The Scorpion and The Seducer
Jasmine Tristan was no stranger to the upper crust of English society. And yet, though adopted by a viscount, she was called the "Brown Scorpion" and knew the cruel sting of isolation. When her anger won out, her mother voiced fears. Was Jasmine truly bad at her core, like her sultan father from whom they'd fled? How could she be, when with Lord Thomas Claradon she'd known a moment of pure beauty? Their kiss had been scorching as a desert sun. But like a sandstorm, it was misdirecting: Thomas's mother's disdain and his loyalty to family and duty put him forever out of reach. Only a return to her birthplace, a quest to find her roots, would bring Jasmine the answer--and it would prove that true love could triumph over ignorance, passion over prejudice.
"Growing up in strait-laced London has its ups and downs for a young lady born of Egyptian parents. Even though Jasmine Tristan has been formally adopted by her step-father, a viscount, she is constantly snubbed by Society. Nicknamed "the Brown Scorpion" by some, Jasmine is determined to show everyone she is a proper English lady. Unfortunately, her methods lack thought, and when she is caught at a masked ball by the very woman who gave her the demeaning nickname, Jasmine's reaction is to seek revenge. When she discovers that her real father was a sultan who was hated and reviled by all he encountered, she worries that she may have more of his influence than she wants -- for the revenge she wreaks does nothing but hurt too many people, including the man she cares for.
Lord Thomas Claradon has had a difficult childhood - beaten and demeaned by his father, and then losing his older brother to a freak accident. Now he is the heir, and he has set out to turn his and his family's fortunes around. His Arabian horse breeding business is going well, and he is planning a trip with the Duke of Caldwell to Egypt to buy up the remaining horses of the al-Hajid, a Bedouin tribe that the duke had lived with. Thomas is also completely smitten with the exotically beautiful Jasmine Tristan, who is accompanying her uncle, the duke, and Thomas. She plans to write articles for a London newspaper of her travels. She is totally off-limits to him as the sole heir, especially since his mother has shown him how much she despises Jasmine. What will happen when he and Jasmine must see each other every day? Can Thomas control his feelings for her?
Angering not only the Claradons by her revengeful acts, but also her parents, Jasmine is determined to clear her name by writing stories of her journey back to her homeland. She is also hoping to find someone who doesn't hate her father -- there must have been something good about him? Will Jasmine find that the truth is too painful? And how can she resist the handsome Thomas?
THE SCORPION & THE SEDUCER is a continuation of Ms. Vanak's popular Egyptian historical romances. Characters from previous novels appear, but the story is centered on Jasmine and Thomas -- two star-crossed lovers who yearn to find a way around society's rules. Jasmine, head-strong, sometimes a bit too impetuous, and occasionally thoughtless, nevertheless feels the sting of being ostracized by her step-father's peers. Her cruel revenge alienates her even more, especially from the one she loves. Thomas is caught in a no-win situation. Can he fulfill his destiny and still have the woman he adores?
There is lots of excitement and adventure pulsating through this novel, along with some hot, sexy scenes that will have readers' hearts pounding. This is a stand-alone book, but check out Ms. Vanak's website for the list of the previous stories, as they shouldn't be missed." —ROMANCE REVIEWS TODAY
"After being called the "brown scorpion" once too often by the snobby English upper class, an angry Jasmine Tristan sets out to even the score by writing an anonymous newspaper column featuring scandalous gossip about England's aristocrats. But when her popular column ends up hurting the sister of Lord Thomas Wallenford, the man with whom she is secretly in love, Jasmine decides to change the focus of her writing. Going to Egypt in search of new story ideas seems to be a wonderful idea until Jasmine realizes she will have to travel with Thomas. A smart, stubborn heroine finds adventure involving the temples and tombs of ancient Egypt with an irresistibly sexy nobleman in the latest addition to Vanak's splendidly sensual and delightfully different Warriors of the Wind series." —BOOKLIST
Copyright 2009 by Bonnie Vanak
London, August 1907
They didn’t invite her to the ball again. She snuck in anyway.
