Seven years later . . .
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. His lip curled as though he had identified something distasteful. 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 as much.
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 where 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 who 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 rested 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