Extrait offert par Grace Burrowes :
“A Young Person to see you, milord.”
The old butler’s very lack of expression was eloquent: Beyond doubt, a lady—unchaperoned and uninvited—awaited Gareth Alexander, Marquess of Heathgate, in the smaller formal drawing room.
Gareth walked into the drawing room still dressed in riding attire. That in itself was a bit of rudeness, but merciful saints, what could any decent woman be thinking to call upon him in broad daylight?
His visitor stood with her back to him, and his immediate impression, based on the tension in her spine and the set of her shoulders, was that this was, indeed, another desperate female looking to him to forgive her husband’s, brother’s, or cousin’s debts of honor.
The worst kind of helpless female too, he concluded as she turned—a virtuous, helpless female.
At first she did not meet his gaze, but aimed a martyred stare at his least favorite Axminster carpet. Her dress was an ugly, serviceable gray; her gloves faded black, and her person without adornment. Her brownish hair was pulled back into a large, simple knot at her nape. She was altogether pathetically unremarkable.
Until she looked at him.
Amber eyes, slanting above high cheekbones and a wickedly full mouth arrested Gareth’s dismissive perusal. He’d refuse what she would offer as collateral for some man’s debt, though he was… tempted. She had a feline cast to her fine features, an intelligence and alertness that made him want to keep his eyes on her. Watching her for a progression of silent instants, he gained the impression she could move like a cat, think like a cat.
The serious gaze she turned on him suggested that she probably, in keeping with solid English propriety, did not purr like a cat.
He approached her with a slight bow. “Heathgate.” He’d purposely neglected to append the courteous “at your service.”
She curtsied. “Thank you for meeting with me, your lordship.”
She did not offer her name, though she had a pretty voice. Gareth’s brother Andrew would call it a candlelight voice.
“Shall we be seated?” He gestured to the settee then ordered a tea tray—to appease his hunger rather than convention—and turned to find his guest once more staring at the carpet.
“So, why have you come to see me, madam? You must know propriety is not served by a meeting under these circumstances.”
To his surprise, that blunt opening comment earned him a fleeting smile.
“Propriety is a luxury not all of us can afford.” Her accent was crisply aristocratic, but musical, as if there might be some Welsh or Gaelic a few generations back. He paid attention to voices, to dress, to the tidy stitching on the index finger of her glove, to the details relevant when dealing with opponents in any game of chance. Hers were a challenge to add up.
“Propriety is a necessity if a young lady is not to lose her reputation, as others have done in similar circumstances.”
At that salvo, the lady removed her worn gloves—probably without realizing the symbolism of the gesture—to reveal pale, elegant hands. The hands—God help her—of a true lady.
The tea arrived, and as the footman withdrew, Gareth closed the door. That got the woman’s attention, for she leveled a questioning glance at him.
He mustered his miniscule store of patience. “You come to see me without invitation or chaperone; you will not tell me your name. I can only conclude you do not want the servants to overhear what you discuss with me. Will you pour?”
She gave a dignified little nod from her perch on the edge of the sofa. “How do you take your tea?”
“I like it quite strong and with both cream and sugar.”
Her movements were confident and graceful; she knew her way around an elaborate tea service. She was a lady fallen on difficult times.
Oh, hell, not again. What was wrong with the young men of England?
“Shall we let it steep a bit, then?” she asked. “I wouldn’t call it strong yet.”
“As you like, but you will please disclose the nature of your errand. This appointment was not on my schedule.” He wanted to get this over with, though his rudeness did not seem to perturb his visitor.
“I am without relations, your lordship, except for a younger sister. My other nearest relation, a distant cousin, has recently passed away. Her will left me with a substantial source of income, provided I meet certain stipulations. The stipulations involve you. Should I fail to meet the conditions of her will in the immediate future, I am without a means of supporting myself, which is no great inconvenience. I could work as a governess or become a lady’s companion. My retainers, however, are elderly, and my younger sister—”
She fell silent and poured a splash of tea into a cup. The lady must have decided it wasn’t strong enough even yet, for she sat back and regarded him with steady topaz eyes.
He saluted her mentally for meeting the challenge: They were quite down to business, thank you very much.
“How do the stipulations involve me?” Clearly, she wanted him to ask, to show some curiosity about her situation, while he wanted to leave the room at a dead run.
“My distant cousin was a… madam, sir, and the source of income she left me was her brothel.”
She had his attention, drat her. He spotted a mahogany bay horsehair on the cuff of his riding jacket and focused on plucking it away. “And the conditions?”
“There are essentially two. First, I may not sell the business for at least one year. During that time it is to be held in trust for me, and the profits available to me for my personal maintenance. That condition is problematic in itself.” She paused, peering at the tea again. This time she poured as she continued speaking, then doctored his tea according to his stated preferences. “If it becomes public knowledge I am living off the proceeds of a brothel, my future is ruined—though that matters little. My younger sister, however, is blameless, and deserves some happiness from this life. She cannot be tainted by this association.”
He accepted the tea and took a sip. This difficult, inconvenient woman had made him a perfect cup of tea. Against all probability, he found his goodwill modestly restored. “The second condition?”
The lady looked briefly away—toward the white roses on the piano—and he had the sense this mannerism was how she gathered her courage, though none of her trepidation was betrayed in her expression.
“I am to spend at least three months under the personal tutelage of the trustee, learning the skills necessary to manage what I am told is a high-class sporting house. I am to learn what the… employees know, how the business works, how to gamble, and how the courtesan’s trade is…” she searched for words with a delicately lifted eyebrow“…undertaken.”
Gareth stood as genuine surprise—a rare emotion for him and unwelcome—coursed over him.
“Did your cousin dislike you so intensely, to put this choice before you?” Her cousin’s generosity would be the ruination of her, whoever she was.
“She hardly knew me,” came the reply. “She had chosen or been forced into her profession when I was but a girl. The family no longer received her, nor did she appear to want their acknowledgment. She probably felt entitled to her anger, if in fact this bequest is a display of anger.”
Gareth lowered himself beside his guest on the settee. He did not ask permission, and she did not shift away.
“How could this not be a posthumous tantrum? You appear to be a decent woman, and your cousin has made sure if you accept this bequest then you won’t be, nor, by association, will your sister be. I call that mean-spirited, particularly when your alternatives are what? To go into service, where your safety is none too assured anyway? It’s a diabolical gift, this bequest.”
The lady regarded him steadily, measuring him with cool, feline eyes. “My cousin was Callista Hemmings.”
He leaned back against the settee, feeling a stab of loss. Callista had been the quintessential grande horizontale, and she’d treated him honorably. When all London had been fawning over the newly invested Marquess of Heathgate to his face and laughing at him or accusing him of murder behind his back, Callista had been honest. She’d taken him on as a project, educated him, refined him, shown him skills and weapons that had needed only the sharpening influence of time to see him into the peerage on his own terms.
She’d passed along tidbits about this peer, or that bit of business that had allowed him to make some brilliant investments. Then she’d dumped him flat, telling him she chose her clientele, and she was unchoosing him.
In hindsight, he’d seen the kindness in what she’d done. Untried as he was, he’d been in danger of losing his heart to her. She was shrewd enough to know that wouldn’t have been in her interests—or his. He was in her debt, and now she was gone. He’d felt the loss of her months ago, and felt it anew at the mention of her name.
“You knew her,” his visitor observed dryly.
“My dear lady, much of London’s titled male population knew her, and the remainder could only wish they had. Your cousin was… quite a woman. Quite a lady.”
“She was not a lady,” his guest countered, the first hint of heat in her words.
He let that observation hang in the air while he took another sip of wonderfully hot, sweet, strong tea. “You resent this choice.”
“I resent it, yes, even as I am grateful it gives me options. Penury would likely cost me my virtue at some point, in any case. I am resigned to traveling a safer road to ruin. Were my sister older, I could get her married posthaste then slide into obscurity, but she is seventeen, and that is…”
Her faltering resolve was interesting. “Seventeen is…?”
“Seventeen, in her case, is too young.”
Gareth’s guest busied herself sipping her tea, apparently oblivious to Gareth’s perusal. He sipped along with her, waiting to see where she was heading with her disclosures. At seventeen, without the first clue what present company was getting herself into, she would have married to protect her sibling, had it been an option for her. He had no doubt of that.
“I am not the only one who might resent the way my cousin has arranged things,” she said. She had pretty hands, but as she set her teacup down, Gareth noticed a minute tremor in them.
“I expect the ladies in Callista’s employ are not particularly pleased, and the trustee might find himself in a bit of a bind.” The poor bastard would be in one hell of a bind, in fact.
She looked at him directly, and he realized all her previous glances and gazes had been oblique in comparison. Foreboding prickled up his neck.
“Do you?” she asked evenly.
“Do you find yourself in a bit of a bind?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because Callista named you as the trustee of her estate, my lord, and thus the guardian of my virtue.”
Bloody, rubbishing, perishing… Gareth stalled discreetly, calling for more tea and some cakes while his internal world righted itself. He was too taken aback at Callista’s scheming to puzzle through the reasons for it—unpleasantly taken aback. Shocked, even, and it took a great deal to shock him—now.
While his guest nibbled away at a chocolate éclair, Gareth held his peace and found consternation growing into monumental resentment. Miss Shabby Dignity eventually finished her tea and turned her unnerving regard on him once more.
“So, my lord, do you resent the task requested of you? Callista named an alternative trustee should you decline the position.”
Reprieve. Maybe there was a way out—if he wanted one. “Whom did she name?”
“I see.” Callista must have truly hated her cousins. Riverton was a confirmed deviant, sick at best, and evil, more likely.
No damned reprieve whatsoever.
