To seduce an earl, p.10
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.10

           Lori Brighton
 

  Grace hurried forward, relieved, yet embarrassed. “Lord Rodrick.”

  Miss Kitty hissed and raced down the hall, toward the kitchens. She’d never cared for Rodrick for some odd reason.

  “So sorry to bother you,” the earl said.

  Footmen. He was here for footmen. They no longer had footmen, thanks to John’s spending and soon Rodrick would know of their dire straits.

  Marks stepped to the side, looking relieved. The man could barely stand, wavering about on his feet. Obviously he’d been drinking again. She prayed Rodrick hadn’t noticed the inebriated servant. “Please, Marks, return to bed.”

  Not one to argue, or care, the old man immediately shuffled away. Grace turned back toward Rodrick. His hair was mussed, his cravat loose. She’d never seen him in such a relaxed state and it felt odd to be here with him, only the two of them…almost intimate.

  Yet, she wasn’t as excited as she should be. She ignored the uneasy feeling. “What is it?”

  Rodrick raked his fingers through his hair and for one brief moment she was reminded of Alex. She shook the thought aside as he began to speak. “Grace, I’m so sorry. I hadn’t meant to disturb you…”

  She raised her hand, stopping him. She had no time for such nonsense. If he had something important to say, he needed to say it. “No, please, what is it?” She’d never seen him like this, so unsure, so unkempt. Yet she kept her breath even, refusing to panic. She had enough to deal with at the moment, there was no reason to give into hysterics, although Rodrick watched closely as if he expected nothing less.

  “Your brother.”

  Dread sank like a boulder into her stomach. “Oh God, what now?”

  He hesitated, shifting. “It’s not for a lady’s ears…”

  Grace dampened down her annoyance. Really, was this the same man who liked his women experienced and bold in the bedroom? “Please. He’s my brother, my responsibility.”

  Rodrick sighed dramatically, almost…as if he was enjoying the moment. She pushed aside the disloyal thought as he began to explain.

  “Fine, but I warn you, tis not pleasant. He’s intoxicated, drinking himself into oblivion. Gambling, borrowing money from acquaintances only to lose it all.”

  Grace blanched. It was worse than she’d expected.

  He paced across the foyer, his boots tapping with each step. “I’ve tried to escort him home, but he refuses to leave. Your townhouse was closer, I thought I could gather a couple footmen to assist me…”

  She nodded. When John was drunk, he was a brute. Was that why Rodrick’s state was so disheveled? Heated embarrassment rushed through her. What he must think of her family! There was no possible way he’d ever ask her to marry him now. John had made everything a million times worse, the bloody idiot. There was only one thing to do.

  “I understand.” She swept across the foyer, deeper into the house. At the stairs she glanced back. “I’ll be just a moment. Did you take a hack?”

  He frowned, confusion passing over his handsome face. “Yes, but—”

  “Excellent, we’ll not be identified.” She rested her hand on the railing. For once she was glad of her sister’s odd choice in clothing. With trousers and her hair under a hat, no one would know she was a woman.

  Rodrick started after her, his footsteps quick and heavy over the floor planks. “Grace? What are you doing? I don’t understand.”

  She paused, turning. “Going to change, of course. Will only take a moment.”

  He laughed, a forced sound that grated her nerves. “You can’t be serious.”

  She fought her momentary irritation, telling herself he only cared about her welfare and reputation. “Of course I’m serious.”

  He paused in front of her. “He’s in a brothel, for God’s sake!”

  Anger had her parting her lips and for one brief, horrifying moment she almost blurted out that she’d been to a brothel before. Realizing her mistake, she clamped her mouth shut. How dare he tell her what she could and couldn’t do. Is this what her life become if she married him?

  “It’s not fair,” Patience’s words whispered through her mind. “We have to sit here and do nothing at all but worry.”

  “You’ll ruin your reputation,” he added feebly.

  Grace sighed. It wasn’t Rodrick’s fault. The man had been raised to believe that a woman of privilege should always care about her reputation. “My brother’s life is at stake.” He certainly couldn’t argue with that.

