Let one of them have her. It would serve her right, playing with fire.
And yet she was Will’s sister. He couldn’t leave her to these wolves.
“I’m in,” he announced, hating to utter the words even as he had no choice. He would take the wager and he would win and save her from this mess.
He admitted there would be some satisfaction in beating her. She thought she could win. For no other reason would she have agreed to these terms. He would relish besting her.
The other men quickly chimed in their own accord.
“Let us begin then, gentlemen.” Still wearing that insufferable smile, she nodded for the game to commence with a magnanimous wave of her hand.
The cards were dealt quickly and efficiently. He watched everyone’s faces closely as they played, reading for the slightest reaction.
He trained his features into a mask of impassivity. No expression. Even when the first two men tossed down their cards in defeat. Rising, they stripped off their clothes with grumbles.
A crowd gathered, jeering at their pale, naked bodies on display. Aurelia dipped her gaze to her cards, but not before he read the amusement glimmering there. She was enjoying herself. Bloody fool. She hadn’t an inkling of the predicament she was in.
“Having a good time?” he bit out.
“Adequate,” she retorted, treating him to a chilly smile.
Shaking his head, he tightened his focus on the cards he held, placing one on the table and drawing a new one with nary a change in expression. There were just three of them left now, Aurelia, himself, and the man to his left.
The stranger knew what he was about. Not so surprising, since the wager had been his idea. He was confident and hard to read. Max’s gut churned uneasily, suspecting that he and Aurelia had perhaps been lulled into a swindle by a sharp. He glanced down at his hand, hoping for her sake that it was enough.
He watched the stranger draw fresh cards and then lift his gaze to Aurelia. “Well, my love? What have you?”
She toyed with the edges of her cards, bending them slightly as she was not supposed to do. Not that any man at this table would correct her. No, she was by far too mesmerizing in her shocking gown, her breasts on full display.
Max’s fingers clenched around his cards, the knuckles whitening. “Be quick about it. We haven’t all night.”
Her gaze shot to him. “I’m sorry. Am I keeping you from more diverting sport?”
“You’ll be free to go about your diversions soon enough,” the stranger smoothly inserted, locking gazes with Max. “Once the lady and I adjourn to one of Mrs. Bancroft’s chambers upstairs.”
“Awfully confident, aren’t you?” he asked, the silky edge to his voice deceptively calm.
The stranger smiled widely, revealing yellowed, furry teeth. “Our friend here is impatient, Madame. Shall we put him out of his misery and let him face his defeat?”
“After you,” Aurelia insisted.
“Why not?” Furry Teeth shrugged. “Let us be done with it then. And on to more pleasant pursuits.”
Apprehension finally flickered within her eyes. The emotion was visible for just a moment through the eyeholes of her scarlet domino. Now she feared she might have overstepped, did she? When it might be too late. Fool. Did she expect him to save her? Blast her, he should leave her to hang herself. Let the brute take her upstairs.
Furry Teeth fanned his cards out before him with flourish. Applause erupted around them. Max stifled a curse and flung his cards down on the table. He’d lost.
Furry Teeth chuckled and wagged a finger at Max. “You, my friend, best undress yourself whilst I take this little morsel upstairs and collect my winnings.” Rising, he extended a hand toward Aurelia. “Come, sweetings. A wager is a wager, after all.”
Aurelia lifted her bowed head just as Max started to rise. Not to undress himself but to stop that filth from touching her. Wretched girl or not, he would not let this vermin take her. He could not. His friendship with her kin demanded he protect her. Even if that meant reneging on a bet.
“Do you not wish to see my cards?” She queried softly.
All eyes turned to the table as she spread her cards in an arc. Surprised gasps rippled all around them.
Furry Teeth let out an oath.
She leaned back in her chair in the manner of a victorious queen and leveled her gaze on him. “A wager is a wager,” she echoed. “I believe I’ll collect my winnings now.”
Furry Teeth began stripping off his clothes in angry movements, revealing his pale skinny limbs. Entirely naked, he quickly sank back down in his chair and sat there sulking much like the other two men who had already shed their clothes.
Aurelia lifted an eyebrow at him. “Well, my lord? Do you not honor your bets?”
“Honor?” He chuckled low and deep, the sound raw and prickly in his throat. “That is not a word I expect you to understand.”
Her smile turned brittle. “Are you delaying on purpose? The hour grows late, my lord.”
