To seduce an earl, p.12
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.12

           Lori Brighton
 

  “He isn’t a gentleman, I’ll vouch for that,” Grace said, peeking over his shoulder.

  He threw her an exasperated glance. “Would you please refrain from interfering?”

  She shrugged and dropped back down, hidden behind the protective barrier of his back.

  “Now, where were we?”

  “Ye were jist about tae give me yer money.” But the man’s tone had lost that hard edge. He was doubting whether he should continue. Alex was confident, and confidence was half the battle in a fight like this.

  “No, I was just about to beat you to a bloody pulp.” Alex shrugged his jacket from his shoulders and handed the coat to Grace. She took the garment reluctantly, watching him as if he’d gone mad. Obviously she didn’t believe in his abilities as a man. He’d have to prove to her that he was, indeed, a man. Much more so than that dandy Rodrick.

  The rat before him shifted in unease, watching him warily. Taking his time, Alex rolled his sleeves to his elbows. Feign confidence. Drag out the situation. He knew all of the tricks, and they were working. A dark form appeared at the end of the footpath. He didn’t need to look directly to know it was Wavers, lurking in the shadows, watching, waiting. Annoyance fought with something he didn’t want to identify…something that felt suspiciously like relief. At the end of the fight, Wavers would escort him back inside. Hopefully Ophelia would be in a forgiving mood. Grace would return home in her hack. Everything would be as it should.

  “Come on, then,” the man whined, shifting. “It’s bloody cold out here.”

  His rags provided little warmth and the cold made people desperate. Alex almost felt sorry for him, almost. “All in good time, my friend.”

  “Alex, what are you doing?” Grace whispered, obviously doubting his sanity.

  “Trust me.”

  She lifted a brow. “Trust you? You want me to trust you?” She sounded quite incredulous, which amused him for some reason.

  “Yes, we’re quite good at loyalty, you know, we whores.”

  She flinched at the word. Apparently, she could think of him as a whore, but he couldn’t say the word? He shook his head and turned back toward his opponent. “Well, shall we?”

  “Uh… all right.” The man shifted the knife from hand to hand. Slowly they circled each other, two animals after a bone…that bone being a few pence. How ridiculous.

  They were matched in height. The man was thin, but Alex knew better than to underestimate him. He’d be a sinewy fellow, used to fighting for what he needed.

  Grace sighed and took out a small watch from her pocket. “Will this take long?”

  “Not if you cease your prattle.”

  That got another chuckle from the whore watching them with glee.

  Grace gasped, as if offended. “Well, really.” She crossed her arms over her chest and tapped her foot impatiently.

  Amused, he almost let the man get the first swipe. His arm lunged forward, the knife gleaming wickedly in the dim light. Alex jumped back. Grace gasped, scrambling out of the way. Finally, the woman was taking their situation seriously. Was she worried about him? Or was she merely worried about her escort home?

  The man thrust his arm forward again. Alex spun around, coming back to swing his fist wide. His knuckles connected with the man’s jaw, sending him stumbling back. Alex had only a moment to catch his breath.

  The rat had regained his balance. “Yer good,” he muttered, rubbing his jaw with his free hand. “But I’m better.”

  “That has yet to be seen, Mate,” Alex sneered.

  The man growled low in his throat, his black eyes luminous pools of hatred. Alex silently cursed himself for taunting. He should have known better. Just as the man swung forward, Grace darted toward the alley. Alex spun away, turning to look for the blasted woman.

  She was rummaging through the garbage. What was she doing? From the corner of his eyes, a blur of movement sent his hackles raising. Too late. He jerked his head toward the rat. A sharp sting ripped across his forearm.

  “Shite.” Alex stumbled back, caught off guard. The cut wasn’t deep. It stung too bloody much to be deep. If it was deep, it would be numb. “Now you’ve made me angry.”

  The rat chuckled, his yellow teeth gleaming. He was arrogantly sure he would win, that would be his mistake. The whore pushed away from the wall, knowing the fight was getting good, she wasn’t going to miss a thing. Or she was waiting for Alex to fall so she could rush forward and claim his valuables.