  His lips pressed into a firm line. He wasn’t going to agree, blast him.

  “To hell with my reputation.” She’d try another tactic. “I made my debut years ago, I’m hardly an innocent.”

  He lifted a brow, shocked by her blunt statement, yet there was something else there, a sparkling in his eyes…could it possibly be admiration? She took a step up so they were eye to eye and stared directly into his soft amber gaze.

  “No one will recognize me. Besides, I’m the only person he’ll listen to.”

  The corners of his lips quirked, as if he found her bluntness amusing. A delicious shiver raked her skin, her heart slamming erratically inside her chest. Anticipation? For one long moment they merely stared at each other. Rodrick, as if he were seeing her for the first time.

  She felt odd, bold, daring. That bit of rebellion had given her the confidence she needed. In that moment, she realized it was the perfect time to practice Alex’s instructions. She took Rodrick’s gloved hand in hers, feigning innocence and sincerity by blinking her eyes wide as she’d seen many a woman do.

  His shoulders tensed, his lips parting in surprise.

  Grace refused to blush, refused to drop her gaze. “Thank you, Rodrick. I haven’t had the opportunity to thank you and you’ve done so much for my brother, for me.”

  Then she waited. Her heart hammering, she waited for his response.

  “Of course,” he said softly, his gaze dropping to their clasped hands.

  He didn’t pull away.

  It was her cue to be even bolder. “Really, I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

  Time seemed to suspend. She lowered her gaze for one brief moment and before she lost her nerve, she brushed her thumb across the inside of his wrist, right there, where his sleeve cuff didn’t quite meet his glove, where his pale skin shone through. Such a simple touch, yet shockingly intimate.

  She heard his sharp intake of breath and almost bolted up the steps in embarrassment. Instead, she forced herself to pull slowly away. She gave him a brilliant smile and said, “I’ll be only a moment.”

  “Of…of course.” He was stuttering, his cheeks flushed.

  Grace turned and started up the steps, her legs trembling. She knew he watched her. She knew she’d affected him. She knew she’d won.

  Her heart thumped madly, nerves fighting with relief. She’d done it. Dear God, help her. She’d taken the advice of a whore.

  ********

  “Darling,” Ophelia leaned toward Alex and rested her hand on his chest. “Sherry.”

  Alex’s smile was brittle. “Yes. Of course.” He stood from the settee they shared and smoothed down his vest and jacket. Not one man around the card table bothered to look his way. No, he was merely a pet of Lady Lavender’s. Even though he was dressed better than most, he was not worth notice.

  Rarely did Lady Lavender leave her estate for London, and even more rarely did she bring him along. When he did escort her, he was either being rewarded or punished. Tonight he was being punished. Her little lap dog. Humiliated in front of the other men. She did it on purpose. Of course she’d never admit that, but he knew the truth. He’d fucked up twice now with Grace.

  On her first visit, Grace had left almost immediately, obviously unsatisfied. The second time she’d left without making another appointment. And Ophelia insisted on happy customers. Thank God, the woman didn’t seem to know about the shop visit this morning.

  Gideon swore Lady Lavender visited gaming hells and brothels to prove her power. Perha
ps he was right. Alex wouldn’t put it past her. Women weren’t allowed in Gaming Hells, at least not decent women. Female companionship was meant only to provide sexual favors. But for some inexplicable reason Lady Lavender was allowed. He had a feeling, deep down, these men of the ton feared her; wanted to keep their enemy close and all that nonsense. Or perhaps she knew the owners deepest, darkest secrets. Alex wouldn’t have been surprised.

  The few other women draped across men’s laps were whores, people like him. Those women watched him openly, wondering, no doubt, how he was driven into this sort of world and why. Some threw him lavacious winks, knowing smiles, smirks. Others seemed annoyed, as if he was stealing business from them, stepping into their territory. Still others, those women who had sold their souls long ago, barely noticed him at all but sat in a bewildered state of semi-consciousness, their movements puppet-like.

