To seduce an earl, p.14
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.14

           Lori Brighton
 

  Hopelessness welled as painfully as the ache in her foot. She’d have to make an appointment, which would mean more coins, coins she so desperately needed to save. Perhaps this Lady Lavender would allow her to make payments of some sort.

  “Blast it.” She merely wanted to make sure Alex was well. Slipping her fingers underneath her bonnet, she rubbed her aching temples and peered up at the windows. Did any lead into the hall? Perhaps she could just slip inside, unseen, quick and silent as a mouse. It was a ridiculous thought, yet her body seemed to have a mind of its own. Making sure no one was watching, she pushed a crate toward the wall, the wood scraping against the cobbles. Blast, but wearing pants was much easier. She was starting to have an entirely new appreciation for Patience.

  “If you’re trying to kill yourself you’ll have to climb higher than that.”

  Grace spun around.

  A tall man stood in the shadows, leaning casually as you please against the wall. Handsome as a devil and dressed finely in a buff jacket and trousers, she assumed he was one of Lady Lavender’s men. A cheroot hung between his fingers, a thin trail of smoke weaving its way into the air. Whereas Alex was all charm, this man was the opposite. Black as coal hair, gray, cold eyes, a face that seemed chiseled from stone. She supposed some might think of him as handsome, but she could only think about his size…very tall, very broad. A Scottish warrior of old. She stepped back, her heart thundering in her chest. He was without a doubt, impressive.

  “I’m not trying to kill myself.”

  He placed his cheroot between his firm lips and released a puff of smoke. Slowly, meticulously, his gaze traveled down her form, then up again, leaving her feeling naked, although she was wearing quite a dull, green gown with a high neckline and long sleeves.

  “Why do you wish to see Alex?” Was there the slightest accent to that voice? His intense gray eyes pierced hers and for a moment she lost her train of thought. When she didn’t respond quickly enough, he quirked a black brow. And for a moment, under the seductive intensity of his gaze, she could understand why women would find him attractive.

  “Can you locate him?”

  “Why do you wish to see him,” he repeated, crossing his arms over his chest.

  “I just…that is…” Oh bother it! How did she explain without condemning the man? “He helped me last eve and I know he was injured. I wanted to make sure he’s well. I sent a note, but he never responded.”

  The giant remained silent for one long moment, so long, she was preparing to turn and leave when he finally spoke again. “She won’t allow for private correspondences.”

  “But…” Grace frowned. “But that…that’s…is that even legal?”

  He shrugged and dropped his cheroot to the ground. With a quick stomp, he crushed the bud reducing the glow to cold ash. “Lady Lavender can do as she pleases.”

  “She sounds rather like a dictator.” The moment the words were out she realized her mistake. This was his employer. He might not take kindly to someone speaking negatively toward her. “I do apologize.”

  Instead, he laughed, a deep, rumbling chuckle that, for some reason, surprised her. She had a feeling he didn’t laugh often. “Come along.”

  Grace stiffened. “Where?”

  He started toward her, his trousers stretching over thickly muscled thighs. Intimidating, to say the least. “If you wish to see Alex, I’ll take you to him.”

  “Truly?” She watched him warily, unsure if she should trust the man.

  He didn’t seem to care whether she followed or not. With a shrug, he strolled toward the kitchen door. “Well? Are you coming?” He glanced back at her and those eyes, Lord, even though he was smiling those eyes were cold.

  Instinct told her to stay far away from this man. She glanced up at the building. There, within those many rooms, anything could happen to her.

  “Well?” he demanded.

  Grace swallowed hard. Her instincts had been off lately. Before she changed her mind, she scurried after the man. He pushed the door wide and stepped aside, allowing her entrance. The moment she moved into the kitchen, all work ceased. Grace jerked the netting over her face, hiding behind the thin veil.