  Alex’s fingers curled, his gaze narrowing on the smirking rat.

  “Come on,” the man laughed wickedly.

  Alex lowered, ready to launch himself when Grace suddenly appeared behind the man. She was dragging what looked to be a long piece of wood across the footpath. Her hat was askew, her cheeks flushed and hair had come loose, hanging in long, feminine waves around her face. Sensing his attention, she looked up and gave him a brilliant smile.

  Alex frowned. What the hell was she doing?

  The rat lifted his hands, a come hither expression on his face. “Come on then, haven’t got all night.”

  Grace lifted the board and with a grunt, swung. The man didn’t see it coming. The whack vibrated through the night air. With the force, Grace stumbled back, dropping the board to the ground. The whore cringed. The rat’s eyes grew wide, before rolling back in his head.

  Slowly, he slumped to the ground.

  Chapter 9

  Grace stumbled back as blood roared to her ears, drowning out any sound but the harsh beat of her heart. Had she truly just killed a man? “He’s not…dead…is he?”

  But Alex was merely staring at her with a stunned look upon his handsome face. “Are you insane?”

  The rush of fear was instantly replaced with annoyance. She huffed, resisting the urge to stomp her foot. “No, and I don’t take kindly to you calling me mad! Now, I asked a simple question, is he dead?”

  “Lawd,” the whore whispered, dropping to her knees and quickly going through the man’s clothing, looking for whatever she could find. Grace thought it rather disrespectful to steal from a dead man, but managed to keep her thoughts to herself.

  “No,” Alex snapped. “He’s not dead.”

  Relief made her legs weak. She’d certainly never killed a man and didn’t have any desire to start. She was already staining her soul by visiting not only a whorehouse, but a gaming hell. She wasn’t sure God would forgive murder. “You’re positive?”

  A street urchin raced forward. Grace sucked in a surprised gasp and stumbled back into Alex’s hard body. The boy grabbed the knife from the unconscious man, then darted back into the darkness, gone as quickly as he’d arrived. Who else lurked out there in the shadows? Alex picked up his jacket from where she’d dropped it and shook the material free of dust. His movements were slow, deliberate, as if he was attempting to regain control of his temper. Well, really, did he expect her to merely stand passively by?

  “Alex,” she started, intending to explain.

  “Grace.” Alex turned toward her, his jaw clenched. His features were fierce in the low light of the street lamps, his cheekbones sharp, his eyes dark. Underneath that anger, was the same look that Rodrick had worn when she’d insisted on escorting him to the Gaming Hell…disbelief.

  Flirting had worked with Rodrick…. She pasted an innocent smile upon her face and batted her lashes. “Yes?”

  With a low growl, he stopped close, so close that over the scent of refuse and smoke, she could smell him, that wonderful manly scent of him. “You can’t just—”

  A shrill whistle pierced the air. Alex stiffened. Grace spun around, searching the darkness for the culprit. Shadows, human forms, darted across the street, disappearing into the night. Fear peppered the very air.

  “The constable,” she whispered. She jerked her gaze to him. “I can’t be seen, I’ll be ruined.”

  He didn’t move, merely stared at her as indecision crossed his features. What was wrong with the man? Didn’t he understand? She needed t
o leave…now! She released a frustrated sigh and latched tightly to his hand. “Alex, I understand if you can’t escort me home, but I need to go.”

  Still he said nothing.

  Despite the chill air, a fine sheen of sweat gathered between her shoulder blades. “I’m sorry.” She could wait no longer. Reluctantly, she released his hand and turned to leave.

  “Wait!”

  There was a desperation to that word that gave her pause. Grace glanced back. Alex was facing the prostitute in the gaudy dress, who was stumbling to her feet in her haste to escape.

  “You, there. Where do you live?”

  The whore froze, her brows snapping together, suspicion lacing her painted features. “What’s it to ye?”

  “Here.” He tossed her a couple coins. She eagerly caught them in midair. “If you have a room, let us use it for a brief while. You take the night off, find a nice, warm pub and have a bit to eat.”

