Eliza Somerton halted in front of a reprint of a seventeenth-century Carracci engraving. Although the erotic piece was merely a copy, the detail was exquisite—the naked couple, Paris and Oenone, in the throes of passion, limbs entwined, lips meshed, man atop woman.
Mrs. Somerton’s red lips softened a degree as she gazed at the engraving. If she was embarrassed by the erotic nature of the work, she did not show it. A moment later a man bumped into her shoulder and her genuine look of pleasure was broken, replaced by a facade of indifference.
Grayson’s opinion shifted. For those few seconds he saw what only a true connoisseur could recognize. She was an art lover herself.
She continued on, stopping before an oil of a landscape, the colors of the artist a masterful blending of vibrant green forest and subtle blue-gray sky. She glanced about as if she were looking for an acquaintance, but she remained in front of the painting, leaning close every few moments as if to study the brushstrokes or the artist’s signature in the lower corner.
Clearly she was interested. But why? The painting was a small find in the viscount’s vast collection.
What was the lady up to?
“I’m going to speak with her,” Grayson said.
Mr. Begley’s eyes widened behind thick spectacles in alarm. “Here? Now?”
“But the auction is about to commence.”
“It’s perfect timing, then.”
A tall, bald man with a striped waistcoat walked to a podium in front of the room. “Ladies and gentlemen! If you would please take your seats, the auction will begin.”
The chairs were three rows deep, jammed next to each other, and swiftly occupied. Grayson quickly took a seat beside Eliza Somerton. She glanced at him sidelong, thick, black lashes lowering as she clutched her reticule in her lap and avoided direct eye contact with him.
“Are you interested in anything in particular?” he asked, his tone light.
She looked up at him then. This close, she was even more striking than from across the room. Her green eyes were tip-tilted at the corners, and her skin was flawless and smooth. How did a criminal like Miller have such an exquisite daughter?
“An experienced bidder never asks what another plans to bid on,” she said.
“You’re afraid I’ll drive up the price?”
“Perhaps I’m merely curious.”
“I don’t think so. I recognize you,” she said.
“Oh?” He masked his surprise.
“You are one of London’s most prominent art critics and active collectors, Lord Huntingdon.”
“I fear you have me at a disadvantage, Lady…”
“Ah, you’re a widow, then?” he said.
“What makes you believe I’m a widow?”
“If I were your husband, I wouldn’t let you out of my sight, let alone permit you to speak to me.”
She hesitated a moment, then shrugged. “Then it’s fortunate indeed that you are not my husband.”
She remained cool and composed and he had a sudden urge to unnerve her, to test her mettle and see exactly what he was up against.
He dipped his head close to hers and lowered his voice. “I saw you looking at the Carracci engraving. I find the position of the couple most inspiring.”
She arched a delicate eyebrow. “Truly? You look like a man who would find such an ordinary position quite droll.”
His heart hammered as erotic images instantly came to mind. Images of her naked in his bed, not with her beneath him, but with her on top, those lush breasts bouncing as she rode him.
By God, she was a saucy piece. The conversation was entirely improper. Certainly nothing he would dare speak to a lady. But she isn’t a lady, he reminded himself. She was an art forger’s daughter.
A moment later the auction began. An assistant brought forth the first item—a bronze bowl from the late Middle Ages. Eliza Somerton turned in her seat and faced the podium, and within seconds appeared immersed in the dynamics of the sale, her eyes lighting with excitement when a notable piece was sold. Her easy dismissal irked him. He was not a man accustomed to women ignoring him.
As the auction progressed, Grayson bid on a few watercolors, but purposely did not offer the winning bid on any of them. The rhythmic pattern of the auctioneer calling out the bids was swift and precise. The Carracci engraving was brought forth and sold for an astonishing one thousand pounds. She never placed a bid.
“Next we have Landscape with Peasants, painted by the Flemish artist Jan Wildens,” the auctioneer announced as the painting was carried to the front of the room and presented for bidding.
Grayson noted that it was the landscape that had previously captured Eliza’s interest. She sat slightly forward in her seat, and bit her bottom lip.
Ah, perhaps she wouldn’t make a masterful card player after all.
The auctioneer cleared his throat. “We shall start the bid at twenty pounds.”
Eliza Somerton raised a gloved hand.
The bidding continued, increasing by increments of five pounds, until the price was up to forty pounds. Grayson waited until two bidders remained—Eliza and an aging gentleman in the front row. When the bid reached fifty pounds, only the lady’s hand remained raised.
“Going once, twice…”
Grayson raised his hand. “One hundred pounds.”
Gasping, Eliza whirled to face him fully.
His lips curled in a mocking smile.
She lowered her hand, and the auctioneer rambled on, “Sold for one hundred pounds!”
Her eyes flashed emerald fire. “Why? Just to flaunt your wealth over a woman?”
“I desired it.”
“When I see something I want, I won’t allow anything to stand in my way of possessing it.”
Her lips parted slightly, then closed. “I don’t suppose you’ll agree to sell it in the future?”
His gaze traveled over her face, feature by feature, then roamed to the bodice of her gown and lingered on her breasts before meeting her eyes. He smiled suggestively. “Everything has its price, Mrs. Somerton, don’t you agree?”
If her eyes had flashed fire before, they were absolutely murderous now. She stood abruptly, knocking her chair over in the process. “Enjoy your acquisition, my lord.”
Several people eyed him. Ignoring them all, he leaned back in his seat.
Mr. Begley rushed over. “Well? What did Mrs. Somerton say? Did she tell you where to find her father?”
“Not yet. But I have something she wants, and I expect a visit from her very soon.”
Unmasked” is the first book in her new Regency romance series, “In The Crown’s Secret Service,” and will be released from Entangled Publishing on November 10, 2014. “At The Spy’s Pleasure” will be available in April 2015. Tina’s books have been Barnes & Noble top picks, and her first book, Lady Of Scandal, was nominated as best first historical by Romantic Times Book Reviews.