“Riverton will not do.” Did he detect a slight relaxation in her shoulders? “Any provisions for a substitute of my choosing?” And to whom could he delegate this project anyway?
She considered her empty teacup, very likely some of the finest china she’d ever see, much less touch. “None. You take on the job or Riverton will, and I can tell you I do not relish the thought of his personal tutelage one bit.”
His guest was a martyr with some discernment, then. How flattering.
“What exactly does personal tutelage involve?” Because unless his distant recollection of Chancery law was in error, the will would have to be carefully worded to successfully skirt the illegalities of passing along a house of ill repute.
She remained perched on the edge of the settee, while Gareth suspected she was longing to get up and pace. “It isn’t complicated, my lord. I am to learn to be a madam. Your job is to teach me at least the rudiments of that profession, and the will stipulates that I have only so long to complete this education. Make no mistake: My cousin’s solicitors were quite careful to explain that if I want the benefits of Callista’s generosity, I have approximately ninety days left to learn to whore.”
The vulgar term in the midst of her polite diction landed like the sound of breaking glass in a quiet library. Gareth sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and mentally sorting through curses in French, though being a lady, she’d probably understand those too.
First things first. “Do you want me to teach you to whore?”
“I do not want to starve, and I do not want my sister to starve. I hope to undertake this… apprenticeship for the next several months. One year from Callista’s death you can sell the business for me, and then this episode in my life will be over. The only one who will know of it besides me and the solicitors is you, and I am hoping to rely on your gentlemanly discretion.”
Gareth took a moment to digest her little speech. The course she proposed was probably the most sensible, from her point of view. And he could be discreet. A man on familiar terms with all manner of vice had to be faultlessly discreet if he wanted to maintain his privacy.
Which he did.
“Why do I not simply lie to the solicitors, tell them you have fulfilled the terms, and let us go our separate ways in peace?”
She wrinkled her nose—and it was a pretty nose, in perfect proportion to the rest of her features. “The solicitors are to test me, using a list of questions and answers Callista devised, and if they suspect I’ve not surrendered my innocence to their satisfaction, they implied they could have me examined by a midwife. They would have me believe myself fortunate that I was not asked to entertain a customer before witnesses.”
Gareth’s eyebrow shot up, because he knew Callista could be ruthless, and he’d damned near loved her for it, but this was beyond ruthless. This was cruel, and not a legacy any court would have a part in enforcing.
Not that the lady would obtain the property or its income in the next decade by bringing suit in the courts of law.
“To summarize, then,” Gareth said, “you want me to spend three months teaching you how to please a man, how to run a brothel, how to play various games of chance, and so on. I am to at least relieve you of your virginity, and I am to complete these tasks without anyone being the wiser? Moreover, I am to sell the brothel for you at the end of one year, all with utmost discretion. What do I get out of it?”
If this woman knew anything about him at all, she’d know to expect that question from him.
“My guess is Callista chose you for her own reasons, believing you would accept. I can’t see that you get anything out of this other than the trustee’s portion of the proceeds, which I doubt you need.” She cocked an eyebrow, perhaps mocking him, perhaps inventorying his physical assets. “If Callista’s faith in you is not misplaced, you will get the free services of a well-trained whore, won’t you? I doubt you need those either.”
He suppressed a flinch at her continued use of the word “whore.” There were so many other ways to say it—soiled dove, courtesan, lady of the night, fashionable impure. His guest seemed to want to shock him, and maybe herself.
Two could play at that. He stood and locked the door.
“Why don’t we gather a little more information before we decide what to do with this situation, hmm? Would you oblige me by standing?” She did, watching him warily as he stalked toward her. “Over here, away from the window, if you please.” He took her cool, bare hand in his and guided her across the room.
“What are you about, my lord?” She put some indignation in her tone, but not enough to cover the unease.
Good, he wanted her unnerved. So unnerved and angry she’d stomp right out of the house and never want to lay eyes on him again. Let her swallow her pride and move in with dear old Aunt Besom or eke out a living on piecework from the modistes.
Though piecework would ruin those pretty eyes and her pretty hands.
“Before you accept me as the guardian of your virtue, to use your words, you should have some idea whether you can even accept my touch on your person. Losing one’s virginity involves a great deal of touching, under ideal circumstances. You have to know that much at least?”
She nodded once, suggesting that was the limit of her understanding.
“I will take on this trusteeship if you conclude you can indeed find pleasure in my carnal touch. I will not force you.” He would not force any woman, ever. To know he could still speak with conviction in this regard was a relief. “You decide if you can allow me to seduce you.”
He purposely stood too close to her, letting her physically experience his six-foot-four inch height, the scent of horse and aftershave about his person, and the sheer masculine strength he had in abundance. Her pulse beat rapidly at her throat, and she was back to staring at the carpet.
He dropped his voice to a near whisper and leaned in even closer.
“You must be sure, my lady, because once your innocence is compromised, you will never regain it, whether your virtue is intact or not.” He picked up her hand and massaged his thumb slowly across her knuckles.
Her eyes clamped on their joined hands, depriving him of her gaze. “Do you seek to take my virginity now?”
Brave lady. He awarded her points for that, and for amusing him—his reputation would suffer terribly if he allotted her deflowering only the few minutes available. “No time for that today, my dear, but I would ask of you a kiss to seal our bargain and begin your education. We have, after all, but a short time to complete it.”
She glanced up long enough for him to see relief in her eyes, though such a proper lady could have no idea what manner of kiss he contemplated. His hands settled on her waist, and he tugged her closer.
“Close your eyes, my dear, and relax. You have nothing to fret about today.”
She didn’t immediately close her eyes, but watched him as he took both her hands in his, kissed each palm, then slipped them around his neck. He slid his hands around her waist, resting them at the small of her back. She was close enough to him now that he could hear the catch in her breath as his hold grew more firm.
She wasn’t as cool as she wanted him to believe, and that realization gave Gareth a pause in his determination to rattle her. He started off by nuzzling her temple with his lips, and even that caused her to flinch. He repeated that caress, doing nothing more than inhaling the lavender scent of her hair until she relaxed minutely against him.
“I’ll make you a promise.” He moved on as he spoke, breathing against her hair, the curve of her ear, the silky skin of her neck, even as his hands went questing over her back in long, slow strokes.
“I will promise you if at any point you want me to stop, no matter what we’re doing, then I will stop. You have only to tell me.” He’d begun kissing her, sipping at the spot where her shoulder and her neck joined, and Gareth had to wonder if speech were already beyond her. Her scent was lovely, fresh and clean, without paint, powder, or the slightly singed odor of the curling tongs.
Despite her prim and proper airs, despite the mad scheme she’d brought to his door, despite the niggling itch of what remained of his conscience, his body at least was enjoying itself.
“Kiss me,” he whispered against her cheek. “Kiss me now.”
She turned her face toward him, tensing up for what she no doubt expected would be a grinding, wet, teeth-bumping awkwardness. She was too pretty not to have suffered the attentions of a callow swain or two.
So his lips were feather-gentle as he played at her mouth and invited her to trust him for the duration of one, soft, sweet kiss. His mouth parted over hers, and he was rewarded when she sighed, her body finally losing its starch against his. Her fingers drifted through the hair at his nape, and Gareth realized she didn’t have to go up on her toes to fit him perfectly—more’s the pity.
He traced his tongue over her lips, thinking not only to steal a taste of her, but also to distract her from the hand resting due north of her derriere. He molded her against the length of his body and continued plying his tongue along her mouth. Tentatively, she touched her tongue to his, provoking him to growl in satisfaction at her overture.
She shyly tested the contours of his lips, and he let her explore while his hands stroked her back. Gareth sensed she was just becoming aware of the ridge of male flesh rising against her belly, when his instinct for self-preservation had him easing out of the kiss and letting his hands fall still on her back.
Her breathing was slightly accelerated as she curled against his chest and rested her head on his shoulder. He tucked his chin on her crown and held her, unable to locate a compelling reason to let her go.
“My dear woman, I should at least know your name.”
She remained quiet against him, and he brought one hand up to massage the nape of her neck in slow circles.
The kiss had gotten a bit out of hand was all. Spinsters were, on the whole, a courageous lot, but he hadn’t been expecting this particular variety of courage from her. This variety of honesty.
She stood unmoving for another moment then stepped away.
“You’ll do it then—take on the trusteeship?” Her eyes were a little unfocused, which pleased Gareth inordinately.
“I’ll take on the trusteeship for now, and I will be as discreet as possible. You must realize, though, if word of this gets out, I can do nothing to protect you from the scandal that will result from terms of Callista’s will. I doubt her solicitors want anyone knowing they’ve created such a bequest—one Chancery would scoff at, mind you—but given who I am, I won’t be able to repair your reputation, nor will I try.”
She nodded at him soberly. “If this becomes public, nothing will save my reputation, and I don’t suppose you want people knowing you’ve taken on spinster protégé, either. Such a liaison hardly flatters you.” She stepped back farther and put her gloves on, donning another increment of reserve as she did.
She was wrong, of course. She would be ruined, while Society, being stupid, venal, and easily entertained, would regard this as another one of his titillating larks, nothing more.
“So how shall we go about this?” he asked, his voice holding a detachment his body did not feel.
“Don’t scowl at me, your lordship. This situation is not of my doing or yours. I appreciate your willingness to comply with the terms of the bequest, but just as you asked me if I were willing to be seduced, you must be a willing seducer.”
The women who would scold him were few in number. That this pretty, proper spinster might be one of them suggested their dealings could grow… interesting. “I can assure you, my dear, I am a willing seducer, enthusiastically and often. When do you next have your courses?”
