To seduce an earl, p.8
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       To Seduce an Earl, p.8

           Lori Brighton
 

  He watched her, merely watched with no judgment upon his handsome features. “Do you desire someone new?”

  “What?” The thought shocked her, repulsed in some way.

  “You don’t seem happy with the situation. I’d be willing to talk to Lady Lavender, I’m sure we could find someone who would please you.”

  Please her? She truly could not be having this conversation. Oh why wouldn’t the floor open and swallow her whole?

  “Lady Lavender?” she managed in a strangled whisper.

  James nodded, frowning. “She is the woman who runs the brothel and if there is a problem, she must know.”

  She surged to her feet, feeling suddenly annoyed. “No! Alex is…he…pleases me.” Had she really just said those words? Blast, but she’d felt the sudden need to defend the man.

  “I see,” James said, but the way he said it made her bristle, as if he’d read the dishonesty in her words. Fortunately, he didn’t argue. He merely paced to the windows, crossing his arms over his chest and looking outside.

  “He does. He’s…he’s kind, charming.” Now she was overdoing it a tad. Lord, she didn’t know what Alex was, did she? She didn’t even know the man’s last name. She knew very little about the ridiculous situation she suddenly found herself. “James, do you have a surname?”

  “Just James.”

  Like ‘just Alex.’ As if they didn’t deserve a surname. Or perhaps they didn’t want one. James seemed suddenly melancholy and for some reason, she felt as if it was her fault. What was he thinking to produce such a morose look upon his face?

  “How?” she whispered. “How did you fall into this position?” It was a personal question, too personal, yet he didn’t seem offended. Then again, surely, he’d been asked it before.

  He turned, giving her that crooked smile. “Luck, perhaps.”

  She stiffened, confused by his answer. Had she misheard him? “Luck? I’d think you’d wish to be anywhere but here.” She was being blunt, but this new world went against everything she understood.

  He laughed, a wry chuckle that lacked humor. “My lady, my family was starving, my mother and sister near death. When Lady Lavender took me in, she also took in my family, in a way.” He paused by the small window, the setting sun highlighting his handsome face. He looked so sure, so positive he was right in his beliefs that she didn’t dare argue. “They would have died, my sister would have sold…”

  Sold herself like a whore. She wanted to ask him why it was better that he sell himself, but knew she was getting dangerously close to asking too many intimate questions. “And Alex?” she continued, unable to stop herself.

  He paused, his body went stiff, his face guarded. He seemed almost defensive. “What about him?” Did he not wish to discuss his friend’s personal life, or did he not wish to discuss Alex at all?

  “Why is he here?”

  His smiled turned tight. “That’s something you’ll have to ask him.”

  They weren’t friends then. That was obvious. Did Alex have any friends? The thought of him here, alone, made her suddenly melancholy. Yet, he wasn’t alone, was he? No, he had plenty of women to keep him company. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”

  “No. It’s fine. I’m merely…not quite sure.” He paced across the small room, growing flustered and restless, his hands raking through his hair, then settling on his hips, only to cross over his chest as if he was trying to figure something out. She’d upset him, but why?

  “We were brought here together, you know; me, Gideon and Alex.”

  Of course she hadn’t known. She barely knew anything about Alex. The only thing she knew about this Gideon was that he was the man who received the experienced women. Isn’t that what Alex had said that first day when he’d nearly sent her to the man?

  James cast her an intense glance. “You want to know about Alex?”

  She paused for one long moment. Did she? Knowing about Alex would make him more… human. She’d care, damn it all. Yet, she couldn’t seem to stop herself from nodding.

  “Alex is…is…charming.”

  She knew that. Of course Alex was charming. She only had to look at him to know. His smile, those lovely dimples, those sparkling blue eyes. That mouth…

  “But…”

  She stiffened, waiting.

  “Just…” James’ face softened, as if he was talking to a child. “Be careful. Alex isn’t who you think he is.”

  A shiver of unease caressed her skin. A warning.

