Don’t Bargain with the Devil
Valiantly ignoring his wicked flirtations, outspoken Lucinda Seton vows to derail his plans and save the school, unaware that Diego’s true mission is to spirit the long-lost heiress away to Spain for a handsome reward!
Before long, Diego’s heart is playing tricks on him, and Lucy is falling under the illusionist’s spell. How can the Master of Mystery go through with his devilish scheme when all he wants is to make the lovely heiress his own?
Thanks to you wonderful readers, the book hit the following bestseller lists:
- #28 on the New York Times extended list (two weeks on that list)
- #55 and two weeks on USA Today
- It also earned a 4 1/2 Stars HOT, Top Pick! and a KISS from Romantic Times
- Romantic Times 2009 Historical Romance of the Year Nominee
“The School for Heiresses is in trouble as Jeffries delivers an irresistible love story with a bad-boy hero, an intrepid heroine and just the right amount of mystery to pique readers’ interest and deftly hold them under her spell.”
“…a touching romance with humor, passion and magic… this story is a springboard catapulting the readers to the final story in The School for Heiresses Series where the mysterious ‘Cousin Michael’ will finally be unveiled.”
“Sabrina Jeffries has written a tale with in-depth, well-developed and very realistic characters, as well as a plot with several interesting twists and turns.” —Fallen Angels Reviews
Lucinda Seton accompanied her father and stepmother to their coach, then followed it to the end of the school’s drive. But as she strolled back, she balked at facing her unpacking. It would only provoke more tears, and she was sick to death of crying over Peter’s harsh rejection of her and his claim that she was a “hot-blooded hoyden,” the kind that men only dallied with.
So she made a sharp turn and headed across to the cherry orchard in full bloom that separated the school from its neighboring estate, Rockhurst. According to Mrs. Harris, Mr. Pritchard had been trying to sell it, but so far no one would meet his exorbitant price, especially when the house on the property was nearly beyond repair. That was why Rockhurst had lain vacant for the past three months, which was the only reason she felt free to wander onto its orchard.
As soon as she entered the trees, her heart lightened. A breeze sent blossoms tumbling about her like snowflakes. Unable to resist the enticement, she found a spot near the other side where no one from the school could see her, then kicked off her kidskin slippers and began to twirl amidst the falling blossoms, as she’d done when she was a girl. The more she twirled, the less her heart ached. Her hair pulled loose from its pins to fall about her, but that only provoked more twirling.
For the first time in days, she felt free to be herself without Peter’s nasty words taking her to task. And only when she was gasping and too light-headed to make another turn did she throw herself to the ground. Tucking her hands beneath her head, she stared up at the interleaved branches and lifted her face to the blossoms drifting gently onto her gown.
If only life could be like this always, just cherry blossoms and spring. Or even as it had been during her blissful days at the school, when she and the other girls learned geography and the waltz and how men could deceive you—
A sigh escaped her. She should have heeded those lessons. Instead, she had let her imagination run away with her, soaking up that nonsense in the scandalous book of harem’s tales she and the girls read in secret. She’d convinced herself that one day she and Peter would marry and try … all those … naughty … things …
The previous night’s restless, tear-torn sleep caught up with her, and she fell into a doze. She was dreaming of a harem where the women were in charge and the sultan had to do their bidding, when a deep male voice penetrated her haze.
“What have we here? A local lady come to welcome me to the neighborhood? Or a goddess descended from Mount Olympus to sport with a mere mortal?”
Her eyes shot open. Was she still dreaming? The devilishly handsome man standing at her feet could easily be a sultan, with his olive skin and eyes the color of roasted almonds. He’d clearly just come from a bath, for his glossy black hair lay damp upon his neck. Shockingly, he wore only a white shirt tucked into black pantaloons tucked into a pair of top boots, with no waistcoat, coat, or cravat.
She must be dreaming. No man hereabouts would leave his house in shirtsleeves. Or leave his shirt open at the throat to reveal a smattering of chest hair or wear pantaloons so tight they showed every well-defined muscle in his thighs. He was such a delicious specimen of manliness that he fairly took her breath away.
Meanwhile, his gaze slid down her body in an intimate and decidedly wicked perusal. It paused at her breasts before moving to where her gown dipped between her parted legs. After casting her stocking feet a pointed look, he returned his gaze to hers.
