Julian did have the very luck of the devil. Less than two hours later, he was sitting behind a fat pile of winnings at the brag table. Employing a lethal mix of charm, guile, and skill, he'd managed to parlay that single shilling into a shimmering heap of coins and pound notes. It might not be enough to stave off Wallingford and his threats of debtor's prison for more than a day, but it was enough to ensure that he wouldn't be spending the night alone. Or hungry.

He gently rubbed the lower back of the dark-haired, sloe-eyed beauty perched on his knee, earning a jealous look from the golden-haired minx who had draped herself over his shoulders like an ermine stole. Every time he turned his head, he was nearly overcome by the stench of the cheap lavender water she had used to wash away the scent of the last gambler she had accompanied upstairs.

While the other three men at the table watched, unable to hide their hopeful expressions, his pale fingers flicked over the cards with negligent grace, fanning them out to reveal yet another winning hand.

One of the men groaned while another tossed down his cards in disgust. "Damn it all, Kane! Your luck is positively supernatural!"

 "So they tell me," Julian murmured as the men snatched up their beaver top hats and walking sticks and quit the table, leaving more than a week's wages behind them.

Absently stroking the brunette's rounded hip, Julian settled back in his chair and stretched out his long legs. Peering through the haze of cigar and cheroot smoke, he searched for his next victims. Most of the club's patrons had exhausted their welcomes—and their credit—at the more reputable establishments like White's and Boodle's. A palpable air of desperation clung to them, similar to what Julian had witnessed in the hashish and opium dens of Istanbul and Bangkok. Their fingers twitched and their eyes gleamed as they waited for the next play. It shouldn't prove too difficult to lure a pair of overextended merchants and the bastard son of some impoverished nobleman into his snare.

"Why don't ye quit the cards and play with me for a while, guv'nor?" the brunette crooned, wiggling deeper into the cup of his lap.

The blonde leaned over his shoulder to pour him a fresh glass of port from the half-empty bottle on the table. She batted her fawn-colored lashes at him, pressing her ample breasts against the muscled contours of his upper arm. "If ye play yer cards right, luv, ye can win the both of us for the night."

Julian shifted in his chair. Their efforts were undeniably...stirring, but he wasn't quite ready to abandon the table. "Patience, my sweets," he said. "At the moment luck is my only mistress, and I'll be damned if I'll leave her to a cold and empty bed when she's still warm and willing." While the blonde gave his earlobe a nip of protest, he soothed the brunette's pout by planting a lingering kiss on her rouged lips.

Someone cleared their throat.

There was such a stinging note of disapproval in the sound that Julian barely resisted the urge to jerk to attention like a guilty schoolboy caught at some mischief. He slowly lifted his head to find a woman standing just behind the chair directly across from him.

No, not a woman, but a lady, he corrected himself, his gaze sweeping from the burgundy of her mink-trimmed velvet pelisse to the feathered bonnet perched atop her upswept coils of gleaming sable hair. A bulging satin reticule dangled from her arm, the pouch's ribbons drawn tightly closed over its mouth. The exquisite cut and quality of her garments presented a startling contrast to the shabby finery of most of the club's patrons. A glowing halo seemed to surround her, separating her from the cigar smoke and raucous laughter that filled the room. From the corner of his eye, Julian could see her already garnering other glances—some curious, some wary, others openly predatory.

They'd seen her kind here before. Wealthy ladies with an insatiable appetite for deep play. Since the fair sex wasn't even allowed in the more reputable clubs that their husbands frequented, they were forced to seek their satisfaction in hells such as this. They were so in thrall to the thrill of the game that they were willing to risk their reputations and their fortunes on one fickle roll of the dice or turn of a card.
   
More often than not, a lady would play until every last coin of her blunt was gone, leaving her with only one way to pay off her debts. For some reason, Julian couldn't bear the thought of this woman being forced to accompany some gloating gambler to one of the rooms upstairs. Couldn't stomach the image of her being shoved to her knees and stripped of that ridiculous bonnet by his fumbling hands.

The net veil attached to its sweeping brim shadowed her eyes and gave her an irresistible aura of mystery. All he could see was the curve of a dimpled cheek, a pointed chin that boded a heart-shaped face, and a pair of lush lips perfectly fashioned for kissing and other even more illicit pleasures.
  
With some difficulty, he tugged his gaze away from her mouth only to have it settle on the burgundy velvet ribbon she wore around her throat as a choker; her long, graceful throat where a pulse, nearly invisible to the naked eye, danced to each throbbing beat of her heart. Julian jerked his hungry gaze away before he could betray himself. Bringing the glass to his lips, he took a deep swallow of the port, knowing it to be a pale substitute for what he craved.