  With a smirk, the warrior took her hand in his. She started at his touch, his fingers so different than Alex’s. This man’s grip was tight, almost too tight. His large hands engulfed hers, his size overwhelming. While Alex’s were more the hands of an artist, almost graceful, this man looked like he could kill with the strength of his fingers alone. He wasn’t watching her, but looking straight ahead as if she didn’t exist. Not a maid said a word as he made his way across the kitchen, but they watched them. Oh, how they watched! Grace had the childish desire to stick out her tongue toward the cook who had so rudely slammed the door in her face.

  They traveled that narrow flight of steps, the same steps she had taken to Alex’s room only days before. The closer they got, the more nervous she became. Would he be happy to see her? Or annoyed? Her heart slammed erratically inside her chest, begging her to flee. But at the second floor they didn’t go to Alex’s room, instead pausing halfway down the hallway.

  “What—”

  The warrior pushed the closest door wide and gently shoved her inside. Grace stumbled, attempting to regain her balance. She should have known better than to trust him! The door shut with a soft thud.

  She spun around. “You…you said you’d take me to Alex.”

  He nodded, walking slowly toward her. “And I will.”

  But this obviously wasn’t Alex’s room. No, his room was calming, pretty almost with its white curtains and soft bedspread. But this room…this room screamed brothel with its red velvet chairs and black silk bedspread. Grace shivered. “This isn’t Alex’s room.”

  He quirked a brow, amusement softening his hard features. “Indeed. You’ve been there before?”

  She crossed her arms over her chest, hiding the tremble of her hands. She knew what it would imply if she answered his question. Yes, she’d been there. Yes, she was a client of his. “Perhaps.”

  He smiled, a wicked smile that she supposed did all sorts of warm things to women, but did nothing for her. “We’ll go there soon. Calm your nerves. We need just a moment.”

  She lifted the netting of her bonnet. “A moment for what?”

  He pressed his finger to his lips. Neither of them moved toward the door, merely continued to stand in the middle of the room. Waiting for what? His silence confused her, made her nervous.

  “Sir, please. If you—”

  “Here she comes.” He glanced at the door.

  Grace stiffened. “Who?”

  He moved purposefully across the room, his strides long and sure as he drew closer, not bothering to respond to her question. Like an animal after a sure kill.

  Grace moved back a step, pressing her hands to her churning belly. Really, it was quite annoying not knowing if she should be excited or nervous about said visitor. “What are you doing?”

  He didn’t pause in stride, nor did he avert his gaze from her face. “I’m going to kiss you.”

  “What?” she demanded, her voice a high-pitched shriek.

  But there was no amusement on his face. He was completely and utterly serious. “I’m going to kiss you and you’re going to like it.”

  “That’s debatable!” Grace stumbled backward, her thighs hitting the bed.

  He paused in front of her, so close she could feel the warmth of his large body. “Trust me.”

  She started to laugh at his absurd request when he wrapped a muscled arm around her waist and jerked her close. Her breasts smashed to his hard chest, too close, too intimate. When he leaned over her, she felt as if she would be crushed. It all happened so very quickly, she wasn’t prepared. His firm lips pressed to hers and for one odd moment, Grace merely stood there, once again allowing a complete stranger to kiss her.

  He cupped the back of her head and with his other hand, he used his thumb to press her chin downward. Before she could gu
ess his intentions, his tongue slipped into her mouth, bold as you please, like warm velvet and not exactly unpleasant. Yet…odd. So very odd. She wasn’t sure if she liked it or not. Although she couldn’t deny that he knew how to kiss, his touch left her feeling off…like when she’d just gotten over a cold. Pleasant, yet no spark of sudden desire.

  Then Alex’s face came to mind and a slight, unwelcome tingle warmed her insides.

  Vaguely she was aware of the door opening. “Gideon.” A woman’s sharp voice cracked across the room like a slap to her senses. “Please come into the hall.”

  He pulled back and gave her a wink. “Stay here.”

  Gideon. This was the Gideon who received the more experienced women? Bemused, Grace slumped back against the bed. She could only sit there, blinking weakly as he made his way into the hall. When he shut the door, she pressed her fingers to her tingling lips. “How very odd.”