He shoved to his feet, sending his chair skidding backward. He yanked off his jacket and vest, his eyes never leaving her face. Reaching behind his neck, he pulled his shirt over his head and tossed it aside on one smooth move.
A woman nearby made a hissing sound of approval.
The corner of his mouth kicked up in acknowledgement. He knew he was well-formed. He spent a goodly amount of time riding, fencing, swimming, fighting. He was not ashamed. That said, he did not appreciate being forced to undress so that he could be ogled and made a spectacle of. Again. The first time had been at her hand, too.
Anger, hot as molten rock, poured through him. It was in his every movement. The crowd fell silent around him as he removed one boot, then the next. His hands went to the front of his trousers and hesitated.
She watched him, her throat working as she swallowed.
“Is this what you want?” he demanded.
The color rode high in her face, crowding the edges of her domino. She was getting more than she bargained for. She realized that now.
He leaned across the table, flattening his palms on the baize surface and bringing his face inches from her. “This is what you’ve been so curious about? Is it not?”
Her breath escaped in a sharp hitch. “You flatter yourself.”
“You set the stake, not I. Shall I satisfy your curiosity at last?” His voice dropped to a whisper. “Now you can infuse some reality to your artwork. That will be a refreshing bit of change.”
Her nostrils flared. Her words escaped in a low hiss for his ears alone, “There is truth in my drawings.”
Her words struck him like steel striking flint. He laughed once, hard and unforgiving. “You’re about to witness the truth. Pay close heed. So next time, I expect you to get it right.”
“I’ve drawn you once. No need to repeat the task.”
He tsked. “Come now. I fascinate you as a subject. You know it. I know it.”
“Rubbish,” she spat, her gaze sparking fire through the eyeholes of her domino.
“Shall I prove it?” Shoving back off the table, he dropped his hands to the front of his trousers. Tearing loose the buttons, he shoved them down and stood naked before the room. Unlike the other men, he did not sink into his chair. He let the room have a look. He let her drink her fill.
Her mouth popped wide in a little o. Those eyes of hers traveled over him, missing nothing. She looked everywhere. Especially there.
Those big brown eyes of grew larger yet. She looked for so long and so intently that he stirred. He knew he should have felt a stab of embarrassment as he grew before her eyes. Or perhaps not. This was Sodom where all manner of illicit activity happened before all manner of audience, after all. Nothing was too shameful. Nothing private.
His response to her irked him. The stroke of her gaze shouldn’t make him randy as a green lad. Any other female, fine. Only not her.
“Gor,” a woman clucked from the crowd. “I wouldn’t mind a ride on that.”
Fire lit Aurelia’s cheeks.
She had failed. She might have won the wager, but he was the victor. She had planned to embarrass him and failed. Satisfied, he sank down in his chair.
The crowd dissipated around them. The men hastily redressed and retreated, but he remained where he was, naked in the chair, holding her gaze for long moment.
“Not so cockless. Am I?” he queried lightly.
“You’ve proven that well enough,” she replied evenly, the color in her face becoming less red and more pink.
“Do well to remember it in your spinster bed,” he flung out. “Or perhaps someday you will wed and have but a puny rod to take between your thighs. You’ll think of me often then, will you not?”
“You’re vile.” She surged to her feet and started past him, but he grabbed her wrist, squeezing the delicate bones in his grip. She looked down at him, her brown eyes luminescent within her mask.
He rolled his thumb against the inside of her wrist, feeling her pulse flutter there as wild as a moth’s wings. “Don’t ever come here again.”
“You do not command me.”
“But that is what you need. A strict hand to lead you.” His gaze raked her.
“Look at you. Look where you are.” He waved a hand about them.
“I command myself.”
“Do you? Very well then,” he sneered, flinging her from him as though he could not stand the feel of her a moment longer. “Next time I’ll let any manner of man take you upstairs and claim your virtue. If, in fact, you’re still in possession of it—“
His words hit the mark. A stricken look crossed her face before disappearing and giving way to a cheery smile. “You forget yourself, Camden. You did not rescue me. It is you who lost the wager to me.”
Still wearing that bright smile, she turned away, her hips moving in a way he had never noticed before, swaying as she took small, tight steps in her black gown. A gown that he suddenly envisioned wadded up in a ball at the foot of his bed. That would be one way to command her, he thought, watching hungrily as she disappeared through the crowd of Mrs. Bancroft’s sitting room. Indeed, he could command her in his bed. Beneath him. If he didn’t find her so detestable, that would be the perfect place for her.