What an Earl Wants
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“A lady shouldn’t drink alone, I suppose. Very well.” Gideon got to his feet and availed himself of the decanter. The wine, when he tasted it, was unexpectedly good, when he’d assumed it would be cheap and bitter. “Do you have a first name, madam?”
The question seemed to surprise her. “Why would you—Yes. Yes, I do. Jessica.”
“Preferable to either Linden or Collier. Very well. My condolences on your recent loss, Jessica. I was remiss in not stating that at the outset.”
“My father’s death means nothing to me, my lord, as we’d been estranged for several years. But, thank you. I only wish to become reacquainted with my brother.”
“Half brother,” Gideon corrected. “The son of your father and your stepmother, also sadly deceased. You have no questions about that sad event?”
Jessica shrugged her shoulders. “No. Should I? When I read about their deaths in the Times, an accident with their coach was mentioned. I’m only glad Adam was away at school, and not in the coach with them.”
“All right,” Gideon said, looking at her carefully. “There’s still the matter of a rather large fortune, not to mention the Sussex estate. All of it in trust for your half brother, who was not estranged from his parents.”
“That’s also of no concern to me. I support myself.”
“Clearly,” Gideon said, casting his gaze around the sparsely furnished room. “Bilking raw youths in town on a spree profitable, is it?”
“We don’t bilk anyone, my lord. We don’t allow it. If we see some fool gaming too deep, he’s sent on his way.”
“Vowing to sin no more, I’ll assume, his ears still ringing from the stern lecture you’ve administered.”
Jessica looked at him unblinkingly, her brown eyes raking him from head to toe before seemingly settling on his chest; perhaps she wouldn’t be so brave if she looked into his eyes. “I don’t like you. Gideon.”
“I can’t imagine why not. Another man wouldn’t have answered your summons. I’ll admit to curiosity being my motive for obliging you, but please don’t hold that against me.”
“And it only took you a month, and then you arrived on my doorstep at this ungodly hour of the night, clearly as an afterthought. Or perhaps your planned evening turned out to be a bore, leaving you at loose ends? I’m sorry, I suppose I should be flattered.”
She turned her back to him once more, bending her neck forward. “You may as well be of some use. If you could help with these buttons? Doreen is still busy at the front door, and I’m near to choking.”
Gideon raised one well-defined eyebrow as he weighed the invitation, considering its benefits, its pitfalls…her motives. “Very well,” he said, placing his wineglass next to hers. “I’ve played at lady’s maid a time or two.”
“I’m certain you have played at many things. Tonight, however, you’ll have to content yourself with a very limited role.”
“You’re a very trusting woman, Jessica,” he said as he deftly—he did everything deftly—slipped the first half-dozen buttons from their moorings.With the release of every button, he made sure his knuckles came in contact with each new inch of ivory skin revealed to him. Even in the candlelight he could see where the gown had chafed that soft skin; no wonder she longed to be shed of it.
Still, he took his time with the buttons until, the gown now falling open almost entirely to her waist, she stepped away from him just as he considered the merits of running his fingertips down the graceful line of her spine.
“Thank you. If you’ll excuse me for a moment while I rid myself of this scratchy monstrosity?”
“I’ll excuse you for any number of things, my dear, as long as you’re not gone above a minute. You wear no chemise?”
“As you’re already aware,” she answered, throwing the words at him over her shoulder, bare now as her gown began to slip slightly. “I loathe encumbrances.”
She disappeared into another room, leaving Gideon to wonder why a woman who so disliked encumbrances had buttoned herself up into a black taffeta prison. Did she think the gown made her look dowdy? Untouchable? Perhaps even matronly? If so, she had missed the mark on every point.
A widow. He hadn’t expected less from her than that obvious clunker; there wasn’t a madam in all of London who wasn’t the impecunious widow of some soldier hero, making her way in the world as best she could.
And, if he was lucky yet tonight—he would be inevitably, in any case—she was about to make her way with him, in hopes of her charms rendering him imbecilic to the point of granting her request to take over the guardianship of her half brother.
Or, more to the point, guardianship of her half brother’s considerable fortune.
A month ago he had roundly cursed Turner Collier for having lacked the good common sense to have altered his decades-old will, leaving guardianship of his progeny to his old chum, the Earl of Saltwood. Perhaps Collier had thought himself immortal, which should hardly have been the case, considering what had happened to his old chum.
But there’d been nothing else for it, not according to Gideon’s solicitor, who had notified him that he had gratefully ended his guardianship of Alana Wallingford upon her recent marriage, just to be saddled with yet another ward a few months later.