  He smiled, as if to gentle his response. But it was too late; he’d already piqued her unease. “There are women…certain women…who…are more innocent than others. Women who…might take these times and hold them close to their hearts.”

  Women? In other words, her? “What are you saying?”

  He sighed. “Women who might take these times with their men and think they are more than merely a pleasurable experience.” He paused for a long, dramatic moment. “Don’t make the mistake of thinking Alex is in love with you.”

  An unnatural silence stretched before them. A long, pregnant silence that left her horrified and embarrassed. She realized as the words sank bitterly cold into her gut that he was waiting for her response. Love…with Alex? Of course she wouldn’t…wasn’t.

  “I…I wouldn’t.” She released a shaky laugh. “I’m not in love with Alex. I barely know him!”

  He smiled briefly. “Of course.” He was finished with the conversation, yet she wasn’t. No. The words still stung, still swirled through her head like an annoying gnat.

  “Don’t make the mistake of thinking Alex is in love with you.”

  Alex didn’t love, he merely pleasured…many.

  James strolled unhurried to the door, leaving her frozen in the middle of the room. He paused, listening, then turned toward her. “They’re gone now. Shall I escort you to your carriage?”

  But odd thoughts and unfamiliar emotions kept her still. She would never fall in love with Alex and felt the need to defend herself. But would he think she protested too much?

  In love…with a whore? Ridiculous!

  Finally, slowly, she nodded and started toward the door, her legs stiff with reluctance. She didn’t love Alex. She barely liked him. She was in a brothel, for God’s sake, risking her reputation because she was in love with Rodrick.

  So why in the world did going home suddenly feel so depressing?

  Chapter 6

  “Just think, Gracie, if we could find the treasure, we’d be rich.”

  Patience did a little skip on the footpath beside her. Completely inappropriate for her age. She garnered more than one passing stare. Grace bit her tongue to keep from reprimanding her sister. Patience needed to learn to reign in her excitement while in public. But at least the girl was wearing a dress. Patience was merely too lively for the London ton.

  Grace worried about her. How would society react when her sister emerged? She didn’t want Patience’s feelings to be crushed because of insensitive old biddies. But she feared that’s what would happen when her sister made her debut. Then again, they might not have the money for a debut, after all. Lord, at this rate they’d be forced to sell the carriage.

  “Patience, please be… patient.” She grinned at her own pun, finding amusement for the first time in two days. How could she be amused with James’ dour warning ringing through her head? Don’t trust him. Why? Why couldn’t she trust Alex? Sure, he could charm the habit from a nun, but he seemed harmless enough.

  “Why not?” Patience asked, interrupting her thoughts. “You always say to think positive.”

  Treasure. Her sister was discussing buried treasure. “True.” But the day was fine, too fine to worry about nonsensical treasures and their lack of money.

  “Lady Maxwell called upon Mama yesterday when you were out.”

  “Really?” She hadn’t seen the woman in months and now, suddenly, she appears right after Grace had seen her at Lady Lavender’s? Gads, perhaps James hadn’t hidden her as wel
l as she’d thought. Had the woman seen her? Grace rested her hands on her roiling belly. It was too risky, this business of learning to seduce. Perhaps it would be better if she didn’t return.

  Patience nodded thoughtfully. “Rather kind, considering most of Mama’s acquaintances have abandoned her, afraid of catching her disease. And Lady Maxwell is so kind. The epitome of appropriateness, Mama calls her. I think she’s praying the woman will rub off on me.” Patience grinned up at Grace, but Grace was too lost in her own musings to respond with more than a vague nod.

  Righteousness fought with guilt. How many horrible thoughts had she had about Lady Maxwell since seeing her at Lady Lavender’s? A woman married, but obviously engaging in an illicit affair. It was…wrong, immoral. But what Patience said was true; the woman was kind, always had been.

  Grace frowned, her gaze sliding from passing couple, to passing couple. Some familiar, some not, all finding their way down Regent Street. What did these people do in the privacy of their homes when no one was watching? What were their secrets?