  It wasn’t the first time she’d been kissed. No, the first true and utterly thorough kiss she’d received had been from Alex. As she sat there, she couldn’t help but compare the warrior’s kiss to Alex’s. Compare his touch to Alex. Compare his scent… his voice…his taste… And she found this warrior…lacking for some reason that she couldn’t quite explain.

  “A client.” She heard the man named Gideon mutter, the words whispering through the closed door and bringing her back into the moment.

  She stood, testing her legs. Finding she could stand without collapsing, she moved across the room and pressed her ear to the door. This man, Gideon, was pretending she was here for him. But why? Was this Lady Lavender so truly horrible that she wouldn’t allow Grace a quick, completely innocent visit with Alex?

  “You’re not signed up for anyone,” she replied in a refined voice that bespoke more of drawing rooms than brothels. Grace’s interest piqued. Who was this woman?

  “Yes, I know. She was recommended and wasn’t sure she wanted to go through with the visit. I was making her sure.” Gideon’s voice was so strong, demanding, that even Grace almost believed him.

  “Marie said she asked for Alex.” Apparently Lady Lavender had her doubts and her spies. Did the woman notice everything?

  “Marie was mistaken.”

  “Lady Lavender,” someone called from down the hall.

  There was a frustrated sigh. “Yes, what is it?”

  “A problem with payment.”

  There was a short pause. Grace held her breath, waiting, hoping, praying. “Very well. I’ll speak with you later.”

  Giddy with relief, Grace stumbled back just as the door opened. Gideon swept inside, that gray gaze intense once more. “You have a short while before she’ll return.”

  Any giddiness fled. His words sounded rather dire. Confused she merely let him grab her hand and jerk her into the hall. “I don’t understand.” Which wasn’t an oddity. She hadn’t understood much in the past fortnight.

  In three long steps they were at the end of the hall. Gideon pushed open Alex’s door and shoved her into the dark room. Regaining her balance, Grace spun around to face him.

  “If you hear anyone, hide,” he said. “If you get caught, I’m not responsible.”

  “But…”

  He shut the door, trapping her in total darkness. Grace turned, her heart hammering in her chest. She could only stand there, waiting for her body to adjust. A fire crackled in the hearth, the red light more leering than comforting.

  “Alex?” she whispered, her voice quivering.

  A soft moan came from the vicinity of the bed. Grace froze. Her heart plummeted to her feet. She was going to be sick. Oh dear God, he was…entertaining.

  She stumbled back until she hit the hard, unforgiving door. “I’m so sorry. I…”

  A dark shadow shifted on the bed. There was a soft swoosh and a flare of brilliant light as a lamp was lit. “Grace, is that you?”

  “Alex?”

  His voice sounded odd, strained, but the light was too fast, her eyes hadn’t had time to adjust and she couldn’t see his face.

  “Yes, but I’ll leave. I’ll…” There was no other movement, no other dark shadows. Was he alone?

  Grace shaded her eyes and stepped hesitantly forward, closer to the bed, closer to Alex. She could barely see his features.

  “Alex, what—”

  A bitter scent hovered in the air. She paused. Grace knew the scent well. The scent of medicines. The scent of sickness. Her heart stopped. For one brief moment she swore her heart actually stopped. “Dear God, Alex, what happened to you?”

  ********

  She was not here.

  Yet even as he wanted to deny it, even as he wanted to pretend he was dreaming, he knew she was real. He could smell her. That clean, warm scent that momentarily disrupted the bitter odor of the salve that had been rubbed onto his wounds. Alex groaned and sank back into the bed. The movement sent dizzying pain rippling through his torso. He didn’t know whether to be horrified by her presence or thrilled.

  “Go away before you get us both killed.”

  “Nonsense,” she whispered, but he noticed the way her voice quivered. She wasn’t as strong as she pretended. She pulled on the ribbon holding her bonnet in place. “No one will murder me, my stepfather was titled.”

  He rolled his eyes and pressed his face into his pillow. Lady Lavender didn’t care about connections, she had too many of her own. If Grace only knew about his background, and how little his title had protected him. Would she be impressed by his family? No, not Grace. “A title means nothing in my life, Sweet.”