Hidden in the shadows, Jasmine Tristan lurked in the stately gardens of the earl of Claradon’s London townhouse. A faint scent of roses filled the air. Jasmine reached out, stroked a blood red petal. Beautiful, trimmed daily with ferocious care. No cow parsley or straggling primroses permitted to ruin this very orderly setting. Lady Claradon pruned the garden as carefully as the guest lists for her annual masquerade ball.
Snapping off a blossom, Jasmine inhaled its fragrance. Heavy, cloying. But very much admired by the English. She waved the flower like a magic wand at the ballroom’s tightly closed French doors.
“Open Sesame,” she whispered, remembering her favorite Arabian Nights tale.
Dewy grass sloshed beneath Jasmine’s feet as she raced for a stately oak and hid behind it. Shadows swallowed her as she crept toward the terrace. The haunting strains of violin and flute drifted outside the ballroom.
She peered around a square-cut boxwood hedge. Graceful as windspun feathers, couples in elaborate costumes twirled past the windows. Muted light from the crystal chandeliers gilded the golden silk wallpaper of the ballroom. It looked like a glittering fairy tale, filled with handsome princes, princesses and fawning courtiers.
She felt like an invading Egyptian ogre.
Jasmine smoothed her gown with a shaky hand. The Renaissance dress with its emerald overskirt and gold brocade underskirt draped over her full hips and breasts. It fell in elegant lines in a sweep of velvet. The long, puff sleeves adorned with pearls and gold braid concealed her slender arms. A gold snood swept back her waist-length ebony corkscrew curls. Rice powder applied over a heavy coat of white theatrical greasepaint coated her neck and face. It turned her honey gold skin pale as an English lady’s. No one could tell she was dark as the Egyptian parents who birthed her.
For years, she’d tried to pry open the doors to English society’s upper crust. Nothing succeeded. Not learning English speech and English ways and English dress. Not cloaking her Egyptian accent or learning to sit properly at tea parties. Not even her adopted father’s viscount title helped. Jasmine’s family wasn’t wealthy enough to kick that particular door down.
Only her uncle, the Duke of Caldwell, had managed to gain her a very limited Season after presenting her at Court. At her coming out, when Uncle Graham’s back was turned, some remarked how Jasmine resembled a brown wren in her white gown.
Her attention whipped back to the terrace. The brief, sharp whistle came as planned. Time to attend the masquerade.
Silhouetted by the ballroom light, her best friend walked down the stone steps. Chloe’s plain, round face, plump figure and modest dowry failed to attract many suitors. But she had a sweet disposition, and tiger claws for anyone who mocked Jasmine’s Egyptian heritage. Unfortunately those people were plentiful, which meant Chloe was left out of society events nearly as frequently as Jasmine. Chloe didn’t care.
Jasmine loved her like a sister.
The earl of Claradon’s annual masquerade ball attracted society’s cream. More the sediment, Chloe had been invited to honor her friendship with Lady Amanda. Thin as a river reed, Amanda probably reasoned the plain, plump Chloe would provide a striking contrast.
“Jasmine?” Dressed as a milkmaid, Chloe pushed her half-mask up on her forehead.
“No wild Jasmine here, just very prim English rose,” she quipped, tapping her friend’s nose with the bloom.
Chloe grinned, settled the mask back on her face. “We’ll pretend we were strolling in the gardens, gossiping. Then just come inside with me. No one will notice you. You’ll blend perfectly.”
Her friend’s gaze swept over her. She sighed. “You look beautiful. Surely, you’ll attract many eager to dance.”
Fierce loyalty rose in her. “You will as well, Chloe.”
A head shake confirmed her fears. “No one so far, but Thomas, and he was just being nice. He did introduce me to his friend, Simon, who seemed interested, but…” Her voice trailed off. Chloe leaned close, dropped her voice. “Then again, if I freely gave out what Amanda did.”
Jasmine raised her brows. “Treats?”
“Of a certain nature. Last year, after Amanda’s dinner party. Everyone had long left but I remained, talking a while with Thomas. After he excused himself for another engagement. I went into the garden to take in the air and admire Lady Claradon’s roses. There were moans coming from behind the bushes. I saw Amanda with the gardener. He was quite clearly plucking a flower, but not the garden variety.”
Shocked, Jasmine reeled back on her heels. Amanda, the prim daughter who just became engaged to Lord Ridley?
