To Tempt a Rake - By Cara Elliott

Chapter One

Ah, a naked lady. How lovely.”

Katharine Kylie Woodbridge felt a whisper of breath tease against her neck, its gossamer touch warm and wicked on her bare flesh.

“A naked statue,” she corrected. Ignoring the sardonic smile reflected in the diamond-paned glass, she carefully turned to the next painting in the portfolio.

The Conte of Como strolled a step closer and perched a hip on the edge of the library table. “It appears that Lord Giacomo has quite a talent for painting the female form,” he drawled, leaning his well-tailored shoulder a little closer.

A little too close.

As heat speared through the thin layers of silk and wool, like a hot blade melting butter, Kate tried to quell the liquid quickening of her pulse. Don’t, she warned herself. Oh, don’t react. It would be flirting with danger—nay, utter disgrace—to encourage the attentions of Giovanni Marco Musto della Ghiradelli.

Of all the men in London, he was the only one who might recognize the truth….

“Do you not agree?” The conte—who preferred Marco to his more formal string of names—traced a fingertip along the deckled edge of the watercolor.

Perhaps if she were rude enough, she could make him go away.

“Indeed,” replied Kate, keeping her voice deliberately cool. “Lord James is a highly accomplished artist.” She paused a fraction. “How nice to see a gentleman apply himself to mastering a laudable skill. So many aristocrats idle away their lives in debauched revelries.”

“I, too, have devoted a great deal of time to the serious study of feminine shape and proportion,” replied Marco, a flutter of amusement shading his gaze.

No man ought to have such long, luxurious lashes. Or, for that matter, such exquisite brandy-gold eyes, or such a supremely sensual mouth. Kate quickly looked back at the painting. And it was most unfair of the Almighty to bless a rakehell rogue with beautiful bones and hair that tumbled in sin-black curls to kiss the ridge of his shoulders.

No wonder he was said to be the very devil with women.

“And I would say that Lord Giacomo could use a little work on sketching the shape of a lady’s breast, si?” went on Marco. Lowering his aquiline nose to within inches of the textured paper, he made a show of studying the painting from several angles. “It’s not quite perfect. Perhaps he should draw from life instead of inanimate stone.” The indecently long lashes gave another silky swoosh. “After all, he now has a lovely model close at hand.”

“What a very vulgar suggestion, sir,” replied Kate, pinching back the urge to laugh with a thin-lipped frown. “Especially as the lady in question is your cousin.”

“You don’t think Lord Giacomo will be tempted to sketch his new bride in the nude?” asked Marco with a provocative smile. “As a connoisseur of Italian art, he seems to appreciate seeing the principles of symmetry and proportion stripped to their bare essentials.”

The mention of body parts, clothed or otherwise, was absolutely forbidden in Polite Society, but as usual the conte seemed to take obscene delight in making a mockery of English manners. Which, in truth, was rather refreshing. She, too, found all the complex rituals and rules of the ton horribly constricting.

However, as she could never, ever admit that to Marco, Kate snapped the portfolio shut with an exaggerated grimace. “You are outrageously lewd, sir. And crude.”

“So is Lord Byron,” murmured Marco. “Yet women find him… intriguing, do they not?”

“That’s because Lord Byron is intriguing. He writes wildly romantic poetry when he’s not misbehaving. While you—I shudder to think what you do when you’re not flirting or drinking.”

Marco rose and smoothed a wrinkle from his elegant trousers. “I might surprise you, bella.”

Her eyes flared in alarm at the whisper of Italian. Dear God, surely he didn’t suspect that there was any connection between a long-ago night in Naples and the present….

No. Impossible.

But all the more reason to keep him at arm’s length.

Quickly masking her reaction with a mocking laugh, Kate hastened to add, “Ha! And pigs may fly.”

“Have I made you angry?” His sensual mouth slid into a lazy smile. “Come, let us cry pax. I was merely trying to tease a touch of color to your cheeks with my banter.”

“Your mere presence is enough to do that,” retorted Kate. “Your arrogance is really quite intolerable.”

Marco clapped a hand to his heart.

Assuming that he had one, thought Kate. The gossip among the ladies of London was that the conte possessed only one sensitive organ—and it was not located in the proximity of his chest.

“You wound