  With that charming smirk in place, Alex sauntered down the hall. At the end of the corridor, just barely visible, two of Lady Ophelia’s men stood guard. He knew without looking that two more would be out back. He tried to focus on the pleasantness of freedom, being able to roam the building without expectation to please. But the place was thick with smoke, the bitter scent of alcohol and the overwhelming despair of gentlemen attempting to recoup their funds.

  He was so unused to the sound of male companionship, that the first time he’d visited a gaming hell with Ophelia, he’d been startled like a wild animal taken into the city. Some of the buildings, like this one, did their best to appear civilized; painted walls, carpeted floors and fine furniture. But they couldn’t hide what this place truly was…a hell.

  Arguing, deep rumbling laughter and amiable conversation rumbled from a variety of rooms. At Lavender House, silence was much appreciated. He paused at the opening of one room, peering inside at the group of men. Friends, from what he could gather. They laughed, patted each other on the back, sharing stories of women and drink. Not one noticed him.

  A bitter gust of loneliness clenched his gut. If his family hadn’t been ostracized…if Lady Lavender hadn’t…if…

  The soft scent of vanilla and spring wafted around him. A clean scent, a scent that didn’t belong in this hell. An oddly familiar scent. Startled, he glanced over his shoulder just as two men swept by. The taller man was typical of these establishments. His dark suit cut perfectly, brown hair trimmed stylishly into place. But it was the smaller man who caught Alex’s attention. A boy’s cap covered his head. But his hips were too round, waist too narrow.

  “We’ll find him,” the shorter man mumbled in a shockingly feminine voice. A familiar voice.

  Hell, it couldn’t be…she wouldn’t…

  “We aren’t staying long. And for God’s sake, keep your face down.” The taller man settled his hand on the small of her back.

  Recognition shocked Alex cold. Hell, she would. And why not? The woman frequented whore houses, why not gaming hells as well? He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. Surprised, annoyed and…what was that? Yes, blast it all…thrilled to see her.

  Alex frowned, hurrying his steps to catch up to them. What was she doing here? Without thought, he followed the couple down the dank hall, further into the smoky pit of hell, brushing by stumbling guests, too drunk to notice anything amiss. The odd couple turned into a room, disappearing from sight.

  For one brief moment he panicked. Alex paused just inside the doorway, his frantic gaze searching the small room. There, near a table of men smoking and playing cards, she stood. Grace. There was no doubt now. Although the brim of her hat shadowed her face, he could still make out her features. A face so pure, that bearing so graceful, how the hell could they not all know she was female?

  She leaned toward a dark haired man who slouched in a chair, his build medium, his features plain, his demeanor despicable. Her stance was one of companionship, intimacy… as if she knew him well.

  “Now, John,” she whispered. “We’re leaving now.”

  A few men lifted their blurry gazes to her, finding her sharp statement odd. The man named John glanced up and gave her a wavering smile that bespoke of drunkenness. “Can’t now. I’m just about to win back what I lost.”

  Her delicate, gloveless hands curled on her rounded hips. He knew that stubborn set of her jaw, he’d seen it before. In fact he’d seen it only that morning in the shop. The woman was on a mission.

  “I must insist we leave,” the dandy man who’d come with her added his worthless two pence.

  Alex frowned. She wouldn’t take demands from him, but she would this bloody idiot? He was attractive, he supposed, and his obvious arrogance only added to his appeal. Who was he anyway? Certainly not her earl.

  “I will not leave without John.”

  Alex smirked and leaned against the door jamb, crossing his arms over his chest. If the man was her earl, she’d just shut him up quite nicely. And he was taking her snub to heart, if his flushed cheeks said anything.

  “Really, I think we ought…”

  She snapped her head toward her companion. “I will not leave…..”

  Those flashing hazel eyes met his and her voice trailed off. Damn, if his heart didn’t lurch. Feigning the arrogance he was so good at, he lifted a brow. Her companion glanced back at Alex, gave him a quick sweep, then stepped in front of her, blocking him from view. Another reason to hate the man.

  “Your brother is in no condition…”

  “Enough!” John roared, surging to his feet. “I will not leave until I win back my money!”