“Amanda? Are you certain?”
Chloe shrugged. “It was dark, and the gardener was obscuring, er, her face, but I’m fairly certain. Besides, I recognized the shoes. She always boasted about those shoes, they were her favorites.”
This household did have its black sheep, even if they were white. The thought amused Jasmine.
“I’m certain Lady Claradon would be horrified to know her prize bud had lost its bloom, and to a mere servant,” Jasmine whispered, snickering.
“He snipped her right and good.” Chloe made a low-pitched squealing sound of pleasure, giggled. She pointed toward the ballroom. “Are you ready to go inside?”
“Ready.” Setting the rose aside, Jasmine then slipped on the emerald satin half-mask outlined with sparkling paste jewels.
Bending their heads together, the women walked on the stone path leading to the limestone terrace. Chloe climbed the steps, looked over her shoulder. Jasmine hung back. One hand gripped the heavy folds of her dress.
“Come on!” Chloe whispered.
A shudder raced down her spine. Setting foot inside the ball presented a personal challenge. Ever since that horrific night in the park, she had avoided any contact with the earl’s family. Jasmine swallowed hard. She’d already made one dreadful mistake. What if she risked making another?
If discovered, she’d surely be thrown out, or worse, mocked. Lady Claradon, who called Jasmine “that ugly brown Egyptian scorpion” behind her back would do the same to her face.
Jasmine glanced down at her hands, covered by prim white gloves. For once she’d prove to them, and herself, she could fit in. Even if only for five minutes.
“The hell with it,” she said aloud. “Chloe, go on. I’m not sneaking in. I’m making my own damn entrance.”
Grayish moonlight showed stark surprise on her friend’s face. Chloe grinned, gave a brief nod and vanished inside the door, closing it firmly behind her.
Jasmine drew in a steadying breath as she climbed the steps. She waited a heartbeat or two, then reached for the brass door handle. Head back, chin tilted skyward, she swept inside the ballroom, confident as a queen entering her court.
She saw a blur of costumes. Jasmine steeled herself as she recognized Lady Amanda dressed as Alice in Wonderland, Mozart by her side. Others murmured. Scrutinized. Watched.
Lady Amanda tossed her a censuring look as if to silently abrade her for strolling the gardens.
For a moment, Jasmine faltered. Then she remembered what Chloe told her about Lady Amanda. Smothering a knowing grin, she squared her shoulders.
Chin up, no slouching, no lowering the gaze like a servant. She picked up her skirts and sailed forward, leaving no hesitation in her wake. H.M.S. Jasmine, journeying to victory over the snobbish English ton.
Heart racing, she headed for a quieter corner, settled in to observe. Waited. After a moment she realized no one approached, questioned or stared. Strains from a waltz began. Couples floated onto the floor.
Safe. For now. Jasmine’s heart beat with hopeful joy. She relaxed the grip on her skirts, gazed about with interest. Musicians played on a raised dais near one silk-paneled wall. Jewels dripped from the thin, wrinkled necks of older women supervising their younger charges.
She caught sight of a pirate waltzing with a petite, dark-haired woman dressed as a princess. Jasmine went still as the pirate turned, revealing the chiseled features of the earl of Claradon’s only son and heir.
When she was 9 and he was 12, she’d punched him in the face for calling her an ugly mare. Had she known his mother would call her far worse, she might have shaken his hand instead.
Shortly after, Tommy invited Jasmine to his birthday party. She’d attended out of pure curiosity. But he’d actually talked with her of horses and even grinned when she called him Caesar, the nickname she’d given him “because you think you’re as important as a Roman emperor.”
Then his mother spilled an entire pot of tea on Jasmine and sent her home to change her dress. When she’d returned with her governess, the butler told them to use the servant’s entrance. Humiliated, her governess took her home.
Thomas. Handsome, unreachable. Nigel, his brother, died two years ago riding the Arabian mare Uncle Graham just sold to Thomas.
Customary guilt pinched her. That night, Nigel’s mocking, drunken laughter echoing through the park… her anger and shame; the sound of hooves pounding wildly into the grass as he rode off… The dreadful scream that followed…
She shook off thoughts of Nigel, concentrated on watching Thomas. Uncle Graham admired his sharpened eye for commerce. Business acquaintances called him ruthless. Women called him the seducer. They whispered he was a skillful, generous lover, taking time to learn a woman’s pleasures, and taking even greater delight in delivering them.