At least this time there would be no worries over fortune hunters or midnight elopements or any such nonsense. No, this time his worries would be for reckless starts, idiotic wagers, juvenile hijinks and hauling the boy out of bear-baitings, cockfights and gaming hells such as the one owned by the youth’s own half sister.
All while the whispers went on behind his back. There’d been anonymous wagers penned in the betting book at White’s on the odds of Gideon forcing Alana into marriage with him in order to gain her fortune. Whispered hints Alana’s father, Gideon’s very good friend, had been murdered within months of naming Gideon as his only child’s guardian. There definitely had been suggestions as to whom that murderer might be.
Now there had been a second “unfortunate coaching accident” directly impacting the Earl of Saltwood. And another wealthy orphan placed into his care immediately after that “accident.” Coincidence? Many didn’t think so.
After all, Gideon was a Redgrave. And everybody knew about those Redgraves. Wild, arrogant, dangerous, if always somewhat delicious. Why, look at the father, the mother; there was a scandal no amount of time could fade from the consciousness of God-fearing people. Even the dowager countess remained both a force to be reckoned with and a constant source of whispered mischief and shocking behavior. Nothing was beneath them, even as they believed nothing and no one above them… .
“Shall we return to the wars, Gideon?”
He blinked away his thoughts and turned to look at Jessica Linden, who had somehow reappeared without his notice. She was clad now in a dark maroon silk banyan with a black shawl collar and quilted cuffs that fell below her fingertips. The hem of the thing puddled around her bare feet. Once again her curls tumbled past her shoulders, a perfect frame for her fine, enchanting features. For a tall woman, she suddenly seemed small, delicate, even fragile.
Clearly an illusion.
“My late husband’s. I keep it as a reminder,” she said, raising her arms enough that the cuffs fell back to expose her slim wrists. “Shall we sit? My feet persist in feeling the pinch of those dreadful shoes.”
He gestured to the overstuffed couch to his left, and she all but collapsed into it, immediately drawing her legs up beside her to begin rubbing at one narrow bare foot. The collar of the banyan gaped for an enticing moment, gifting him with a tantalizing glimpse of small, perfect breasts. Clearly she was naked beneath the silk.
The woman was as innocent as a viper.
“How is Adam?” she asked before he could think of a damn thing to say that didn’t include an invitation to return to her bedchamber, this time in his company. “I haven’t seen him in more than five years. He was just about to be sent off to school, as I recall the moment. What was he? Twelve? Yes, that was it, as I was all of eighteen. He cried so, to leave me.”
Gideon began doing quick mental arithmetic. “Making you a woman of three and twenty? A young widow.”
“Ah, but positively ancient in experience, and closer to four and twenty in reality. And you? Edging in on a hundred, I would think, if we’re to speak of experience. You’ve quite the reputation, Gideon.”
“Only partially earned, I assure you,” he told her as he retook his chair and crossed one leg over the other, looking very much at his ease while his mind raced. “But to answer your question, your half brother is well and safe and here in London. I’ve hired a keeper for him rather than return him to school before next term.”
Jessica nodded. “That’s only fitting. He’s in mourning.”
“He is? Perhaps someone ought to explain that to him. All I hear, secondhand through said keeper, is how fatigued he is with twiddling his thumbs while the entire world goes merrily along just outside the door, without him.”
She smiled at that, and Gideon knew himself to be grateful he was already sitting down, for she had a wide, unaffected smile that could knock a man straight off his feet.
“A handful, is he? Good. As our father’s son, it could have gone either way. I’m gratified to learn his spirit wasn’t crushed.”
Now this was interesting. “I barely knew the man, as he was a contemporary of my father’s. He was a demanding parent?”
“We’ll speak with the gloves off, as I see no sense in dissembling. After all, I’ve heard the rumors about your own father, and the two men were friends. James Linden, fairly ancient, more than a little mean when in his cups, and a lazy waste of talent, was the lesser of two evils, and here I am. Disowned, widowed, but selfsufficient. Perfectly capable of taking on the guardianship of my brother until he reaches his majority. The last place I want him is anywhere our father wanted him, under the control of anyone he thought fitting.” She directed a disconcerting glare toward his cravat. “Do you understand now, Gideon?”
He touched his hand to the golden rose in his cravat before he realized what he’d done and quickly got to his feet. “You had my pity, Jessica, until the end. I’m many things, but I am not my father.”
“No, I suppose you aren’t. You haven’t yet tried to seduce me, and after all my clumsy efforts to the contrary. Geld you, did he? No, I don’t think so. You want me, that’s obvious enough.”
At last, Gideon understood the whole of it. He waved his hand in front of him, indicating her pose, the banyan, even her nakedness beneath the silk, the glass of wine that had been raised to her lips by a trembling hand; a drink for courage. “You’ve got a weapon somewhere about you, don’t you?”