  “You are ruining us!” Grace cried out in a voice so feminine that surely they realized, yet no one seemed to notice, too drunk or stupid to care. They were more annoyed that their card game was being interrupted.

  “See here,” one man slurred. “Are you in or not?”

  “I am saving us, you idiot!” In a tantrum a toddler would envy, John tossed his cards into the air, the deck fluttering to the ground like ribbons on a maypole.

  “Oy, why’d you do that?” someone grumbled, kneeling to pick up the cards.

  Grace’s face flushed, her eyes shimmering. “Oh, yes, saving us.” She was close to tears and he couldn’t let her cry here, not now, in front of these men. She’d hate herself later. He could hear the mumbles behind him and realized they were attracting interest. Determined to save Grace from herself, Alex stepped further into the room.

  The soft questioning mumbles grew as did the crowd at the door.

  “What is it?”

  “Who is that?”

  He heard more than one person whisper behind him.

  “Get out!” Apparently having had enough, John stabbed his boney finger into her chest, sending Grace stumbling backward into the earl. Alex’s ire flared. The earl fumbled to catch her, but caught off balance, he nearly took them both to the floor.

  Leaping into the room, Alex grabbed Grace around the waist and pulled her back just in time. Her lush, warm body felt so bloody right in his arms that for a brief moment he merely savored the contact.

  “Are you all right?” he asked softly against her silky hair.

  “Yes,” she whispered.

  But he could feel the rapid beat of her heart against his chest. She wasn’t all right and hell, neither was he. While the others, finally annoyed enough, were attempting to pin good ole John’s flailing arms to his side, Alex merely held Grace.

  “Grace?” The earl stumbled upright and elbowed his way between them, giving Alex a discreet shove. He took Grace’s hand in his, his boyish face puckered in concern. “Are you well?”

  Grace’s gaze jumped to Alex, then back to her earl. “Yes, yes Rodrick, I’m fine.”

  Alex was about to shove the man aside and tell him to go to hell, when someone called from the doorway.

  “Excuse me, excuse me.” A round man wobbled his way into the room, pausing only when he caught sight of Grace. The shock that flushed his face was almost laughable. “You cannot be here!”

  Her ruse was up, finally, u
ncovered by the only sober man besides Alex. The remaining men froze, realizing something was wrong, something they’d missed. The crowd was thickening, men eager for a brawl, piling into the doorway to get a peek.

  “A woman,” Alex heard someone whisper.

  “An actual Lady?” someone else asked, obviously horrified.

  Alex snapped his head toward the earl, the idiot who’d brought her here. The moron was busy trying to tame John, leaving Grace to struggle on her own. Alex glanced back. Wavers was there, beyond the crowd, watching him. He knew Jensen would be standing watch at the front entrance.

  Alex focused on the earl, disgusted with the dandy. “I suggest you escort her out of here, now.”

  “Of course,” the companion replied, raking his hair back in frazzled and jerky movements that bespoke of confusion and indecision. Alex doubted the earl had ever taken care of himself, let alone another human. He hadn’t the slightest idea what to do.

  Grace shook her head and spun away, out of reach. “Not without John.”

  “Grace, he refuses…” the earl whined.

  But she didn’t look at her earl, no, she looked at Alex, her direct gaze pleading with him to help. He felt her need like a knife through the heart. His gaze slid to the tabletop, the pile of coins obvious, glaring. She needed him, not for sex, but needed him to save what little family fortune her idiotic brother hadn’t wasted. And for the first time in years, it was nice to be needed.

  Alex strolled forward, lifted his fist and hit the man in the jaw. There was one brief moment of utter shock that crossed John’s face, before his head snapped back, his knees buckled and he crumpled to the floor. A few men laughed, a few gasped their outrage. But not Grace, no, instead she threw him a grateful smile, a smile that gripped his heart and squeezed.

  “Now can you handle him?” Alex muttered.

  Rodrick threw him an irritated glance. He paused only a moment, obviously not wanting to do the dirty work, before stomping toward Grace’s brother. “Fine. Come along, someone help.”

 

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