“Wha…?! I beg your pardon!” She gaped at him, her self-possession gratifyingly absent. “What can that have to do with… why would you ask such a thing?”
“How much do you know about the mechanics of copulation?”
He’d chosen one of the more polite terms, and yet it raised a magnificent blush against the lady’s fair coloring.
“It… It involves sleeping in the same bed, and probably some kissing, and… touching. I know there is a maidenhead.” Her blush deepened, so he gave her a moment to compose herself by unlocking the door and retrieving her wrap. He returned with her cloak and slipped it around her.
Without thinking, he turned her by the shoulders to face him and fastened the frogs of her cloak under her chin. Such caretaking was an intimacy, one he took completely for granted with any woman he’d kissed—until he noticed how stiffly this lady was standing.
“Intimate business between men and women involves a bit more than you perceive,” Gareth said, finishing a bow off-center beneath her chin, “and it will be my pleasure to educate you. I would remind you, though, I have promised if you at any time want to desist from this project, you have only to say so. I can probably find you and your dependents decent employment on one of my estates.”
“That is generous of you, my lord, but having imposed on you to this extent, I would not seek employment from you. I have no doubt my mortification is just beginning, and you will be the last man I ever want to spend more time around once this situation is resolved.”
He nodded, relieved, because having her in his employ didn’t sit well at all. She’d then be under his protection in the unavailable sense, and that could only be awkward as hell. She ducked her chin and said in a low voice, “I will likely… start Monday next.” She looked around self-consciously, as if afraid of being overheard by the very furniture.
How long had it been since a woman had blushed in his company? “And how long are you indisposed?”
“Three or four days.” Her answer was barely a whisper. She donned a bonnet that was the same color as old horse droppings, not at all flattering in its style and years out of fashion.
When he taught her how to be a madam, surely he could dress her, too? He took her elbow and walked her toward the door.
“If you will send your direction to me, I will have my coach pick you up Monday afternoon at two of the clock, sharp. Expect to spend the balance of the afternoon with me, and at least several afternoons each week thereafter.”
She paused at the door to the hall, making an intense study of her gloves. “Will you give me some idea what to expect?” she asked, very much on her tattered dignity.
He considered the brim of a very unprepossessing bonnet. The only decent women he consorted with frequently were his dear mother and her aging friends, and even they—veterans of years of genteel warfare in the best ballrooms—knew not to reveal their emotions.
The lady in the ugly bonnet and mended gloves was scared. Also affronted, humiliated, and many other things—likely including outraged—but under it all, she was afraid.
Of him, of what he would ask of her.
Gentlemanly sensibilities chose that inconvenient moment to rouse themselves from a nap of years’ duration. Of course she was frightened. Terrified—what if he’d refused her? What if he’d raped her? God in heaven, what had Callista been thinking?
Long ago, grieving, guilty and bereft, hating the lofty title that had made a laughingstock of him, Gareth had been scared. As young men will, he’d used other terms for it: daunted, challenged, or when things had been particularly bad, overwhelmed. In truth, he’d been terrified, and Callista had been his one ally against that fear.
He scowled at his visitor, resentment resurging, at her and at the bargain he’d been inveigled into honoring. “Remember my promise, madam. You hold the control, no matter what I or Callista’s solicitors have planned. Considering your indisposition, why don’t we start next week with the business aspects of the operation? The expenses, suppliers, ledgers, household budget, and so forth. Have you seen the property?”
“I drove by it in a hackney.”
Did everything make her blush? “Well, then we’ll find things to keep us busy next week. Shall I notify Callista’s solicitors I’ve taken the post?”
“If you’d contact them, I would appreciate it. They make me… uncomfortable,” she replied as he escorted her to the front door. She stopped before taking her leave. “My lord?”
Didn’t he make her uncomfortable? “Yes?”
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“Thank you. Riverton was not a prospect I could have endured.”
Her gratitude was surprising, and some part of him also found it… insupportable. Repugnant. “I know.” Neither could I. “There’s just one more thing, if you would be so kind?”
She turned to go and beamed a smile at him over her shoulder. Her smile embodied benediction, relief, and pure female beauty all at once. Had he been a less experienced man, it would have bowled him over.
He was a very experienced man, and still, her smile stunned him momentarily witless.
“I am Felicity, your lordship. Miss Felicity Hemmings Worthington.”
One of the marquess’s liveried footmen hailed a hackney, and Felicity climbed in with a sense of unreality, as if watching herself perform on a stage.
She’d kissed a man who hadn’t even known her name, kissed him the way she supposed lovers kissed. It was, well, it was beyond words, though she admonished herself not to dwell on it.
Not dwelling on distasteful topics was a skill every English lady perfected long before she left the schoolroom. Those same ladies would never admit, however, that a shocking kiss from a debauched marquess had felt not wicked, but tender, intriguing, and cherishing.
And yet Heathgate was precisely the sort of man to whom kisses given to strangers meant nothing, and such kisses from him should mean nothing to her. Moreover, before this situation had run its course—which it would do, one way or another in the next few months—he would do a deal more than kiss her.
Already, Felicity felt herself slipping into the pragmatic attitude of the professional impure: He will have intimate knowledge of me, kiss me, touch me, and so on—and she had some idea what “so on” was—and I will have financial security. In fact, she’d been terrified he’d decline the trusteeship, leaving her to face Riverton.
But the Marquess of Heathgate had a reputation for doing as he pleased, and devil take the hindmost. To her relief, he hadn’t refused her, as any decent man should have. But then, no decent woman would have asked for his help.
Felicity had spent months telling herself she and Astrid would manage somehow without this terrible gift from Callista, until the solicitors had made it clear she’d have to refuse the bequest or meet its terms.
The hackney turned down the quiet lane running before the Worthington household, and Felicity deliberately smoothed her features as she exited the coach and turned to pay the cabbie.
“Hit’s been tooken care of, mum,” the cabbie informed her with a tip of his hat.
She closed her reticule and thanked him, flustered but honestly relieved. They had come to that—scrimping over cab fare—and would soon have come to worse.
The door opened as she approached the house.
“You’re home! Oh, Felicity, what was he like? Will he help us?” Seventeen-year-old Astrid—petite, blond, and bubbling with energy—had Felicity’s cloak untied and hung on a peg in an instant. “You must, you simply must tell us everything—mustn’t she, Crabby?”
Felicity was saved from responding by Mrs. Crabble bustling up from the kitchen with a tea tray.
“Now, Miss Astrid, give your sister a chance to get her bearings, for pity’s sake. I’ll set this in the parlor, and we can enjoy a nice, hot cup of tea while Miss Felicity tells us the news.”
Felicity plunked the most horrid bonnet ever created onto a hook. She’d had tea and a sinfully rich éclair at Heathgate’s, and found her digestion too unsteady to relish the thought of more, but Crabby tried hard to observe the domestic rituals even as their financial ship floundered closer to destruction.
“Felicity, you must not make us wait any longer,” Astrid declared as she thumped down on the most comfortable chair remaining in the family parlor. “Will Heathgate help us?”
Felicity lowered herself more decorously onto the sofa as Mrs. Crabble poured out. The marquess liked his tea strong and sweet, she recalled—for no earthly reason.
“He will help us,” she said, smiling purposefully at her sister, “but you must remember this situation requires utmost discretion, Astrid. No one is to know I am learning how to manage a gaming house.”
That was only partly a lie—people did gamble at Callista’s establishment—and because Felicity herself wasn’t entirely sure what else exactly went on there, she couldn’t have enlightened her little sister much further if she’d wanted to.
“Well, that’s just fine, then,” Mrs. Crabble said, handing a cup of tea to Astrid. “Things will soon come right now you’ve met with the marquess.” Crabby sipped her own tea, the look on her round, worn face beatific.
A viscount’s daughters did not take tea with their housekeeper. Perhaps if Felicity had paid Crabby’s wages at some point since Christmas, she would have been better able to recall why.
“Tell me about his house, Lissy,” Astrid prompted, “and tell me about him. What does he look like?”
He looked like every woman’s vision of sweet ruin, blast him, and his kisses were the embodiment of same.
Which was some comfort. If a woman was to lose her every pretension to propriety, she should at least have lovely kisses to show for it.
“He carries the scent of sandalwood and something else—nutmeg, or clove, or something spicy, expensive, and oddly soothing. You’d pick it out easily, Astrid. He is tall, at least six inches taller than I, and I am taller than many men. He has blue eyes that… they do not invite question, is the best way I can put it. He is surprisingly dignified…” She sipped her tea—weak tea, an inevitable consequence of reusing the leaves. “Not only dignified, but forbidding. I believe he enjoys an active life, based on his physique. His hair is dark, but not quite black—sable—and he wears it queued back.” She had wanted to free his hair but hadn’t dared. “He’s in some regards old-fashioned, I guess. Different.”
Though a man of Heathgate’s consequence could be as different as he pleased, and his inferiors would ape him, not judge him for it.
“Oh, good,” Astrid said. “I cannot abide an effete man.” A silence followed her pronouncement, and she set her teacup down with a clatter. “Come now, you two. You are exchanging that look. I may be seventeen, but I do have opinions of my own.”
Felicity and Mrs. Crabble had indeed been exchanging a look—one they often exchanged when Astrid’s combination of adolescent directness and adult insight left them not knowing whether to scold or laugh.
“How would you know about effete men, dearest?” Felicity asked, unable to keep the humor from her voice.
“Father was effete,” Astrid pointed out, “and look where he left us.”
Mrs. Crabble heaved a gusty sigh in lieu of speaking ill of the dead—overtly.
“He did his best, Astrid,” Felicity chided. “And he did not invent the process of escheat.”