"Might I have a word with you?" she asked, her voice low and rich.

He flicked a lazy glance her way, but before he could respond, the brunette snapped, "Ye ought to address 'im as 'sir'! 'Im's a knight, 'e is, knighted by the king 'isself. A real 'ero."

"My 'ero," the blonde purred, slipping a hand into the open throat of his shirt and raking her crimson nails through the crisp whorls of his chest hair.

Those lovely lips tightened with distaste. Or some other emotion Julian couldn't quite read.
"Very well...sir. I was wondering if I might have a word with you," she repeated, her scornful tone dismissing his companions. "In private."

It was the most intriguing proposition he'd received all night. She must be seeking more than just the thrill of the game. He'd encountered her kind before as well, in nearly every city around the world. Women possessed of a hunger as unholy as his own. Women who recognized and deliberately sought out creatures like him, courting danger and death as if they were the most accomplished of lovers.

Silently cursing the ghost of his scruples, he said, "I'm afraid I can't help you, miss. As you can see, my attentions are already"—he slid his hand from the brunette's hip to the rounded curve of her thigh—"occupied."

"Ye'd best scurry back to yer fine carriage, m'lady," the brunette said. "A great wolf like this one would gobble ye down in one bite."

The golden-haired wench looped her arms around his neck. "'E needs a woman, not a lady."
   
"Or two women," the brunette countered, earning a throaty laugh from her companion.

Taking another sip of the port to quench his regret, Julian waited for the woman to turn and flee into the night.
  
Instead those lush lips curved into the sweetest of smiles. "I hate to deprive you of such scintillating company, but I really must insist."
      
Julian glanced around the club, keenly aware that their exchange was beginning to garner more than casual interest. "This is no place for a woman like you. Why don't you go home before your husband wakes up and realizes you've crept out of his bed?" He arched the dark wing of one brow before leveling his iciest look at her, the one that had been known to freeze grown men in their tracks. "If you linger, I'm afraid you'll end up with nothing but regrets."
 
She lifted her chin, her smile fading. "Are you threatening me, sir?"

"If you'd like, you can take it as a warning."
      
"And if I don't choose to heed your warning?"

"Then you're a bloody little fool," he said, making no apology for his crude language.

"I'm not leaving until I get what I came here for. You owe me and I've come to collect." Revealing the tiniest crack in her composure, she reached up with trembling hands and drew off her bonnet.

For one fleeting second, Julian was almost thankful he was a vampire because it took a supernatural effort to keep his features schooled in indifference. She was, beyond the shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. The sable curls piled atop her head were matched by the graceful arch of her brows and impossibly thick lashes that ringed eyes the same dark blue as the Aegean Sea at midnight. The delicate bones of her face were narrow at the chin and broad at the cheek. Those cheeks were blessed with a hint of natural color, as if someone had taken a rose petal and lightly dusted it over her satiny skin. She possessed a natural sophistication that all of the expensive powders and rouges in the world couldn't duplicate. Her mouth tilted upward slightly at the corners, just enough to make a man wonder if she was laughing with him or at him.

And all Julian could think as he faced this paragon of feminine beauty was that he wished she'd put her damned hat back on. Without the veil to hide her eyes, her gaze was too frank. Too challenging. Too blue. Desperate to escape her presence for reasons even he couldn't fathom, he surged to his feet, nearly dumping the sputtering brunette onto the floor.

He swirled the last of the port around the bottom of the glass before bringing it to his lips. "You can't be one of my creditors, my dear, because I'm sure I'd remember dunning someone as lovely as you," he said, giving the word an inflection that was impossible to ignore. "And if you're not one of my creditors, then I suggest you step out of my way because I don't owe you so much as the time of day."

Returning the glass to the table with a forceful thump, he claimed the brunette's hand and took a step toward the stairs.
 
"That's where you're wrong, Mr. Kane." Her fingers steady this time, she reached up, jerked off the velvet choker and tossed it on the table as if it were a wager he could never hope to answer.
    
Julian froze in his tracks, mesmerized by the sight of that graceful throat. A throat that should have been as creamy and flawless as the rest of her, but was instead marred by the faded scars of two distinct puncture wounds.

As Julian lifted his disbelieving gaze to meet the defiant blue of Portia Cabot's eyes, he knew his luck had finally run out.
In this scene, Julian Kane comes face to face with Portia Cabot for the first time in five years...
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The Vampire Who Loved Me
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