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London, May 1851
“It’s a sure sign that I had too much to drink,” Sebastian said, “when I start imagining beautiful women coming into my bedroom and taking their clothes off.” The young woman did not reply. She merely let her chemise fall to the floor and stepped out of it.
Sebastian de Mornay had the feeling that he’d missed something. It was the same sensation he got when he been reading a book and skipped a page by mistake. Or, more accurately, as if he had been going down a staircase in the dark and missed a step. The feeling of being caught off guard and coming to ground with a thump. Surely, he thought, he’d have remembered if he’d propositioned a woman tonight?
It wasn’t as if there had been many women in his life lately. He’d only arrived in England on the Marie Therese last week, eager to find his way back out of the country as soon as he could get another expedition funded. Which is what had brought him to the Travelers Club tonight in the first place.
He remembered a banquet room: brandy fumes, cigar smoke, and the sound of self-important men trying to out–bombast each other with their endless speeches. But not one beautiful woman, not even a single doe-eyed houri. You’d think that there would have been at least one, he mused, considering this was a club devoted to exploring the remote and exotic.
And this woman certainly qualified. Her dark eyes were as beautiful and mysterious as the nubile denizen of a sultan’s harem. She removed the last pin from her coiffure and her hair tumbled down around her. He had forgotten how beautiful a woman’s hair could look when it was unbound. Dark hair parted around a pale oval face and flowed down over bare white shoulders, a dark waterfall that provided entrancing glimpses of smooth white skin… It had been a long five months on that ship. If he looked at those curves much longer, he was going to forget the fundamental absurdity of this situation.
One moment he was sitting in bed reading, getting ready to go to sleep, and the next thing he knew the door handle had turned and a woman had walked into his room without a word of explanation. Perhaps it was the brandy that fogged his memory. He couldn’t recall ever seeing her before. She hadn’t been dressed as a servant; she had looked like a perfectly respectable young lady. At least, she had looked like a lady until she started taking off her clothes.
He should have paid more attention. Sebastian knew that now, as he watched her remove the last scrap of clothing and stand before him, cloaked like Lady Godiva only in her long hair.
She came closer. As she moved, the dark concealing waterfall of hair shifted, revealing the pale curve of a hip here, the stray glimpse of a breast there… Sebastian dragged his eyes away from her body as she drew back the bed covers. His hand shot out and grasped her wrist, stopping her. She regarded him without moving an inch. Her dark eyes were watchful. There was a kind of quiet dignity about her, which was more than Sebastian could say for himself.
“I don’t know quite how to put this,” he said, “but — have we met?”