Then he smiled, his thin black mustache quirking up. “A goddess, most assuredly,” he said in faintly accented English. “No local señorita would walk about without her shoes.”
Señorita? Oh no. He wasn’t her dream sultan or probably even Turkish. He was very much real. And foreign. And a complete stranger.
Belatedly, she scrambled to a sitting position. Lord, what must he think of her? Before she could struggle to a stand, however, he held out his hand. She hesitated half a second before taking it and letting him help her up, though the moment she was on her feet, she snatched her hand free.
A chuckle escaped him. “I should beg your pardon for disturbing your siesta, but I do not regret it. You make an enchanting picture lying in the cherry blossoms.”
His amusement sparked her temper. “Who are you, sir, and why are you on private property?” Not her private property, but he needn’t know that.
He arched one finely groomed black brow. “I could ask the same of you.”
“I’m a teacher at the school that adjoins this orchard.” She smoothed her skirts, trying to make herself look more teacherly. It was woefully hard to do with her hair tumbled down about her waist.
“Ah yes, the girl’s academy.” He cast her a speculative glance. “But that is what you are, not who. What is your name?”
Oh dear, she wasn’t supposed to be here, and if he were to mention it to Mrs. Harris … “I shan’t give my name to a stranger. Especially when you haven’t given me yours. You are the intruder here.”
“Intruder! What a suspicious little thing you are,” he said, but without rancor. “As it happens, you already know my name. It’s on my calling card.”
The comment threw her into confusion. “I-I … haven’t seen your calling card. If you left it with our schoolmistress—”
“No need to dissemble, señorita. You have it right there.” He reached up to pull something from behind her ear, then held it out with a flourish.
Caught off guard, she took the gilt-edged calling card from him. “How did you …” She trailed off as she read the printed card.
Diego Javier Montalvo, Master of Mystery.
Master of Mystery? She lifted her gaze to him, seeing nothing in his half-smile to enlighten her. But it didn’t sound like anything a normal person would put on a card. It almost sounded like ….
The truth dawned. “Oh, Lord, you’re a magician.”
“Indeed I am.” He gave her a mock frown. “Though you don’t seem very pleased to hear it.”
Pleased? Hardly. She had a weakness for magicians—their swirling black capes, their intriguing smiles … their astonishing ability to surprise at every turn. When coupled with her weakness for devastatingly handsome Continental gentlemen, Diego Javier Montalvo was the perfect temptation.
But she couldn’t afford that sort of temptation! Peter would never eat his words if he learned she’d been flirting with a stranger.
“So why is a magician wandering around Rockhurst?” she demanded. As a teacher, she would be most irresponsible if she didn’t find out.
“Are you worried I have come to steal your neighbor’s valuables?”
“Have you?” she asked archly.
That made him grin. “I would hardly tell you if I were.” The words rolled off his tongue with a melodic quality that turned her knees to butter.
None of that! she chided herself as she glanced about for her shoes, which were nowhere to be seen. You must be responsible. Mature. Not swayed by good-looking men. You shan’t be the sort of woman a man only dallies with, remember?
“Perhaps I am here to steal something else.” His voice had turned calculating. “The heart of a beautiful lady like you, for example.”
She burst into laughter. That sort of nonsense she could handle perfectly well. “Do you rehearse such compliments when you rehearse your tricks? Or do flatteries simply come naturally to you?”
He looked genuinely surprised. “You are very jaded for one so young.”
“Young! I’ll have you know I’m over twenty years old.”
His eyes seemed to mock her. “Ah, well then, you are clearly a woman of the world. My mistake.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m certainly worldly enough to tell when a man is trying to turn me up sweet for his own purposes.”
Some unreadable emotion swept his angular features. “And what purposes would those be?”
“I have no clue.” She blew out an exasperated breath. “You still haven’t told me what you’re doing here.”
“Very well, if you must know, I am the new tenant at Rockhurst.”
Pure shock kept her motionless. That she hadn’t expected. “Oh, dear,” she murmured, mortified anew.