Her breath hitched as the waltz ended and Thomas left his partner. Immediately a gaggle of ladies flocked to him.
He resembled an English Lucifer with jade green eyes. His dark chestnut hair waved over a high forehead and curled rebelliously at the edges. She liked the dashing look it gave him. His angular cheeks were clean-shaven. Thick dark brows settled rakishly over impossibly large eyes. Eyes tipped with crescents of long black lashes that would make him appear feminine, but for the aquiline nose, chiseled jaw line and the implacable set of a full, sensual mouth.
Thomas dressed as a pirate in snug black breeches molded to muscular thighs, knee high jackboots and a crisp white linen shirt, open at the throat. A wood cutlass hung from his leather belt. Instead of a mask, he wore an eye patch.
He looked powerful and rakish. A slight shiver skated down her spine.
Inching closer for a look, she pressed through the thick crush. Hands hooked behind his back, Thomas smiled. He appeared raptly interested as one gushing woman illustrated her story with flapping white arms. What could be so fascinating? Intrigued, Jasmine drew closer, a moth beating close to his flame.
Not too close, should her wings singe, she warned herself.
Snippets of conversation drifted over. Jasmine strained to hear.
“Lord Thomas, you should take in stupendous delights of my gardens. My English roses are impeccably trimmed by no less than ten gardeners. Your time would be well consumed in inspecting roses. The pink color is spectacular, and the blooms are very fleshy.”
Thomas enchanted by roses? Jasmine rolled her eyes. When had he become so dull? Whatever happened to the boy who bragged how he’d ridden the earl’s high-spirited stallion?
Those long eyelashes flickered. In his eyes she caught a flash of pure emotion.
Jasmine grinned. Not dull. Just very well trained.
The object of the woman’s conversation gave a brief nod. His gaze flicked over to her three whey-faced giggling daughters squeezed into pink satin gowns like sausages stuffed into their casings. “Mrs. Hadden, I’m certain I’d find your English roses very … pink and fleshy.”
The deep timbre of his voice sent another shiver coursing down Jasmine’s spine. She stared, interested. Had Mrs. Hadden more sense than a peahen she’d realize Thomas obliquely insulted her. Silent applause rang in her head. Good show, Thomas.
A hint of vulnerability crossed his face. Thomas looked as lonely as she felt. Rubbish. He had everything. Money, title, scads of adoring women at his feet.
Riveted, she continuing staring when a beanpole-thin woman dressed as the Queen of Hearts appeared at his side. Jasmine reeled in a shocked gasp. Lady Claradon. Not good. Wouldn’t Lady Claradon enjoy snapping orders if she spotted Jasmine? Off with her head!
Immediately the women flocking about Thomas drifted away, disappointed looks etching their faces. The earl’s wife rapped her son’s arm with her heart-shaped scepter, gestured to someone. Flick, the scepter went. Flick, back.
Jasmine picked up her skirts, ready to find safer ground. She scanned the crowd for Chloe when Thomas glanced her way. Her heart raced as their gazes caught, held. Lifting his pirate patch, he studied Jasmine. Dread coursed through her. This was a terrible mistake. How could she assume she’d waltz inside and never come into contact with him?
She must avoid him. The earl’s son could do something worse than his mother and break her dignity. He could very likely break her heart.
Thomas snapped the patch back, detached himself from his mother.
“Thomas, where are you going?” Lady Claradon demanded.
Ignoring his mother’s protest, he began to push his way toward Jasmine.
Being a sensible type, Jasmine did the only thing one could in such a predicament.
How was it possible to be lonely surrounded by hundreds of people?
Lord Thomas Wallenford pondered the question as he waltzed his mistress about the parquet floor. His sharpened gaze studied the ballroom’s occupants. In their masques, they could be anyone. They were not. Like him, they were society’s elite. And yet they were replicas, as indistinguishable much as the gilded wallpaper. But the ballroom’s wallpaper veiled ugliness. Behind the façade of elegance, rot had begun sinking into the walls.