Astrid, never one for moderation of her opinions, leaned forward over her teacup. “I was eleven when Father died. He had eleven years to find somebody who would bear him a male child, and he knew as well as the lowliest potboy that a peer who dies without male heirs will see his entailed property revert to the Crown. Didn’t he care any more for us than that? We were left with nothing! If Callista hadn’t left us her business, where would we be?”
Another sigh from Mrs. Crabble, and another exchanged look.
“Astrid, Father didn’t plan on having an apoplexy. Though it might not seem like it to you, two-and-fifty is not exactly decrepit. For all we know, he was trying to court an appropriate woman at the time, and he did manage to buy this house as personal property. We still have some nice things about us, and though we’ve had to economize a bit since Father died, there’s no harm in that.”
“There, dear,” Mrs. Crabble piped up. “More tea?”
Astrid shook her head, her expression mutinous. “You won’t say it, Felicity, but I know it’s true: Father didn’t care for us. We have this house because he bought it for his mistresses, and even they didn’t present him any children.”
Felicity lifted an eyebrow and regarded her sister steadily. The silence stretched for several heartbeats.
“I am sorry.” Astrid muttered this apology to her teacup. “I have been so frightened—what if the marquess wouldn’t help us? We’ve economized more than a bit—my dresses are becoming indecently short, you’ve let everyone but the Crabbles and the tweenie go, and we have only the pony cart left to get around in. Soon we will have to sell this house—”
Indecently short, suggesting even Astrid knew only streetwalkers flashed their ankles on purpose.
Felicity’s heart nearly broke as she put her arms around her sister. This was why she would finally undertake the devil’s bargain Callista had put before her. This was why she was resigned to losing her virtue, to accepting the guidance of the notorious Marquess of Heathgate. Astrid was innocent and not even out of the schoolroom. She did not deserve to go to bed at night wondering how long it would be before she slept in the streets.
“Astrid, don’t upset yourself so.” Felicity hugged her sister. “We are not as bad off as all that, nor will we be. Callista’s will provides for us, now that I’ve agreed to learn her business. The marquess will do his part, and all will come right, just as Mrs. Crabble says. Have some more tea while I tell you about the marquess’s house. The butler looked at least a hundred years old, and I thought he’d give me frostbite so chill was his disapproval of me for calling without a chaperone. But the house, Astrid, is beyond elegant.”
She regaled her sister with the harmless details of her visit to the marquess, but noted from the corner of her eye that Mrs. Crabble’s expression had become uncharacteristically thoughtful.
Felicity prattled on, knowing dear Crabbie was probably wondering how and why Felicity had gotten close enough to the marquess to note the delicate sandalwood scent of his soap and linen.
“Hughes, have Brenner join me in the estate office at once, if you please.” Gareth tossed the words over his shoulder as he left the soaring entryway of his town house. His encounter with Felici—Miss Worthington concluded, he had much to do. He mentally put aside the developments ensuing from that interview, and turned his mind to the business he had planned for the day.
He let himself into the estate office, which overlooked the gardens at the back of the house, where a few brave purple crocuses suggested spring might eventually make an appearance. Gareth turned his back on the garden and began reading through the correspondence stacked on his desk. A discreet knock preceded the creak of the door opening.
Gareth did not look up from a long and whiny epistle from a land agent in Wales. “Brenner, take a seat. We have matters to discuss.”
Michael Brenner, an auburn-haired young man who gave off an air of serious purpose, did as bid. Gareth paid him a tidy sum to do as he was bid, whenever he was bid, and without fussing or dramatics.
“I trust your journey was uneventful,” Gareth said, putting aside his reading a moment later.
“It was, your lordship. The distillery is humming along in fine style, and you’ll have my report by morning.”
“You didn’t have time to write it on the journey south?”
“I did draft it, but it requires recopying so as to be more legible.”
Brenner spoke the truth—nobody in Gareth’s employ for more than a day would lie, dissemble, euphemize, prevaricate, or otherwise attempt to bamboozle him. Those who tried were soon unemployed and in want of a character.
“Give it to the amanuensis. Your time is to too valuable to spend copying reports. What do you know of a Felicity Worthington?”
Brenner shot his cuffs, which Gareth had long realized meant the man was arranging his thoughts.
“The Worthington family has weathered some difficulty, your lordship, as a result of Viscount Fairly’s demise without male issue. I believe his wife predeceased him, having died giving birth to a daughter before you went up to university. The other daughter is quite a bit older, well beyond her come-out. Both were to have become wards of the Crown, at least nominally, but at the time of the viscount’s death, there was an older relation prepared to take them in. I believe that relation, an aunt, has since died.”
Brenner had nearly memorized Debrett’s New Peerage, and could recite most documents he’d read verbatim—part of the reason Gareth had been paying him a princely sum for the past two years.
“How are the daughters supported, Brenner? Fairly has been dead at least five years.” Gareth stared out into the garden, not seeing the brave crocuses, but rather, recalling a pair of serious topaz eyes.
“I am not sure how the Worthington ladies manage, my lord. The aunt left the girls some money, but I believe their circumstances are significantly reduced.”
“Is there a cadet branch of the family, some obscure offshoot of an obscure younger son?”
“Not that I am aware of. One would think, in a case of escheat, every line and branch would have been explored before such a radical step was initiated.”
Gareth did not acknowledge Brenner’s statement of the obvious. Escheat was the unthinkable tragedy threatening every titled family, the reason why the succession must be ensured at all costs. In his own family, avoiding escheat meant his title had passed to him upon the simultaneous deaths of his grandfather, his uncle, his cousin, his father, and his older brother. His was the kind of story that had the peerage fornicating like rabbits until the requisite heir and spare had been safely raised to manhood.
It was also the reason Gareth avoided visiting his family’s distillery and never overindulged in strong spirits.
He turned his attention back to the matters before him. Brenner, at least, did not seem aware Callista Hemmings was related to the Worthingtons, which was encouraging.
“You will investigate the situation of Viscount Fairly’s surviving issue. I want to know the circumstances of the estate upon his death, and what the Crown has done with the properties since. I also need to know whatever you can determine about the properties owned by the late Callista Hemmings, and don’t limit yourself to the Pleasure House. Get some trustworthy eyes on the Worthington household while you’re at it. Be discreet—but this account can be written.”
“My pleasure, my lord.” Brenner stood and bowed slightly, heading for the door, his expression suggesting he was already mentally organizing his assignments.
He stopped. “Something else, my lord?”
“You have my thanks for your efforts inspecting the distillery in Scotland. I would not have made the journey willingly.”
“Glad to be of service, my lord, as always.”
In the ensuing solitude, Gareth’s mind wandered back to his interview with Felicity Worthington. Nobody, not the King, not the Prince of Wales, not the Archbishop of Canterbury, coerced Gareth Alexander into any task he didn’t choose for himself. So why was he taking on the sordid business of ruining Miss Felicity Oh-So-Proper Worthington, and why for such plebian motivation as simple coin in the lady’s pockets?
He’d find a way under, over, around, or through the business, and for once in his life, he’d manage the task without allowing himself the pleasure of bedding a pretty and willing lady.
At precisely two of the clock on Monday afternoon, Gareth’s footman opened the door to his unmarked town coach to reveal Felicity Worthington peering curiously at his equipage. Gareth kept his seat and let the groom assist the lady up, rather than risk the neighbors spotting him in her mews.
“Good day, madam. I am cheered to see you value promptness.” He had taken the forward-facing seat, while Miss Worthington arranged herself opposite him and smoothed her skirts so they did not touch his boots.
She was behaving like a chaperone rather than a potential conquest, leaving Gareth equal parts amused and annoyed.
“Good afternoon, my lord. Does one surmise from your tone you’ve had second thoughts? You sound anything but cheered.” When she stopped fussing, she met his gaze, and he again felt that inconvenient frisson of arousal that had afflicted him when they’d first met.
“I have had many thoughts regarding this venture since last we met, but none of them what you would call second thoughts. I have agreed to serve as the estate trustee, and I do not break my word. Ever.”
“How reassuring,” she parried dryly. She held his stare unflinchingly, then startled when he surprised her with a bark of laughter.
“Well done, Miss Worthington. You are capable of bravado, which will serve you well as you assume management of the Pleasure House.” He thumped on the roof with his walking stick, and the coach moved off.
“Is that what she called it? The Pleasure House?”
“Yes, though most men would simply refer to it as Callista’s. We’re headed there for an inspection of the premises, if that meets with my lady’s approval.”
The shades were drawn, giving the coach an intimate feel, though it was broad daylight. Miss Worthington wore the same hideous bonnet, also the same light, lavender scent.
“You refer to me as my lady, but I’m not a lady in the titled sense. When Father was alive, of course I was the Honorable Felicity Worthington and so forth, but the honorific means nothing without a viscount to inherit the title. It seems instead a reminder of… ill fortune.”
Gareth loathed small talk, and what she’d offered instead was something indicative of bravery—she’d offered him a place to start.
“I grew up as plain Mr. Alexander myself,” he said. “I preferred to die in that happy state, but ill fortune, as you call it, had other plans.”
That piqued her interest, as he’d known it would. One could fornicate enthusiastically with a complete stranger, but Gareth was fairly certain one could not seduce a proper lady without allowing her at least a passing acquaintance.
He would tell her his tale of woe, mostly because she was bound to hear a version of it sooner or later.
“My family owns a prosperous distillery on an estate up in Scotland. The lot of us, along with a few guests, had assembled there at my grandfather’s request. The estate is on the coast, and my grandfather fancied himself an expert yachtsman. I don’t know if he was or not, but he invited us all out on his boat. My entire family went. I was the only one who declined the outing. My mother, father, older brother, and younger brother joined Grandfather, my uncle, and my cousin, as well as… a guest or two. A bad squall blew up. The boat capsized, and most perished with it. My younger brother Andrew managed to rescue my mother, who at some point in her girlhood learned the rudiments of swimming.”