  The whistle blew again, followed by footsteps thundering toward them. Shadows morphing from darkness. Grace trembled with unease. She could feel Alex’s impatience like a nagging gnat. He darted a glance back. Grace followed his gaze. That tall, broad-shouldered man who always seemed to lurk nearby Alex was heading toward them like a bull looking for a mate.

  The whore grinned, showing empty spaces where her front teeth should have been. “No need to say more. Ye can do what you will, none of my business.” She glanced pointedly at Grace, then winked.

  “Oh, no,” Grace started. “You don’t understand.”

  “Quiet,” Alex demanded. “Hurry now.”

  “All right, calm the bloody hell down.” The woman stuffed the coins in the valley between her breasts, hiked up her skirts and bolted down a lane.

  Alex gripped Grace’s elbow and dove forward after the woman, Grace doing her best to match his long strides. The cap she wore tumbled from her head, her curls falling down around her shoulders.

  “Alex!” she cried.

  But he was relentless and refused to stop even long enough for her to complain. She hadn’t a clue where they were headed and could only trust Alex, a man she barely knew. It seemed ridiculous now that she had been thrown into this situation, yet what choice did she have? They darted down a dark alley, leaping over crates and garbage. Alex’s grip was tight and sure, he seemed to know where they were headed, but how could he when it was obvious he’d rarely left Lady Lavender’s side?

  “Just here,” the whore panted, pointing toward a building that looked like it could tumble down under a small gust of wind. “’ere ye are.” She pushed open a door. “Top on the right.”

  Alex nodded. “Give us an hour.”

  She grinned. “How ever long ye need.”

  Grace glanced back. The alley was empty, indicating they’d actually lost their pursuers. They made their way up the rickety steps, Grace clinging to the railing in desperation. The place was exactly as she’d expected, dirty and in disrepair. Alex pushed open the door at the top and stood aside, waiting for her to enter.

  She hesitated, peeking into the small garret. The air was stale, the ceiling low, suffocating.

  “Merely for a brief while,” he said, sensing her discomfort.

  Grace nodded and stepped into the room. A bed, that was no more than a mat, lay in the far corner, while a chair sat near one of the two windows, covered with threadbare curtains that were no more than rags. Alex had to duck as he came inside and shut the door.

  There was something incredibly depressing about the place. She moved across the room, the scarred floorboards creaking under her weight. From below, voices mumbled, people coughed, a couple was arguing. A deep, aching heaviness strangled the breath from her lungs. Is this what would become of them? Forced into a small garret once their money was gone. She brushed aside a curtain and gazed out onto the night sky.

  Smoke billowed from chimneys, gray clouds upon black sky. A few stars managed to shine weakly through the fog, but their light was sad and pathetic. Too late for mongers selling their wares. The darkness almost hid the poverty, almost. But the lack of light couldn’t cover the melancholy atmosphere.

  “We’ll wait here merely for a moment or two,” his velvet voice was a shock to her body, a comfort to her soul. “Closer to dawn the streets will clear.”

  And then what? She had a home she could return to, at least until their money ran out. But where would Alex go? She turned to face him. The room was small, and Alex was large. She couldn’t see him living in squalor, not dressed as richly as he was and certainly not with the air of superiority he held.

  Alex pushed away from the wall and moved toward her, his hand cupping the back of his neck, rubbing the muscles. So beautiful, even in this squalor, but it was the way his hands trembled that she focused upon. The very air around him stirred with unease.

  What would he do now that he had left Lady Lavender? Or would he return? Her gaze raked his angelic features, to his wide shoulders, lower, to the way his white shirt stretched across his broad chest. She froze, then jerked her gaze to his arm.

  “What is that?” She met him in the middle of the room and latched onto his wrist, bringing his arm up for inspection. “You’re injured!”

  “I’m fine.”

  Ignoring his statement, she rolled his sleeve higher. A thin red gash marred his muscular forearm, blood drawing an angry red trail down his arm. “Oh Alex,” she whispered, her voice catching.

  It was her fault. Damn it all. If she hadn’t been trying to hide the fact that they had no footmen, if she hadn’t set out to prove to Rodrick that she was no helpless female, this never would have happened. She dropped her hold and pulled her shirt loose from her waistband.