How many here harbored dark secrets as well?
His thoughts drifted to a meeting with the Duke of Caldwell, his new business partner. He and Graham had discussed commerce while the duke sprawled on the floor of his drawing room, playing “bear” with his two adorable daughters. They squealed and plucked at Graham’s jacket as he growled at them. Sitting in a chair nearby, the duchess smiled. The adoring looks the duke and duchess cast each other had made Thomas feel empty. Could he ever find the same?
“You’re looking rather pensive tonight. What is it?” Charlotte asked.
Instantly on guard, he offered a charming smile. “I was admiring the scenery,” he murmured. And thinking how pretentious everything is.
The Duke of Caldwell was not pretentious. Or accepted. Thomas’ social equals distrusted the duke and excluded him from most soirees. Raised in Egypt, Graham was cause for speculation. Some hinted at ancient scandal.
Thomas avoided scandal. Except for business, he associated only with the right sort of people. Their strict social codes were as rigid as their proper British spines. And if loneliness was the price he paid, then it was worth the cost, he reflected ruefully. He was the future earl of Claradon.
“Thomas, you’re not looking at me again. And I wore this just for you.” Charlotte pouted.
He studied the woman in his arms. Her low-cut Empire gown showed the delicious, dark valley between her ample breasts. He considered the possibilities. Dance her about the ballroom, then a much more private dance in her bedchamber later.
“You are looking quite splendid, Charlotte. That gown is fetching.”
“Perhaps you should visit me later and see my other attire. It is equally fetching.”
God, he adored women. Especially deliciously widowed, deliciously endowed, deliciously sensual women. Dangling from the end of a fine chain was his last gift; a gold ankh charm. She fingered it and cast him a seductive look from beneath her long lashes.
“You promised me a present, Thomas. What will it be? Another of your Egyptian charms? They fascinate me,” she pressed.
“I thought you had little interest in Egypt.”
“I have interest in you. And you do say some bestow good fortune. Such as that scorpion amulet you showed me that’s a good luck charm. I need good luck… as much as I need you.” She dimpled again, stroking his arm.
“Perhaps.” Thomas arched like a purring cat at her light touch, feeling his body harden.
Her voice dropped to a sultry whisper. “You know, you’re not like your brother. Nigel could never equal you in bed, try as he might.”
His smile, and other attributes, drooped. Charlotte’s whisper of his dead brother felt like a douse of icy water on his private parts.
“Dear Charlotte,” he murmured back, “I must refrain from your invitation. I’ve made it a habit to avoid a ménage a trois.”
Bemusement cast her lovely face into shadow. He suppressed a sigh. Lovely, but another dull wit. The waltz ended and he escorted her off the dance floor.
“Thomas, will I see you later? I must,” she wheedled.
Thomas made an excuse about prior engagements. Ignoring her annoyed pout, he walked off. His critical gaze swept the dance floor and softened as he spotted Amanda, beaming as she danced with her fiancé. Their love match was rare, with the baron’s rigid family approving Mandy’s spotless reputation. Thomas vaguely recalled Richard breaking off an engagement when the baron discovered his bride had indulged in an affair with an American industrialist.
Seeing them together amplified his inner loneliness. Would he ever find someone to love? He must marry for duty. But at least Mandy’s joy was assured. Her happiness was crucial.
Thomas felt restless tonight, riddled with a yearning he couldn’t define. Life was splendid and filled with pampered extravagance. Mandy’s engagement was secured and his own future was as sparkling as the champagne served in crystal glasses.
Why then did he feel so damn alone?
Friends were the answer. Thomas signaled to William Oakley. Oakley lifted his mask, nodded and vanished into the crush. The club, then. A few rounds of drinks, some laughs. The boring evening would resolve itself predictably at the least.
He started planning a quiet exit when his mother appeared. She chased away the toadies briskly as a broom sweeping out dust.
Unfortunately, she had an agenda. She nodded at a young girl in an indigo silk gown frothed with ivory lace. A sharp rap by his mother’s scepter indicated approval.
“Thomas, I am going to introduce you to the Honorable Alice Randall, the viscount’s daughter. The family’s financially solid. She’s only 18 and just had her come out ball, but has good bloodlines and will make you an excellent wife. And she’s extremely robust about the hips. Healthy. Will breed you fine sons.”