  “Is that…”

  He noticed her glove laying there pristine white near his pillow at the same time she did. Embarrassing heat washed over him. Lord, as if he needed anything else to add to his unease.

  “You forgot it,” he said gruffly, tossing it toward her.

  She caught it close to her chest. “I… see.”

  And she did see, he could tell by the tone of her voice. Shite. She was wondering if he cared… if he could possibly have feelings for her.

  “What’s that scent?” She sniffed delicately as she moved around the bed and set her bonnet on the table. How the hell had she made it to his room unseen? Lady Lavender wouldn’t have allowed it. Had she snuck in? Yes, he supposed women could come and go easily through the gates, men, much less so. Hell, he didn’t care. She had to leave before Ophelia found them. She already knew that Alex had escorted Grace home, thanks to Wavers. Surely she suspected that Alex cared more for Grace than he should.

  “Wonderful, now you’re saying I smell. Go away Grace.”

  “Medicine, that’s what it is.” She rushed the last few steps, her skirts rustling with the movement. “You’re ill!” She said the words as if they were an accusation.

  Despair washed over him. He didn’t want her comfort, he couldn’t handle compassion at the moment. He must be hard, unemotional, it was the only way he would ever survive this hell. His hands fisted into the sheets, until feathers poked through to his palms. “Bloody hell, will you please just go away?”

  “No! Not until I know you’re well.”

  “Why?” he asked, his voice almost pleading and he hated himself for it. “Why do you care?” He hadn’t meant to ask her, yet once the words were out, he couldn’t deny that he eagerly awaited her response.

  She paused for one long breathless moment. “Because…I owe you.”

  He released a harsh laugh and closed his eyes. She owed him. The worst possible words she could have said. Owed. He’d heard the word too much in his lifetime. Hadn’t he thought he’d owed it to his family to prove he could protect them? And look where that had gotten him.

  “I know the scent of sickness well,” she said softly.

  He reluctantly opened his eyes, his interest piqued. Why did she know it well? Damn, he hurt too much to ask. She settled on the edge of his bed. The slight movement sent his bones jarring and pain shot through his body once more. He gritted his teeth, grimacing.

  “You’re h
urt.” Her voice was a soft caress.

  He didn’t respond. He was in too much pain to talk. It didn’t matter that she knew, nothing mattered at the moment. Every bone in his torso felt cracked, every muscle pulled with sharp pain at the slightest movement. The two bulls who had beaten him had fists like bricks.

  She raised the wick of the lantern. The flame flared to life, sending blinding light over his face. How long had he been laying in the dark? Hours? A day? He vaguely remembered a maid applying the salve to his back. Lady Lavender had sent her; his employee wasn’t a complete monster after all. No, she wanted him well again so that when his clients came calling, he’d be ready.

  “Where does it hurt?”

  He managed to hide his face under his arm, afraid she’d read the pain in his eyes. It was too much, too humiliating and he despised Ophelia more than he ever had before. “Everywhere.”

  Those cool fingers wrapped around his wrist. Slowly, carefully, she moved his injured arm. The knife wound he’d received after visiting the gaming hell was the least of his worries. She pressed her palm to his forehead, a gentle touch, a caring touch. “No fever.”

  She started to pull away, but in a desperate need to keep her close, he reached out, grasping her wrist, keeping her palm to his head. A touch, a soft touch, a touch for no reason other than the fact that she was concerned for his well being. At least he could pretend she was concerned. He closed his eyes, focusing on the feel of her soft skin. How long had it been since someone had comforted him? An unidentifiable emotion clawed its way into his throat, taking permanent residence in the form of a lump.

  “Don’t move,” he begged, hating himself for his weakness.

  “All right.”

  She slid closer to him, her hip pressed to his shoulder. But it wasn’t enough. No, she wrapped her arm around him and with her free hand, she brushed her fingers through his curls. His jaw clenched, the feeling bittersweet. How long had it been since someone had cared? His hands curled into the sheets as he resisted the urge to wrap his arms around her, to hold her tightly to his body, to breathe in her scent. But he feared if he touched her, he’d never let her go.

 

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