  “Tis nothing.” He brushed by her, pausing at the window.

  It might not have been deep, but it needed to be bandaged before it became infected. She slipped her finger into the tiny hole at the hem of her shirt and pulled. The material ripped easily, the sound a loud screech that raised the fine hairs on her body.

  Alex glanced back. “There’s no need to ruin your…is that your clothing?”

  Grace flushed. “No. My sister’s.” She waved toward the chair. “Sit.”

  He sighed but moved toward the wing back that had certainly seen better days. It didn’t matter that the chair was worn and tattered, he still looked like a King ruling over his domain. She bit back her smile and started toward him.

  “Will just take a moment,” she cooed, pausing before him. She’d taken care of many injuries, nursed many as they lay upon their sick bed. Merely another person to heal, yet Alex was not merely a person, but Alex. The man who heated her blood with a glance.

  With her knee, she nudged his legs apart and stepped between them. He tilted his head back against the chair and watched her through those thick, dark lashes. More than ever, she was acutely aware that they were alone. Slowly, she wrapped the bandage around his arm, forcing her fingers to remain steady, although her heart thumped madly in her chest. She could barely breathe, barely think with his gaze pinned to her.

  “Thank you.”

  There was a sincerity to his voice and an intensity to his gaze that squeezed her heart and made her wonder if anyone had ever taken care of him. She smiled, tucking the loose ends under the bandage. “Of course.” The obvious emotion in his heated gaze shouldn’t have influenced her, she was in love with Rodrick, after all. But she couldn’t deny that being this close to Alex sent her senses spinning.

  “How shall I repay you?”

  Startled, she stiffened. “There’s no need. It was nothing.”

  “Perhaps to you.” He stared at her for one long moment, his gaze so intense she felt as if he saw into her very soul. She started to step back. “We never had our next lesson.”

  Grace froze. Kissing.

  His gaze darkened as that pulse in the side of his neck flickered to life. “You do remember, don’t you?”

  Of course she bloody remembered. Her entire body came awake with the memory. Places she neve
r knew existed suddenly pulsed with life. “I have no money.”

  “Free of charge.” His voice was a husky temptation. He slid his uninjured arm around her waist, bringing her close. She could feel his body trembling, but from anxiety or from passion, she wasn’t sure. He tilted his head and looked up at her. The erotic scent of spice and male swirled in the air, making her dizzy.

  “Why,” she whispered, lifting her lashes to meet his gaze. “At times, you barely seem to like me.”

  He smiled, a soft, emotional smile that tugged at her heart. “Oh, I like you, Grace. I like you an awful lot, and that, my dear, is the problem.”

  She parted her lips to question him further, but he placed his hands on her waist and all thoughts vanished. Slowly, he pulled her toward his lap. She settled on his hard thighs, every muscled evident through the thin material of her trousers. His hand slid underneath her shirt, his long, elegant fingers moving over her smooth, bare back. Grace bit her lower lip. Reaching her binding, he paused.

  “Whatever are you wearing?”

  She swallowed hard. The warmth of his hands on her skin had her flustered. She felt odd, like a fever was working its way through her body. “Binding, to—”

  “I understand.” He reached up and slid his fingers into her hair, dragging the locks down so they fell around her back and shoulders in a shimmering veil. Just when she thought he was done, he brought the strands forward, breathing in their scent. “Beautiful.”

  “Do you mean it?” she whispered, looking at him, frantic for the truth. “Or do you say that to all of your clients?”

  He paused, his hand cupping the sides of her face. His eyes had grown serious, intense, yet she hadn’t missed the flash of hurt that had briefly appeared. “Right now, in this moment, you’re not a client.”

  His words were almost like a warning. She was not a client, therefore she was not in charge. They were merely a man and a woman indulging in an overwhelming attraction that would lead to nowhere. He tilted his head and pressed his mouth to her neck, his breath tickling her pulse. A tremor coursed through her body. Grace moaned, closing her eyes. Wrong, this was so wrong! Here, in this tiny room, they were alone, completely and utterly alone. Anything could happen.

 

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