Gareth could manage this recitation in bland tones now, the signal accomplishment of nine years of effort.
“That’s tragic!” she expostulated. “What a great blessing you did not drown as well, my lord. Surely you do not regard that as ill fortune?” Her great golden eyes shone at him with a world of concern, and she’d leaned forward to touch his sleeve.
He took her hand and absently raised it to his lips. The scent of lavender was stronger near her wrist, more bracing. He wished she’d been sitting beside him, so he might maintain possession of that scent.
“I don’t regret surviving”—he didn’t regret surviving now—“but suspicion turned on me, because I’d had no stated reason for declining to join my relations on that boat. Some suspected I was guilty of foul play, and that rumor colored my first impressions of Polite Society, and—to be honest—theirs of me.” Foul play, a euphemism for fratricide, patricide, and several other forms of craven murder.
“But surely your mother and brother would have exonerated you?”
Her outrage was both comforting and disconcerting. She assumed he was blameless and thought others should have as well, affirming his sense that Felicity Worthington was not simply proper, she was also, in the most sincere sense, decent.
“My mother eventually recovered, though at the time she developed a serious inflammation of the lungs. By the time she healed from that, and from her grief, the worst of the gossip had died down. Andrew was fifteen, and I did not feel it fair to burden him with my problems in addition to his own difficulties.”
The compassion in her amber gaze could have melted any heart. This warmth in her was unexpected and not particularly welcome. Gareth’s first impression of her had been one of starch and sensibility, and for her to turn up… sweet was not in his plans.
“Your brother blamed himself for not being able to rescue more of them,” she said, drawing the conclusion on her own.
“He did, honorable little whelp that he was—at the time. I’m afraid since the accident, he’s grown into a bit of a rascal.” Though would Gareth have been grateful to Andrew if Julia had been rescued, or resentful? Probably both.
“And what of you, my lord? Are you a bit of a rascal?”
“The terms applied to me are not quite so charming, Miss Worthington, as you are no doubt aware.”
She sat back, finely arched brows knit. “I’m not aware, your lordship. I was not out when details of your family tragedy would have been common knowledge. Because my mother died before my come-out, I never really moved much in Society, even when I was old enough to do so. My father made a few attempts to introduce me around, but they never came to anything. I did not take, you see.”
She smiled as she announced this. Smiled the same shy, proud smile another woman would have evidenced when referring to making a bow before the Queen.
“I don’t believe that bothered you much.”
“It did not. I wondered if blond hair and petite stature might have served me better, but I did not wish for it. I had been running my father’s household for some time before I came of age. I was happier to do something that made a difference to the family’s well-being than to be out until dawn, fluttering my eyelashes at callow swains.”
He laughed again, a short explosion of sardonic mirth. “God help the swains if you’d determined they were useful for something more to your liking.”
“Oh, I like to dance, and I love music. But I am too tall for most young men to partner well, and they have not the patience for truly enjoying the music.”
She was right, of course. The average exponent of well-bred English young manhood was at best politely decorative in Gareth’s opinion—also randy as hell and completely inept at dealing with it. He certainly had been.
“I, for one, am glad not to be burdened any longer with excessive youth.” Though at nearly thirty, he still had a little youth left, didn’t he?
“I would say the same, my lord, except that as Callista’s successor, youth would be an asset, would it not?” The coach drew to a halt as Gareth considered her comment.
“Now that is a paradox, Miss Worthington, and a complicated one.” He helped her from the coach as he continued speaking. “Most men frequenting establishments such as Callista’s desire a woman who appears to be in the first blush of youth, but they do not want a partner who is inexperienced, inept, or immature. They want a woman, not a girl. The only men who persist in finding young girls attractive are some old men, and they are likely intimidated by the idea a mature woman could find their performance clumsy.”
From her guarded expression, Gareth concluded his companion did not entirely comprehend his comment. He started a mental list, a syllabus of corruptions he must perpetrate on her ignorance and innocence.
“Come. Your property awaits.”
Miss Worthington looked around her—gawked, more like. Gareth had directed his coachman to let them off in the porte cochere, which shielded them from public view.
“This is private,” she murmured.
“You must assure discretion for the patrons who wish it, of course. Very likely, Callista chose this property with such considerations in mind.” He ushered her through a side entrance to the large town house.
“Should I have worn a veil?” she asked, still peering about.
“Not today. I’ve given the staff and the ladies the afternoon off, with instructions to vacate the premises for the next two hours. We will tour the building, so you will have a more definite sense of what Callista left you.”
And doubtless be shocked silly.
“I didn’t expect it to be this decent,” Miss Worthington said when they’d finished with the lowest floor and the public rooms.
“Many brothels are not so finely decorated, but Callista had, or developed, taste. She sought a clientele that wanted the same sort of surroundings they’d find at home. Comfortable, but refined. You should be grateful for that.”
“Will you tell me why?” She turned to face him as she posed her question. The openness of her expression took him off guard, because clearly, she didn’t know how perverted and even evil the oldest profession could become.
She would have to learn, and from him—drat her, Callista, the oldest profession, and human nature.
“Some people, Miss Worthington, make their living off the most indecent forms of the natural urges. They can do so because men—and women—who seek to indulge those perversions will pay handsomely for the opportunity. Callista chose not to offer such entertainments in her establishment.”
He turned a glacial stare on her—a stare that reduced Brenner to babbling—but she did not withdraw the question.
“Such as sexual arousal gratified by inflicting pain on someone helpless to protect themselves. Such as sexual congress with children. Such as those who enjoy being degraded as they pursue their pleasures. Those who cannot find pleasure unless they are surreptitiously observing others having intimate relations. I do not begrudge two or four or ten adults what they choose to do in private, but many young girls and boys are inveigled into working in brothels because their alternative is starvation or repeated, uncompensated rape.”
She looked shaken by the time he’d finished, which was all to the good, even if it left Gareth feeling like he’d kicked a puppy. Thus Miss Purity Chastity Felicity Worthington could begin to see the reality of her cousin’s gift.
He took her elbow and guided her to the higher reaches of the house, where she went quiet at the variety of rooms—a few bedrooms decorated in garish velvets, as well as the predictable sultan’s tent, mock stable, and schoolroom. She went quieter still at the ordinary, tidily pretty bedrooms the women used for themselves on the next floor up, and abruptly, Gareth had shown her enough.
Though he’d become familiar with most of the house years ago, even he felt like a voyeur among the samplers, cutwork, dried flowers, and embroidered cushions on the third floor.
When he’d handed his charge into the coach, he took a place beside her on the forward-facing seat, as was his habit in his own coach. Miss Worthington bounced over to the chaperone’s bench, making him feel like he’d kicked a kitten and a puppy while several small children looked on.
“Miss Worthington, if we have agreed to be physically intimate with each other, don’t you think you could bring yourself to sit beside me?”
She made a face, but answered him by resuming the seat beside him. “This is more than passing strange,” she reflected, and it was not a sanguine observation. He took her hand, and in her preoccupation, she did not seem to notice his presumption.
“I ask myself,” she continued, “is this what those women routinely do? They kiss men who don’t even know their names? They stick their tongues into the mouths of strangers? It is decidedly odd.”
He laced their fingers, wondering if he’d ever, ever, in his distant and prosaic, not-much-missed or misspent youth felt the same consternation.
“The ladies’ trade operates within a ritual that makes it less bizarre. There is flirtation, sexual innuendo, mutual assent, and stages through which things proceed. One becomes used to it.”
She looked at their joined hands while Gareth braced himself for one of her difficult, fearless questions. “Does it ever become so commonplace it’s boring?”
“Invariably.” And again he felt a gnawing sense of irritation. It was one thing to swive a woman, and an entirely different and less appealing challenge to explain swiving to her. “Boredom is why men seek variety in their partners, and fantasies to enliven their interest. They use drugs, spirits, toys, and games for the same end. It’s simply adult entertainment.”
“It doesn’t feel boring when you kiss me,” she mused darkly. “I think you are accomplished at it.”
“Your flattery, Miss Worthington, will surely turn my head.”
They were quiet then, each rolling along in their own thoughts, hands joined in what had been a casual touch. She had graceful hands, and soft, soft skin. Had she been so rattled she’d forgotten to don her gloves?
Maybe seducing her wouldn’t be all that much of a chore—not that he should seduce her.
“What next?” she asked, looking at their hands as his thumb traced a pattern on her palm.
“Where would you like to go from here?” he countered, dropping his voice and drawing her hand up to his lips.
She snatched her hand back.
“None of that. I do not know how to flirt, and I asked you a question. I cannot attend your efforts to educate me if I am in constant dread that this time, on this outing, or at this meeting, you have decided I must lose my virtue. I would like a schedule, if you please.”
What a magnificent scold she was. He recaptured her hand, admitting to himself she had a point: She was innocent and ignorant, and all manner of ghoulish fairytales were put into the heads of decent young women to ensure they preserved their virtue.
“We begin this week with the business aspects of your brothel.”
“My brothel! Oh, my… yes, I suppose it is. Hmm. Dear…”
“If I may continue?”
“Of course. My apologies.”
So hopelessly polite. “We will start with the business aspects of the situation. You’ve seen the property, and you must have questions about it. We’ll need to familiarize you with all of its finances, its staff positions, its assets and liabilities. You will need to learn the client list, the current staff, and so forth. That should occupy us for the next week or two.”
He had her attention, at least—and he kept her hand as well. “We need to address your wardrobe, too, Miss Worthington. You are not attired as befits a successful woman of the world, and you must know how to clothe the women who work for you as well.”