Laughter glinted in his gaze. “So you see, Señorita Schoolteacher, you are the intruder. I saw you from the window upstairs as I was dressing, and hurried down to learn who was invading my property.” He reached up to pluck a leaf from her disordered hair. “Now will you allow me the pleasure of your name?”
Definitely not. For one thing, just the brush of his fingers over her hair had already quickened her pulse most dangerously. For another, it would be a great deal easier for him to complain of her to Mrs. Harris if he knew her name. “I-I didn’t think the house was even habitable.”
“It will suffice until I decide if I want to buy the estate.”
But weren’t conjurers nomads, living in inns and lodging houses? He was too young to retire, and surely even London theaters didn’t pay well enough for him to afford a property the size of Rockhurst. “What would you do with it?”
His gaze grew shuttered. “It depends,” he said, noncommittally.
Something in his evasive manner sparked her concern. “On what?”
“Whether it and its environs meet my stringent requirements.”
Its environs? Did he mean the school? “What sort of requirements? Surely once it is put into shape, Rockhurst would be sufficient for your family.”
“I am not married.” He cocked his head, dropping one raven lock over his eye, then smoothed it back with the nonchalance of a man sure of his exotic appeal. “And you? Does your position as a teacher mean you have no husband?”
She caught herself before answering. “Why are you avoiding my question?”
“For the same reason you are avoiding mine, I would imagine.” His eyes gleamed with mischief. “To prolong this intriguing conversation.”
A laugh bubbled up inside her that she struggled to tamp down. “Actually, I find it less intriguing than frustrating. You are purposely being mysterious.”
“As are you, Señorita Schoolteacher. Indeed, your reluctance to divulge your identity fascinates me.” He bent his head close enough that she caught a whiff of soap and hair oil. “You stand in my orchard and interrogate me bold as brass, yet you will not tell me something as small as your name. Are you hiding a secret? Acting as a spy?” Seeing the smile rise to her lips despite her struggle to prevent it, he lowered his voice to a throaty murmur. “Waiting for a lover, perhaps?”
She jerked back as an unfamiliar heat rose in her cheeks. Oh no, not again. Did she put off some scent that led people to make assumptions about her character?
Then again, he had found her shamelessly lolling about on the ground of his orchard. She would have to set him straight.
“That’s a very impertinent suggestion, sir,” she answered in her loftiest tone, “especially when we haven’t been properly introduced.”
A slow smile curved up his finely carved lips. “And do such trivialities matter to you, cariño?”
Cariño? Oh, but that was too wicked of him. Her Spanish was rusty, but she did remember that cariño was an endearment. A trill of pleasure skirled along her nerves. He should never have used it with her, whether he thought she understood it or no. And she certainly shouldn’t let it do funny things to her insides.
That was her only reason for answering sharply. “This is not the Continent, sir. Such trivialities’ matter to everyone in England. So if you hope for success in your ventures here, you’d best start showing some concern for propriety yourself.”
Her remark sparked an odd reaction in him, darkening his gaze to a dangerous glitter. “I forgot how obsessed you English are with propriety,” he bit out. “Except, of course, when you are invading other people’s property.”
Good Lord, he was right to chide her for that. And she’d been rude indeed to point out his improprieties when she’d been the one trespassing. Though she couldn’t fathom why it angered him now, when he hadn’t seemed to care earlier.
“Forgive me for intruding,” she mumbled, wanting to escape with her dignity—and identity—intact. “I must go.”
She whirled toward the school, but had taken only two steps before he called out, “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
When she looked back, he was dangling her slippers from two fingers. Apparently, he’d gained control of whatever fierce emotion had temporarily leaked free, for his features had smoothed into a charming mask once more.
“Thank you, sir,” she murmured, but when she reached for the shoes, he held them out of reach, easy enough for him to do with his great height.
“Your name, señorita,” he said softly, a smug smile playing over his lips.
She hesitated, weighing her choices. But there were none.
“Keep the shoes,” she retorted, then ran.
Thank God he didn’t come after her. Better to lose her slippers than have him inform Mrs. Harris of her shameless behavior. If Peter should hear how she’d reclined on the ground like a “hot-blooded hoyden” while some stranger looked her over, she’d simply die. As long as Señor Montalvo didn’t know her name, this incident need never reach anyone. Their paths weren’t likely to cross again.