  Such exalted perfection, or so she’d thought. Now she couldn’t help but wonder what they were hiding. If a woman like Lady Maxwell could be caught in such a nefarious position, what were others doing? The entire world seemed to be off balance, as if she didn’t truly know anything anymore. Up was suddenly down. Wrong suddenly right. Grace reached inside her straw bonnet and rubbed her aching temples.

  “Don’t you agree?” Patience was looking up at her expectantly. Realizing Grace was lost in thought, she frowned. “You’re not paying the least bit of attention to me, are you?”

  “I’m sorry, my dear. You were saying something about treasure?”

  Patience nodded eagerly. Treasure. Grace resisted the urge to scoff. Is this what she’d done, taught her sister that life would be well if only one could believe in ridiculous thoughts of fairy tales and buried treasures?

  A few months ago, the idea of searching for treasure had been her passion. It had started when she was a child. The perfect shell. A rare rock or mineral to add to her collection. As she grew older, her interests went to artifacts from ancient cultures.

  It was thrilling to know she’d found something no one else had. She’d brought to life something forgotten, ignored, buried for dead. Each piece was like a long lost friend, something that could never be taken away from her. Although her father had died, and although they’d had to move near London when Mama remarried, her collection had remained intact. A collection no one else had, which made her feel special, she supposed.

  Now, the idea of wasting time and money searching for treasure seemed ridiculous. She had more important things to worry about, like seeing her mother and sister fed. She’d already sold most of their valuables. How much dare she tell Patience about their finances? Her sister wasn’t an idiot, surely she knew something was wrong. But what if she slipped and told Mama? Still, wasn’t it better that Patience heard the news from Grace rather than John?

  Grace paused, there amongst the crowds rushing up and down the footpath, stirring dust into the air, she paused and rested her hand on Patience’s forearm. “There’s something…”

  But Patience’s gaze shifted to some point beyond Grace’s shoulder. “Oh my.”

  Grace glanced back. “What is it?” She saw nothing out of the ordinary in the many people strolling the streets, or the fancy carriages rolling down the lane.

  “Lady Lavender!”

  Grace’s mouth fell open. “Where?” Realizing the importance of her little sister’s words, she snapped her head toward Patience. “How do you know the woman?”

  “Everyone knows about her. Don’t tell me you don’t?”

  Grace latched onto her sister’s hand and dragged her toward a sweet shop front, pressing her back between two dark beams of Tudor style. How many days had she spent wondering what this mysterious woman looked like? She’d only dealt with secretaries and servants. “Tell me everything, right now.”

  Patience shrugged, shifting uncomfortably. “Was merely something I’d heard. She’s a woman…who owns a brothel.” Her brows lifted, her excitement almost palpable. “It’s quite daring, don’t you think? A place for women to find the passion they might be missing in the bedchamber.”

  Grace resisted the urge to groan. Her sister was placing the woman on a pedestal and even worse, discussing passion and bedchambers? “She is not daring! She’s nothing more than a … a prison keeper.”

  Patience flushed, looking away, but Grace could tell her sister thought she was being the prude. “Where was she? Where did you see her?”

  “It had to be her, I think.” Patience turned her head, peering past the many storefronts. “It must have been her. She was wearing pale lavender, she always wears the color, you know. So no one else would dare, in fear of being associated with her.”

  “Yes, I know,” Grace mumbled, even though she didn’t. She didn’t know anything of the woman. How dare her little sister know more about Lady Lavender than she. Flustered, Grace started down the footpath, dragging Patience along.

  “She disappeared into the shop just ahead. And she has ice blonde hair, a petite woman.” She was panting, attempting to run along with Grace’s fast pace. “And…” Deep breath. “And…” Another deep breath. “She is always escorted by men.”

  Grace froze. Patience ran into her back.

  “Beautiful men.” Patience mumbled into her shoulder.

  Beautiful men? Grace spun around, her skirts flaring wide. “Did you see men with her just now?”