“Of course, but none of this is…” She blushed and might have glanced out the window, except common sense dictated they were tooling through Town with every shade firmly tied shut.
“None of this is getting us into bed?” he finished for her. “We’ll have time for that. I propose when you have the business situation well in hand, say in several weeks, we begin on the more intimate details.”
She looked him over, and not with the sort of interest he usually merited from the gentler sex. “You want me to become familiar with you first. That is kind of you.”
The woman was daft.
“Kind? I can assure you, deflowering a stranger who finds my touch unpleasant holds no allure for me. I intend to use the next weeks for us to become accustomed to each other’s company.”
She held up their joined hands. “That’s why you do this? You touch me, when you don’t have to?”
The carriage came to halt in the alley behind her house, and he regarded their hands. “Touching you serves that function, but in truth, I touch you because it brings me pleasure.” And wasn’t that a curious thing? “I would ask one concession of you, however.”
He did not release her hand. She turned her head, so the brim of the awful bonnet obscured her eyes from him. The bonnet was going onto the rubbish pile at their very next outing.
“If we are to become intimate, then you must allow me the use of your given name, and I invite you to use mine as well.”
“You have the eyes of a wolf.”
He had just offered her the use of his Christian name, and she came out with that?
“You have the eyes of a wolf, Gareth,” he instructed.
“You have the eyes of a wolf… Gareth.”
He gave her a terse nod, freed her hand, and let her leave the coach. He kept the vehicle waiting until she’d crossed the alley and made her way through a bleak, dormant back garden, and disappeared into her home.
The dratted woman was pretty, soft, fragrant, and intelligent, and she appeared not the least bit interested in him on an animal level.
Despite all that, he could hope she’d at least been disappointed that he hadn’t kissed her again—because he certainly was.
“I don’t understand why we must spoil the customers so,” Felicity began. “They are provided with beautiful women willing to do their every bidding. Why do they need expensive drink, a French chef, and Flemish tapestries? It isn’t as if they’re paying attention to the furniture when they’re ogling a décolletage.”
Three weeks had seen a considerable thawing of Miss Worthington’s reserve, and the emergence of an odd, protective attitude toward Callista’s business. Felicity had been introduced to the house staff and the ladies who worked there. She had accompanied Gareth to the milliner’s and learned about fancy French undergarments until her blushes could have lit a bonfire. She had won the argument over whether she should acquire some for herself, but lost when Gareth insisted on selecting evening gowns for her.
She had reviewed the wine list and the buffet menus, and could give a fair account of herself regarding several games of chance. She had learned the “guest” list and made suggestions regarding the music provided each evening. Her aptitude for the managerial aspects of her role suggested that she had, indeed, been running her father’s household long before she’d left the schoolroom.
Gareth met with his protégé in the library of his town house, because it was more comfortable than his estate office, and better suited to the next phase of Felicity’s education.
She wanted to know about spoiling the customers, while he was more interested in having her spoil… him.
“You’re not answering me, Gareth, and you have that calculating look in your eye that means something bad for somebody.”
He had come to delight in her scolds, but the woman was too perceptive by half. He got up from his armchair and stoked the fire burning in the huge fireplace before which they both sat.
“To answer your question, you don’t have to spoil the customers to the extent Callista did. You may change whatever aspect of the business you wish, because you’re right: The important service is the one provided by the women. The rest is mere presentation. You should bear in mind, however, prostitution is a competitive business. If all a man wants is a quick rogering, he can shove any streetwalker up against the nearest wall and be on his way in five minutes. The streetwalker keeps all the proceeds, and the same service is provided.”
Felicity regarded him narrowly. “You use crude language to shock me. Get on with your point.”
“My bloody point”—he jabbed again at the fire, and if she was shocked, she hid it well—“is that your establishment must remain competitive. Callista left you a thriving business, but it has little in the way of reserves. If a rumor were to get out you’re watering the drinks, your tables are crooked, or your women unclean, for example, then you would be forced to close your doors. The building itself is worth a fair penny, but the cash flow is worth more over the long term. I would advise you to observe the business for some months before you attempt to improve it through drastic changes.”
He finished speaking but did not return to his chair. Instead, he picked up a white quill pen from his desk and began pacing the room idly, pulling out an occasional book and reshelving it as he wandered. Some distance—or something—was wanted, given the topic.
“I can understand the supply exceeds the demand, Gareth, but can’t we try a few things to improve profit?” she asked, staring into the fire as he paced behind her.
He brushed the quill over his lips. “Like what?”
“Couldn’t we offer cognac in addition to champagne and other wines? It has class, you must admit, but is served in smaller portions. Couldn’t we use a piano soloist instead of a string trio some nights? It’s a beautiful piano, and it sits there idly most evenings, and a little variety couldn’t hurt the ears. And we could also—” She stopped speaking as he came to stand behind her chair, resting his elbows along its back.
“Go on,” he urged, his mouth near her ear. He brushed the feather over her jaw, any number of games and diversions coming to mind that we might indulge in.
“What are you doing, lurking back there?” She remained facing forward, because he’d arranged himself so if she turned her head, her mouth would be in quite close quarters with his. She had good instincts, did Miss Worthington.
“I’m thinking.” Also admiring the curve of her jaw.
“Is my reprieve over?” she asked in a small, not-so-brave voice.
“Your reprieve?” When had the scent of lavender ever functioned as an aphrodisiac?
“You’ve given me weeks to accustom myself to our eventual… intimacy. Have you decided the time has come for things to progress?”
He leaned along the chair behind her, breathing through his nose and considering his reply. He’d taken things slowly with Felicity, finding himself reluctant to simply romp away her virginity. He didn’t like the position Callista had put him in—a position he’d agreed to—but no options were presenting themselves.
He brushed the feather over Felicity’s lips and decided he would force the issue, scare Felicity witless, and she’d back off. She was decent to the bone; hence, his strategy was a foolproof way of getting himself excused from a commitment he never should have made.
“I believe,” he murmured in her ear, “you have the right idea. Some changes are in order at the brothel, but also in our dealings.”
Felicity could smell Gareth’s clean, spicy scent, feel his breath on her nape, and sense the heat of his big, muscular body behind her. When Gareth nuzzled below her ear, Felicity’s insides started leaping about like March hares.
“What kind of changes?” And please God, may they be made with my clothing on my person.
“You have easily grasped the business aspects of your inheritance. We can move on to educating you in the skills plied by the women you employ.”
Against her neck, Felicity felt the brush of something warm and soft—not the infernal feather. The contact was faerie-light, then came again, more definitely. His lips. For weeks she had dreamed of those lips and watched them form one growling, precise, cranky word after another.
He wasn’t growling now. “You mean right… today?”
“Today we begin.” He straightened and came around to stand before her, his expression baleful. “You needn’t sound so terrified, Felicity. Remember, no matter what we’re doing, I will stop when you request it of me.”
The daft man assumed she’d be able to speak.
“Would you like a drink?” Gareth asked, tossing the quill pen onto his blotter. “Perhaps some cognac, since you favor its consumption?”
This was his version of solicitude—to cross the room and give her time to gather her wits. He was, in his taciturn way, as kind as he could be, and Felicity wished not for the first time they had met under other circumstances. His knowledge of commerce was encyclopedic, and for that alone, she could spend hours in conversation with him. He didn’t condescend to her when she asked the simplest questions, and he never lost patience with her ignorance—about business, about anything.
“May I have some lemonade?”
“Certainly.” He went to the dry sink and returned with two glasses—he was apparently in the mood for something cool and tart as well—handed Felicity her drink, and resumed his seat.
“We have not made much headway in the area of your erotic education, though we have covered other ground thoroughly.”
Felicity sipped her lemonade, praying for fortitude. He said naughty, forbidden words so easily. Shocking her was a sport for him, like skittles or bowls—and yet he was also drinking lemonade.
“I have allowed that part of our dealings to slip from my notice,” she admitted. Shoved it under any handy rug, more like. “I’ve focused on learning the things you set before me week by week, and ignored when you occasionally hold my hand or touch my arm or stroke my cheek. I suppose there will be a deal of that sort of thing?”
He treated her to a stare, those glacial blue eyes putting her again in mind of a wolf.
“So you ignore my touch?” he asked eventually, an odd note in his voice—humor maybe, or curiosity? Certainly not pique.
“I try. Sometimes I like how you touch me, but mostly it unnerves me. I am not from a demonstrative family.” This was a falsehood—Astrid was nothing if not demonstrative.
He glanced upward at the Cupids cavorting among the molding, a rake’s version of a prayer for strength. “What touches do you like?”
The answer was easy; the words were not. “I like your hands, Gareth. They are beautiful hands, and you can touch with such assurance, such… competence. Your hands make me think of the phrase that one is in ‘good hands.’ If I were a horse, I would trust your hands.”
He looked absently at the appendages Felicity found so intriguing, his expression suggesting there was no explaining women’s odd starts.
“What else?” If he’d been a cat, he would have been switching his tail, so palpable was his impatience.
The sorry, lowering fact was that Felicity enjoyed all of his touches.
“You’ve on occasion tidied up my hair—I don’t think you even know you’re doing it. You tuck a lose strand back behind my ear or smooth a lock off my shoulder. I like it, from you. I haven’t had a mother about to fuss me for some years, and find it… endearing.”
He regarded her with the sort of consternation reserved for bad art purchased by a good friend for far too high a price, then seemed to come to an internal conclusion.
“We will start there, then, with your hands and your hair. Each time we meet, we will spend time on one particular part of the body—yours or mine. We’ll get around to them all eventually, at least all the ones that count. In this way, I expect you will lose most of what’s left of those maidenly inhibitions, or send me packing.”