Still, she dearly wanted to warn Mrs. Harris about the man. It wouldn’t do to have the girls trailing after him like lovesick puppies. Besides, something wasn’t right. Why would a magician rent an estate the size of Rockhurst just for himself?
If she hadn’t been so busy reacting to his flirtations, she might have pressed him for more information. But when he’d cast his hot gaze down her body and had spoken Spanish endearments in a voice of warm honey …
Lord help her. Continental gentlemen were the worst. Or the best, depending on how one looked at it. They knew exactly how to warm a woman’s blood.
Perhaps Peter was right about her blood after all.
She frowned. All right, so she found the foreigner appealing, but he was a performer, for pity’s sake. He made love to the audience every night—he’d honed his abilities for years. Of course she was tempted. What living, breathing female wouldn’t be when a man that sinfully attractive looked at her like that?
Peter’s new love wouldn’t. Lady Juliana would be appalled.
Gritting her teeth, she cut through the garden while twisting her hair up in a knot until she could get inside. She’d best pray she never saw him again. She was much too susceptible to his charms.
She’d nearly reached the steps to the entrance when a female voice asked, “Feel better now, dear?”
Startled, she whirled to find Mrs. Harris sitting at a table, reading the paper. “What do you mean?” Lucy asked guiltily.
“A good walk always cheers one, doesn’t it?” she said without looking up.
“Oh.” She relaxed. “Yes.”
Itching to get inside before Mrs. Harris noticed her missing shoes and disordered hair, she hurried forward. But the older woman’s cry of alarm stopped her short.
“What is it?” Lucy hastened back to the schoolmistress’s side, all thought of her own disarray banished by the woman’s stricken expression.
Shaking her head, Mrs. Harris finished scanning some article in the paper. When she threw down the paper with an unladylike oath, Lucy grabbed it up. Front and center was the headline, Magician to Build Pleasure Garden in Richmond.
Bother it all, she’d known that smooth scoundrel was up to something. Greedily she read the article as Mrs. Harris rose to pace the flagstone walk.
“He means to turn Rockhurst into another Vauxhall!” Mrs. Harris exclaimed. “Can you imagine? It’s a disaster! Pickpockets hiding in the orchard, watermen lounging on our river landing, music playing at all hours, and fireworks at midnight. The girls will never be able to sleep. Not to mention the scandalous goings-on that always occur at such places at night.”
Between the article and Mrs. Harris’s outraged recitation, Lucy gleaned the facts. Apparently, the twenty-eight-year-old Diego Montalvo was no ordinary conjurer. He was famous all over the world, performing his tricks to great acclaim before the kings of Sweden and Denmark. He’d even spent a year touring Russia, impressing the tzar with his astonishing illusions.
So now the talented fellow had come to England to raze the house next door and build a public place of amusement. Good Lord.
Mrs. Harris paced in increasing agitation. “I don’t even allow my girls to visit Vauxhall strictly chaperoned—how am I to protect them with a Vauxhall rising practically at our very steps?”
Lucy glanced over at Rockhurst. She’d heard of the licentious activities occurring in Vauxhall’s darkened walks while the magicians and orchestras performed. And judging from Señor Montalvo’s wicked flirtations—and the newspaper description—that was exactly the sort of place he would establish.
No wonder he’d been so mysterious, the devious wretch. He was worse than Peter, “dallying” with her even as he plotted against the school she loved.
“I must write Cousin Michael at once,” Mrs. Harris said. “He will know how to stop this.” She whirled toward the steps, then halted to glare at the other property. “I swear, I shall have Mr. Pritchard’s head. He has gone too far this time, bringing such trouble into our midst!”
He had indeed. It would mean the end of the school.
No, never! Lucy refused to allow it. How could she stand by and watch everything Mrs. Harris had worked for be destroyed with such careless disregard? This school meant too much to too many, including her. She wouldn’t let Señor Montalvo get away with this, Continental charm or no. She was tired of watching men like Señor Montalvo and Peter Burnes trample over her and her friends.
Somehow she’d show that scheming magician that he couldn’t transform Rockhurst into a pleasure garden as easily as he thought. Then, after saving the school, she would make Peter eat his words about her being an irresponsible hoyden. Just see if she didn’t.