Breeding. Bloodlines. He felt like a reluctant stud, his cock an object of duty as much as he was.
“Mother, I’m only 25. I have plenty of time for siring a plethora of little heirs,” he shot back.
Tears filled his mothers’ rheumy eyes. She grasped for the lace handkerchief hidden in her long sleeve. “Your dear brother was unmarried and childless when he died. It’s all the fault of that wild Arabian who threw him!”
Emotion clogged his throat. Nigel, the brother who’d hated him and then became his friend after Father doled out his cruel punishment. Nigel, the perfect son who became perfectly determined to ruin himself. Thomas had tried to stop him. The result of his failure lay six feet below the earth in a cold wood coffin. He would not fail his family again.
Nigel, ah Nigel! Why the hell did you ride my mare, damn you, you knew you couldn’t handle her. She was too spirited and you were too intoxicated. It’s my fault. I should have known, should have stopped you. And now you’re gone.
She dabbed at her eyes. “Thomas, you cannot marry soon enough. If you die without issue, the title passes on to your father’s dreadful cousin. Do you want to see us lose everything?”
Masking his feelings with a blank expression, he swept his scrutinizing gaze over the corpulent Lady Alice, duly noting her dour look. A mere dance would not hurt.
Marriage and production of the coveted heir would fulfill his duty to the title, a duty felt more pressure to perform each day. Thomas was determined to marry a wealthy woman of status who engaged his passion in bed and his intellect out of it.
One might as well coax a brilliant star to descend to the earth, he mused.
If he could not have such, then he wanted an attractive bride to enjoy conceiving the heir. Lady Alice Randall did not fit the part. He liked large women, but this one looked appallingly dim-witted. Lady Alice’s bulbous nose twitched, as if scenting something unpleasant.
“No, Mother, she’s not for me,” he said flatly.
Her thin lips twitched with displeasure as she stuffed the handkerchief back into her sleeve. “I saw you waltzing earlier with that Miss Sanders. Thomas, do not waste your time. She’s merely the daughter of a butcher, not our sort at all. I only invited her because Amanda insisted.”
“I like Chloe. And no one else asked her to dance. I want to make all our guests feel welcome and comfortable, even those without social standing,” he shot back, annoyed.
His mother sniffed. “Well, I suppose it did show you as gallant and charitable to those less fortunate than us.”
“It wasn’t for show. She’s interesting and intelligent.”
“You don’t need an intelligent wife. You need one of fine breeding, who can give you healthy sons,” his mother retorted.
Movement caught his eye as the crowd parted and flowed around a figure in emerald green. He glanced her way. Then lifted his eye patch for a better look, and glanced again.
Now there was a woman. Rose red mouth, pert nose, an exotic heart-faced face, like a cat’s. His hungry gaze devoured what he could view of her figure. Ah yes, those breasts, hidden by conservative emerald velvet that couldn’t disguise generous curves. A surge of heat slammed into him as he imagined cupping their heavy weight in his hands. Stroking over the pearling nipples, and enjoying her little cries of excitement.
But what drew him the most was her dignified, apart demeanor, as if she did not belong here. And she didn’t give a damn.
He wanted her, for at least a dance. He started forward.
She fled. He pursued her, like prey.
She had nearly reached the doors when he got close enough to skirt her side, block her way. The lady drew back, but instead of alarm, indignation flashed in her eyes.
“Do you mind?”
Her melodious voice sounded English, threaded with exotic undertones. Puzzled, he studied her. Eyes dark as a midnight sky narrowed at him. Not frightened, but angry.
Intrigued, he stepped closer.
“I wasn’t blocking your way. Will you dance with me?”
No? Shock slammed into him. No one ever turned him down. Not even the most wizened crone who had nothing to gain from marriage to him. And he’d even danced, dutifully, with a few of those as well.
“Why not?” he pursued.
“Because I don’t feel like it.”
“That’s not a reason.”
“It is for me. Now, do you mind stepping aside?”
Thomas’s shock evaporated. A surge of heat slammed into him like a powerful fist. He would not let her go. This one had fire. No meek, mincing debutante here. Who was she?