He might have been planning the layout of his garden or compiling a guest list for a Venetian breakfast.
“You don’t really care which, do you? It’s all the same to you whether you get me into bed or scare me into a life of service.”
The idea that her intimate education held no more interest for him than a choice of desserts was not cheering—and a life in service was not an option for Astrid.
Gareth’s scowl suggested he was not pleased with the question either. “I am long past the point of taking sexual encounters any more seriously than I would a hot bath or a good meal, Felicity. We’ve touched on this before. If I take you to bed, we will both enjoy it. For you, it will be a new experience, and one that makes certain options available.”
“While it removes other options from my grasp.” Options no decent woman parted with happily. He couldn’t possibly think she’d lost sight of that reality.
He gave her a peevish look. “Yes, you will lose certain options when you lose your virginity. That is a matter for you to consider. My point is that when I make love with you, I will enjoy the physical pleasure, but I will also be discharging an obligation placed on me by Callista’s bequest—no more, no less.”
Felcity had heard enough philosophical lectures and sermons to know they were delivered in this same dry, dispassionate tone, and he wasn’t finished.
“If you want protestations of profound emotion from me, you are doomed to disappointment. I’ll give you pleasure and teach you how to please a lover. When I have discharged that obligation, I will wish you luck and be on my way.”
Felicity sipped her tart drink and did not ask the marquess the questions that had plagued her for weeks: How does it feel to take a stranger to your bed? How do you talk yourself into desiring me? How can you contemplate such intimacy with another and yet regard it as no more significant than sharing a table at Gunter’s when the crowds are thick?
She offered him a placatory smile—she hadn’t heard him call it making love before. He’d used a hundred vulgar terms in both English and French instead.
“I take your point. You are performing the service for me that Callista performed for you, and I will learn to perform for others. It’s business. I understand that.”
She did not understand why she felt as if she’d just insulted him gravely—he was trying to help her, and at her request.
He considered his lemonade, his expression unreadable. “Just so.”
Felicity held her peace, lest the lump in her throat provoke her to more unhelpful speech.
“For the next part of our dealings,” Gareth said, “I request that you bathe thoroughly before we meet, wear jumps or forego your stays altogether, and be prepared for me to seduce your hair.”
He emphasized that pronouncement by running fingers along Felicity’s brow and smoothing her hair behind her ear—a gesture he’d performed a handful of times, but one Felicity had just admitted she enjoyed. Well, no matter. She’d been honest, and this caress meant nothing to him, regardless of the tenderness of it.
Was she supposed to hope that someday such a precious, personal touch would mean nothing to her as well?
“This feels so awkward!” Felicity protested for the third time.
She sat facing a vanity that took up an alcove in Gareth’s dressing room, her reflected expression enough to daunt any man intent on seduction. Gareth put down the seven hairpins he’d managed to extract from her coiffure.
“I take it you don’t have the regular services of a lady’s maid?” Nor did she appear to have a seduceable bone in her curvaceous body.
“Father thought it would spoil me, though I suspect the limitation was in truth financial,” Felicity said. “Gareth, I’m sorry. I cannot be at ease with you touching my hair as if you were a servant or lady’s maid. I know you have every right, given the nature of our dealings, and I’m being ridiculous.”
By pronouncing herself thus, she was attempting to be reasonable, but it was the sort of reasonableness that masked female upset. He knelt beside her, when he wanted to pour himself a bumper from the decanter.
“You can face down irate creditors, callow swains, and an ill-mannered marquess, but you’re afraid of a hairbrush?”
She looked away from him, the angle of her chin suggesting he’d lost control of matters entirely.
“Don’t you be kind, Gareth Joyce Alexander. Don’t you dare be kind.”
He rose, the bitterness of her tone taking him aback every bit as much as the content of her accusation. “I was trying to be seductive.”
A difference of opinion on that topic wasn’t in his lesson plan for the day—for any day, for that matter, though he hadn’t truly exerted an effort pursuing a woman since ascending to the title, and nine years of idleness dulled a man’s… reflexes.
“I was trying to be…” Felicity rose too, a fat, russet curl bouncing against her nape. “I don’t know what. I’ve given you the right to deal with me however you please. Viewed from a certain angle, I’ve invited your attentions, but I simply…”
Insight struck with inconvenient certainty. Gareth passed her his handkerchief and swept the curl over her shoulder—to which she did not object.
“This has nothing to do with permission, Felicity.” It should have nothing to do with permission.
She dabbed at her eyes, confirming she’d been on the verge of tears and that he’d been the one to put her there. “What does it have to do with, then?”
So testy, a student who’d been certain she’d had the right answer.
“It has to do with privilege.”
He scooped Felicity up and hauled her against his chest as he settled onto a divan along the wall. “I am not exercising contractual rights when I touch you, I’m exercising a privilege you may revoke at any moment—though I rather wish you wouldn’t.”
That was the sort of honesty most women would have known to take advantage of. His admission should have sparked a spate of flirting on her part and wheedling on his.
Thank God the woman in his arms knew as little about flirting as he knew about wheedling. Felicity’s upset was such that she didn’t flounce off his lap and stride away while demanding a discourse from him on the difference between a right and a privilege. She instead snuggled closer on a sigh.
“You confuse me, Gareth. I had hoped you would find dealing with me pleasurable, but I fear I’m simply another duty for you: meet with estate manager, attend opening of Parliament, deflower aging virgin.” Felicity buried her face against his neck. “I hate that I’m crying in front of you.”
“I don’t like to see you upset either.” This admission was more poor tactics, but also the plaguey damned truth.
“Maybe we should just go to bed and get it over with.” Convicted criminals spoke with the same enthusiasm about exercise at the cart’s tail.
“Maybe not,” he rejoined, letting one hand work its way into the thick braid coiled against her neck.
“Why not? I’m not good at this seduction-by-parts you’ve embarked on, Gareth. I feel like a rabbit frozen at the sound of the approaching pack. I’m morbidly mesmerized by my impending doom. That feels good,” she grumped, rolling of her shoulders.
He shifted her in his lap, the better to massage her scalp, and firmly resettled her against him. She stirred about as if trying to gather her wits, though Gareth had entirely different plans for her wits—perhaps for his own, as well.
“Behave,” he growled.
She cuddled up again. “So why don’t we toddle over to that bed of yours and be about it? Then you’ll be done with me and can be on your way, as you put it. Wish me luck, I think you said.”
He considered her proposal and rejected it. Felicity was not ready. He was not ready. He was not ready to consign her to a complete loss of propriety, and what that said about his credentials as a rake did not bear examination.
“First, even if I did take you up on this daring proposal, there is much more to learn about copulation than the simple business of your quim being penetrated by an erect cock.” He suspected she liked his blunt speech, though if nothing else, it would distract her from her tears. “Second, a man must be in the mood to have relations, or he won’t achieve a cock-stand, much less satisfaction.”
“You are speaking crudely again, Gareth. I know the cock is the male breeding organ, and have overheard enough footmen to know that you also make indelicate reference to a female’s privy parts. I am not precisely familiar with that other cock business you mentioned.” She sounded sleepy and bored.
Cock-stand. You will soon be sitting on one.
“Have you ever seen horses mate, or flirt with each other in anticipation of mating?” he asked as he unraveled her braid.
“Once, quite by inadvertence when I was visiting my aunt. The whole undertaking seemed noisy and violent—until it was over. Then the stallion rested his neck along the mare’s, and that looked tender, though I can’t imagine the mare liked having half a ton of exhausted male atop her. I will not countenance you biting my neck, Gareth.”
Such an innocent. He sank his teeth against her neck, gently, and spoke from a lightly clenched jaw. “A marquess bites whomever he pleases to bite.” She tasted like the lavender ices he’d had at Gunters’, only… better. He swiped his tongue against the pulse in her throat as her hair went tumbling down in thick, cinnamon waves. “Did you note anything about the stallion in particular?”
“He had what the stable boys called a fifth leg, though I’m sure they’d have been mortified to know I’d overheard that. I will be quite cross if you tangle up my hair.”
“Bother your hair. Your attention to the matter at hand would be appreciated, Felicity. I’m trying to explain procreation to you, for pity’s sake. Now… what you observed was the stallion’s member preparing to pass his seed into the mare’s womb, which is necessary for conception. I assume you know that much?”
He had the urge to laugh—at himself. Felicity’s affirmative reply was muffled against his chest, suggesting he was entertaining her as well, an improvement over provoking her tears, if nothing else. Gareth continued stroking her hair, finding it relaxed the bundle of womanhood curled up in his lap.
Also the man holding her.
“A man’s member also prepares for copulation by becoming rigid and erect.”
“This does not sound very convenient, when his breeches are tailored to reveal every detail of his manly physique, nor does it sound dignified.” Her tone was amused, gleeful, maybe, at the thought of men relieved of their pride.
“Dignity has little to do with it, and when one is aroused, that doesn’t seem to matter so much.” Felicity’s attitude made it hard to be matter-of-fact. The feel of her hand playing with the hair at his nape didn’t exactly predispose a fellow to disinterest either.
“You are serious about this, aren’t you?” Felicity said, humor still lacing her voice. “You aren’t having me on about male parts enlarging with passion? One hears schoolgirl rumors, but they’re hardly trustworthy.”
“I would not lie to you, Felicity, ever. Though I must say, if I’d known the facts of copulation would strike you as so humorous, I would have mentioned them sooner.” Why, in all the hours he’d spent in Felicity’s company, had he never heard her truly laugh?
She let out a breath and scooted around on Gareth’s lap. “This is not what I had expected today—it seems a strange undertaking, Gareth. I’m not sure I can get my mind around it.”