  She nodded. Slowly Grace turned and peered into the shop. A familiar antiquities shop that she’d visited a few times before. Statues, art, artifacts and jewelry crowded the shelves inside. Usually she’d have her face pressed to the dusty window looking for objects to add to her collection. Now she searched for an entirely new obsession. Was Alex with Lady Lavender? She could see a small group just beyond the shelves, but couldn’t decipher one face from another. She stood on tiptoe, pressing her fingers to the cool glass and attempting to get a better look.

  “A dark-haired man,” she murmured. “Did you see a dark-haired man?”

  Patience stepped up closer to her, peering through the same window. “Not sure. Why?” And thank heavens, just as soon as she asked the question, she jumped to another. “Do you really think it’s her?”

  The group disappeared behind a shelf. Blast! Grace’s fingers curled against the glass and she dropped to the flats of her boots. Her heart slammed erratically against her rib cage. Perhaps she’d had too much sunshine. Perhaps she should leave and they could continue on their way home. Yes, it would be best, yet her feet wouldn’t seem to turn.

  “I believe that’s her carriage,” Patience whispered.

  Grace glanced over her shoulder. A fine carriage waited on the street. Two tall, broad shouldered men stood silently by watching them curiously. Obviously guards, but guarding what?

  Grace took her lower lip between her teeth. She’d never met the infamous Lady Lavender. Had never even seen the woman. What did she look like? What hold did she have over these men?

  Before she had time to regret her decision, Grace latched onto Patience’s hand and pulled her toward that rounded, wooden door.

  “Where are we going?”

  “I…I want to see if I can sell my brooch.” True enough, she needed to start selling the jewelry. It was the least sentimental of her pieces, given to her by a wealthy friend long ago. A friend she’d lost contact with. She pressed her hand to her chest, feeling the weight of the pin.

  “Why?”

  Grace sighed, annoyed. Why must Patience question everything? “Because…because we’ll need the money if we want to go treasure hunting and we certainly can’t ask John for coins, knowing how he’ll scoff at our ideas.” She wrapped her hand around the large iron bar and pulled open the door. A bell jingled their arrival, but no one swept forward to meet them. The front of the shop was wonderfully empty of people, if not objects. Shelves were lined
with oddities, which, usually would have had her panting, but now, were barely given a glance.

  “But you said Mr. Baskov never gave a fair price on objects,” Patience whispered.

  Blast, her sister would have to remember. “Yes,” she muttered, ducking behind a shelf of Chinese vases, “but everyone deserves a second chance.” Grace gently pushed two vases apart. A man with dark hair blocked her view. From the fine suit and lovely build, he must have been one of Lady Lavender’s men.

  “Grace?” Patience whispered next to her, stirring her loose strands of hair into her face and tickling her nose.

  Grace sniffled. “Shhh!”

  Patience sighed and wandered toward the clocks.

  Irritation and impatience shot through Grace in a blur. Move! She wanted to demand of the man who was blocking her view just beyond those shelves.

  “Lovely, Mr. Baskov,” a woman murmured. “You do know what I like, don’t you?”

  The man shifted, finally, and a woman came into view. Grace drew back, stunned by her beauty. This was the person who was keeping Alex virtually imprisoned? She shoved the two vases together with a clank, wishing to see no more. Lady Lavender was not in the least what she’d expected. Petite with a heart-shaped face of pure perfection. The sort of woman men wanted and women envied.

  Grace’s heart gave a painful squeeze of what could only be jealousy. But no, she couldn’t be jealous. Being jealous would mean she cared and she didn’t care. She only cared about Rodrick. She pressed her hand to her chest, as if that could stop the ache that had burrowed deep within her soul. Perhaps Alex was at Lady Lavender’s because he wanted to be there.

  “Can I help you?”

  Grace spun around. Mr. Dauksza, Mr. Baskov’s apprentice, stood before her looking as intimidating and dour as ever. He was a tall ogre of a man with broad shoulders and the constant look of pure annoyance in his black eyes.

 

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