“Not the complete fool, are you? Very well. Only a very small pistol, holding but a single shot, but deadly, if it became necessary. I can use it to much more advantage than James ever could, even though he taught me. And before you ask, yes, I was willing to trade my body for your agreement to relinquish your guardianship of Adam, within limits, of course.” She stood up, chin high, sherry-brown eyes locked with his, her hands going to the silk tie at her waist. “I still am.”
He decided it would be safer to be insulted. “And I repeat, madam, I am not my father.”
She tilted her head to one side. “You aren’t? Your stickpin says differently. That particular rose, by any other name, Gideon, sends out the same stink.”
Gideon’s jaw set tightly. What in bloody hell was going on here? “You know about that?”
“I know about the Society, yes,” she repeated, the light of battle leaving her eyes, to be replaced by a sadness that was nearly palpable. “Among my late husband’s many failings was a tendency to run his mouth when he was in his cups. The mark of membership in a most exclusive group of rascals. A flower, in point of fact a golden rose, to commemorate a deflowering, plucking the bud as it were, bringing it into full bloom. But you wear it, you know what it is, what you did to earn it.”
“The pin was my father’s. The rest was rumor or, more probably, bravado,” Gideon heard himself saying, even as he hoped he was speaking truth. “It was nothing like that. Only drunken fools and their games, thinking themselves some damned hellfire club. It was all cloaks and oaths of secrecy and more drunkenness and willing prostitutes than anything else. Simply grandiose talk, and all a long time ago.”
Her smile was sad, almost as if she pitied him. “So you say. Thanks to James, I never learned for certain. Your father had been long dead by then, your family estate no longer their gathering place. But whatever the Society was, it didn’t end with him. You truly profess to not know that? It went on five years ago, it may still go on. If I recall correctly, my father was not too many years above sixty when he died. James was not much younger when we married, and still…capable.”
One more mention of James Linden, and Gideon believed he might go dig up the man, just so he could bash in his skull with the shovel.
“No. You’re wrong. Everything ended with my father’s death. This is something else.”
“This, Gideon? Are we speaking at cross purposes? What is this?”
Gideon was seldom the loser in any verbal exchange, but the more he said, the more control of their conversation he seemed to be ceding to her. He didn’t much care for the feeling.
“I’ll have my town carriage sent for you tomorrow at eleven, to bring you to Portman Square to see your brother. Kindly outfit yourself accordingly.”
At last he seemed to shock her, put her off her stride. But not for long. “Would that include wearing a dark veil to conceal my face, or will the carriage be driven directly around to the mews, and the servants’ entrance?”
Not before time, he realized, Gideon decided he’d had enough.
He closed the distance between them in two short steps, taking hold of her right wrist before she could successfully reach into the slightly drooping pocket that had given away the location of her pistol.
With his free hand he delved into the pocket and withdrew a small silver pistol, indeed a favorite of cardsharps. He forcefully turned her hand over and pressed the thing in her palm.
“Go on, you idiot woman. I’m about to ravish you. Shoot me.”
She made no move to close her fingers around the weapon. “You don’t mean that.”
“Don’t I? Are you sure? I can have anything I want from you, Jessica Linden, any time I want it. Most men could. Get rid of that toy before somebody turns it on you. I don’t know what all this James Linden of yours taught you over and above honing that sharp tongue of yours, but he should have pointed out that you can’t bluff worth a damn.”
He saw the tears standing in her magnificent eyes but chose to ignore them. God save him from fools, most especially well-intentioned martyrs who always seemed to think right was on their side and justice would prevail. He turned and walked away from her, exposing his back to her, not stopping until his hand was on the latch of the door leading to the stairs.
“At eleven, Jessica. And if you dare insult me by wearing that black monstrosity or anything like it, I’ll tear it off you myself. Understood?”
He’d barely closed the door behind him when the sound of what he presumed to be the derringer hitting the wood brought a smile to his face. He rather doubted James Linden taught her how to do that. No, that was a purely female reaction, and if there was one thing Jessica Linden was, it was female.
AS SHE WATCHED RICHARD’S meticulous recounting of the previous night’s profits, Jessica was twice forced to cover a yawn with her hand, both times earning a reproving look from her friend and business partner.
“Forgive me, Richard,” she said as he finished at last. “I didn’t sleep well last night, I’m afraid.”
“He was upstairs here for some time, Jess. He upset you.”
“He didn’t make me happy, I’ll agree to that,” she said as she locked the satisfyingly full strongbox. “This isn’t going to be easy.”
“It shouldn’t be at all. Surely the boy is old enough to mind himself? I was out on my own before I was ten, just a kiddie, making my own way.”