Her scooting was having a predictable effect on Gareth’s mind, and his body.
“The whole situation would make more sense to you if you had experienced arousal. No.” He put a forefinger to her lips to still her response. “Don’t think about it. Allow me demonstrate.”
He replaced his finger with his mouth, kissing her without warning or preamble. He shifted her in his arms so she was cradled in his embrace but reclining against the arm of the divan. This impulse on his part had taken her off guard—as it had him—and she stiffened in his arms predictably.
“Relax,” he warned against her ear. “I shan’t leave off until you do.” And very likely not then either.
Gareth exercised both his patience and his determination, the latter being one asset he possessed in abundance. Little by little, Felicity became pliant in his embrace. Her right hand wrapped around the back of his head while her left rested over his heart, and her tongue made a timid foray along his lips as her eyes drifted closed.
Moving deliberately, Gareth brought his hand down Felicity’s arm, rubbing along the length of her sleeve in slow strokes. He moved back up to her shoulder, to her collarbone, to her throat, caressing and stroking elegant bones clad in worn, modest attire. When she seemed comfortable with that, he let his hand drift to her stomach while he distracted her by sucking at her sweet, lemony lower lip.
His intention had been to soothe and arouse her with his touch, to start her a few steps up the long, lovely climb toward sexual satisfaction. To his consternation, he was the one soothed and aroused.
The problem was, he had to pay attention to her. He could not move through the same steps of the same dance and achieve the same results, as he could with any of his other partners. She was, drat the woman and her glorious unbound hair, interesting rather than convenient.
To touch her was a privilege, exactly as he’d said, and on an instinctive level, she knew not to allow him to assume anything less.
Slowly, so slowly, he inched his hand up to her rib cage, at which point in the proceedings, her fingers came down on top of his. Undeterred, he eased a thumb along the underside of her breast, skimming the fabric of her dress. He teased and hinted and toyed, until she arched against him, sighing when he closed his fingers around her breast.
Gareth schooled himself to yet more patience, a difficult undertaking when Felicity was—at last—melting in his arms. She’d stolen across the divide between wary and wanton, though it had taken more focus and forbearance than Gareth had shown any other woman in his shamefully vast experience.
She tried to sit up. “Gareth, I am uncomfortable… please…”
He responded by dipping his tongue into her mouth, and finding, to his pleasure, she met him openmouthed. He lifted her against his body and slipped his hands around to unfasten the back of her dress. Felicity was apparently so enthralled with the sensations to be found by molding her breasts to Gareth’s chest that the loosening of her bodice didn’t register.
Until Gareth peeled her dress down from her shoulders and began kissing the flesh he exposed.
He’d wasted weeks trying to be gentlemanly, weeks arguing with the woman about menus, musical repertoire, and budgets. And all those weeks, he could have been devouring his very own lavender ice. Gareth moved his hand up to again cup her breast, but this time, his fingers closed on the flesh of her nipple through only the thin lawn of her chemise. Felicity gasped—or maybe it was more of a whimper—as he began a gentle, rhythmic pressure on her flesh.
“Oh-my-dear-gracious…” she murmured, though Gareth was moving beyond measuring Felicity’s reactions, beyond careful seduction. His erection throbbed against her backside, and he briefly considered throwing up her skirts and plunging himself into her heat.
Alas, oh-my-dear-gracious was not an invitation to plunder.
He would have to stop, soon.
But not quite yet.
Gareth considered himself due the satisfaction of taking her nipple in his mouth, and so he closed his lips around her flesh and began suckling in strong, steady pulls. Felicity’s hands cradled the back of his head, and she held him to her as if her life depended on it.
Please what? By way of a suggestion, he rocked his hips against her derriere. Felicity grabbed at Gareth’s hand, brought it up to her other breast, and closed his fingers over her nipple. He pleasured her for several more moments before forcing himself to ease up. He slid his mouth off Felicity’s nipple and rested his face along her bare, warm breast.
And found, to his fierce satisfaction, Felicity’s heart was going like a rabbit’s.
“My goodness gracious… my ever loving goodness gracious,” Felicity panted against his hair, wonder in her voice battling with disgruntlement. “You might bite me anywhere you please now. I’d have nothing to say to it.”
Lovely thought, though she’d probably blather at him the entire time.
Gareth sat straighter, tucking Felicity’s bodice up loosely in the name of preserving the last shred of his sanity—because he’d been the fool to tell her all those weeks ago to wear jumps or forego her stays.
He regarded the spinster in his arms, the one with her russet hair cascading nearly to the floor, her lips rosy, her bare shoulders a study in grace.
Privilege was a pale word for what she’d allowed. Courage came into it, and pleasure, and even an element of the sublime.
“You, my dear, hide surprising fireworks.”
“Is that a good thing?”
Probably not—for him or for her. Rather than answer that interesting question, Gareth scooted her to sit beside him, then turned Felicity by the shoulders so her back was accessible. “Let’s get you organized.” He fastened her dress up, but allowed himself to plant a kiss on her nape. Such a soft, soft nape she had, and pale freckles dusting the tops of her shoulders.
“Please don’t start again, Gareth. I don’t think I could bear much more of that.”
“You sound so stern, Felicity. I thought you liked it.”
What he’d thought was that in some small degree, she had to like him, to permit him such intimacies. He kept that nonsense behind his teeth.
Felicity was quiet for a moment while Gareth finished with her hooks.
“I’m afraid I rather did like it,” she admitted at length. “I was nervous before, Gareth. Now I am terrified.”
Woman, thy name is complexity. Though maybe she’d become so terrified she’d run screaming from the house, and the last he’d hear from her would be a polite note excusing him from further obligations.
This possibility did not bring as much relief as it ought.
“Passion is overwhelming until you get used to it,” he conceded as he finger-combed her hair into a long plait. Part of him didn’t want to receive that polite note, at least not quite yet.
“And when does one ‘get used’ to all that excitement and pleasure and intimacy and… such?” she asked unhappily. He got up to fetch a green hair ribbon and the seven pins from the vanity. Felicity scowled at him as he padded across the room, and said nothing as he sat behind her, tied off her braid, and wound her plait up into a bun.
Though seven pins would not hold the mass of her hair in place for long.
“I don’t think anyone aspires to become blasé about sex, Felicity. It just happens. You go through such a variety of partners, you play with all the toys, explore all the games and drugs, and in the end, it comes back to a pleasurable bodily sensation. You asked if being full of fireworks is a good thing, and my answer is you will have to decide for yourself.”
He pulled her back against him, so her back rested against his chest and his arms linked across her waist, and blathered on. While he held forth about jaded palates and bodily humors, he ignored the creeping suspicion that the woman in his arms was near tears—again.
“The skillful prostitute knows how to appear aroused without actually becoming aroused, or only mildly so. She is hired to please her clients, not herself, and so her own satisfaction is not a priority. In your case, your sensuality makes my task easier. You may find, though, having had your passions awakened, it is inconvenient, as a madam, to seek relief from them with clients.”
And why was he bringing this up now, when relatively tame play inspired the woman nearly to tears?
“You think I will need a male mistress?” she asked, clearly horrified by the very notion.
“A gallant of some sort. Society women often develop liaisons with discreet admirers for mutual pleasure. It isn’t something you need to concern yourself with now.”
Though she would. She would worry about it, and that made him angry. With himself.
The idea of her hair unbound in some other man’s presence also made him angry, which had to be a function of an empty belly and the certain knowledge Brenner had at least eighteen reports for him to read.
And yet, Gareth continued holding Felicity around the waist with one arm. With his free hand, he stroked her arm, her shoulders, her hands, because she wasn’t ready to pop up and face the world.
“You have a mistress,” Felicity stated, as if confirming a suspicion.
“I do.” One he hadn’t seen in several weeks, come to that. Worse yet, he hadn’t wanted to see the woman, or given a thought to missing her company or her charms. “I enjoy regular sexual activity, and from all accounts, the ladies enjoy my attentions as well.”
Though he wasn’t in the habit of asking them if they were pleased, which realization he shoved to the back of his mind.
“I could hate you, you know.” Felicity curled up against his chest. “You and all the sophisticated lovelies you’ll meet tonight while I’m playing backgammon with Astrid. Merciful saints.” She fell silent and tucked herself more closely to him. He wasn’t inclined to argue her out of her disgust of him, but neither would he deny her the comfort of his embrace while she nursed her hurt feelings.
“What was the sigh about?” Foolish question without any good answer.
“You are patient with me, Gareth. I appreciate that.”
Not appreciation, not thanks, pray God. He kissed her temple and waited.
“But you, my lord, are no use at all in helping me to sort out my emotions. You have touched me in ways I would never touch myself, and I can only assume things in this regard are only getting started. I have never been aroused before, you see. This changes me, and not in ways I was looking to be changed. I am not well pleased by what I am learning from you.”
Women were hopelessly compelled to complicate what ought to be kept simple, and yet, Gareth offered the reply he suspected she sought.
“Felicity, any time you decide this course is not for you, you need only tell me to stop. You would make an excellent housekeeper, governess, or companion.”
She stood abruptly and looked down on him as he sprawled on the divan. The perspective likely did not flatter him, because from her vantage point, he would look dark, decadent, and disheveled.
Spoiled, and yet to stand and loom over her merely because he could would be spoiled and cowardly.
“You are wrong, Gareth. I would be adequate at those things, just as I would be adequate at being some honest fellow’s wife. I am excellent, however, at being a spinster. You are excellent at being a rake, and I’d wish you the joy of it, except I cannot escape the notion you are deserving of my pity.”
Gareth watched her go, knowing it was rude not to see her out, but telling himself she needed the grand exit. Needed it, and deserved it.
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