“Indeed you were,” Jessica agreed, having heard the story of Richard’s past more than a few times, in more than a few versions, with probably none of them completely true. “But when you have money, the law sees things differently. Adam doesn’t reach his legal majority for another three years, and for all I know won’t receive control over his inheritance even then. It all depends on the terms of our father’s will.”
“And in the meantime, he’s stuck with those queer buggers, the Redgraves. Nasty piece of work, that fellow last night, for all his fine clothes. I’ve seen eyes like that before. Slice your throat for you as soon as look at you. Just uses a clean knife.”
Jessica laughed softly as she returned the strongbox to its hidey-hole beneath the floorboards. She disliked keeping so much money in the house, but they had to be prepared for losses as well as profit.
She stood back as Richard rolled the rug down over the floorboards. “We were right to finally come here to London. So many foolish young men eager to be rid of their quarterly allowance. Our profits astound even me. Only a few more months, Richard, and we can have our inn. Are you still set on Cambridge? Of late I’ve been thinking of someplace more to the south, nearer the Channel. Perhaps even a port city?”
“With that Bonaparte scum running amok and crowing as how he’s coming here any day? No, Jess, no ports for the likes of me. Waking up one morning with a bunch of Froggies parading through the town? I don’t think so. It’s good English joints of beef we’ll be serving up from our kitchen, not slimy snails slipping and sliding off the plate.”
“Bonaparte isn’t going to invade, Richard. He’s much too busy with his new Austrian wife. She’ll bring him low one day, you know. You’d think the man would be a better student of history. Women are always the downfall of powerful men, one way or another.” She sent him a wide smile. “It’s what we do.”
Richard stood up, preparing to go downstairs to his small room at the back of the house they’d rented only a few short months previously. “And is that what you’re planning to do with the Earl of Saltwood? I’d go easy with any such notion, I would. The man’s no fool. I saw it in—”
“In his eyes. Yes, I remember. I’m not saying I’m out to destroy him, for goodness’ sake. All he has to do is give me my brother. He couldn’t want him.”
“Nor his inheritance,” Richard told her. “Man’s rich as that Croesus fellow. But if it’s some gauntlet you threw down to the earl, and knowing you it was, you’ve put his back up, so’s now he wouldn’t give you a crust of bread, just because he knows you want it. Better to ply some wiles or some such thing, not that I’m saying you should.”
Jessica averted her head, sure her cheeks were flaming, damn her fair coloring. “He’s got a mistress set up at the bottom of Mount Street.”
“And another tucked into a bang-up to the echo flat in Curzon Street, some Covent Garden warbler. Then there’s his other lady birds, the widow Orford and Lady Dunmore, or so I heard it told just last night, while the two of you were up here and the gossip was flying about downstairs like shuttlecocks in a high wind. Sets them up like dominos, tips them over when he’s done with them, leaving them their fond memories, since not a one of them ever had a bad word to say about him, not any of the dozens of them. Dozens, Jessica. So, never mind what I said about wiles. You want this one to do your bidding, don’t do his. That’s what I’m thinking.”
“You know I’ve never—”
“After Jamie Linden, who would?” Richard said, sighing. “But I know you, and you dangled, didn’t you? Made promises you’d no intention of keeping, thinking yourself smarter than any man. Dangerous business, that, with one like Saltwood. Better to walk away now. The boy’ll come to no harm. Saltwood’s no fool. He has to know everyone’s watching him.”
“Because he’s a Redgrave.”
“Because he’s his father’s son, yes. You know what they say.”
Jessica walked over to the pier glass and inspected her reflection. “His father was a rake and a libertine, and when he called out his wife’s lover in a duel, she hid herself nearby and shot him in the back before she and her lover fled to the continent, leaving her children behind as if they didn’t matter to her. Not that she was any better than he was in any event, having had more lovers than most of us have fingers and toes. Yes, I’ve heard it all. I would suppose it was either Saltwood buries himself in the cellars on his estate to hide his shame or he becomes what he’s clearly become.”
“An arrogant, to-hell-with-you bastard only an idiot with more hair than wit would ever dare to say any of that to, in case you haven’t considered that.”
“I don’t have to say it, Richard. The man knows his own family history. He should likewise understand I want my brother away from him. Gideon Redgrave may not be his father, as he claims he’s not, but he’s still that arrogant, to-hell-with-you bastard who clearly cares for no one save himself. Heartless, Richard, there’s no question. Adam was always such a quiet boy. Gentle, almost painfully shy. I left him once, having no choice, and it broke my heart. But now that I have a second chance, I can’t simply walk away. The Earl of Saltwood will have him for breakfast, otherwise.”
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî