What an Earl Wants
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
She had to know. She felt horribly certain she was right, but she had to know.
“My brother, Gideon. He’s here? He’s not, is he? You’ve sent him away. You haven’t even so much as told him about me.”
Brutus had finished with the rabbit, that hadn’t put up much of a fight in any case, and was now sitting beside Gideon, his head on the man’s knee. The earl scratched him behind the ears, clearly all forgiven. “Hmm?” he said, redirecting his gaze to her. “I’m sorry?”
“No, you aren’t,” Jessica said, getting to her feet. “I don’t know what sort of mean game you’re about, my Lord Saltwood, but I am not playing it. My brother, sir. Or else I’ll find my way to the door.”
The dark eyes, moments earlier open and amused, narrowed to dark slits. The friendliness was gone, leaving only the man. The menace. The reputation.
“Not if I don’t want you to,” he said, rising, as well. “You do perceive the difference between now and last night, I’m sure. That is what you’re thinking of, isn’t it? You, without a chaperone, clearly a knowing woman, appearing as requested at a bachelor establishment—worse, at the domicile of one of those rascally reprobate Redgraves. Even that lunkhead of a footman saw the way of things. But, please, continue this belated show of astonishment if you must. I’m amenable either way, actually, although I would prefer you don’t prolong the pretense until it becomes tiresome. In other words, I’ll play, but I will not lower myself to halfheartedly chasing you around the furniture. It might upset the dogs.”
Oh, God. He was big. He was so big. Handsome into the bargain, yes, but mostly, he was so big. She couldn’t outrun him. His servants would be of no help to her. He was right. She’d come here of her own free will. She ran a gaming house. She was no lady, disowned by her own father. She was nothing, nobody, not anymore. No one would care… .
“You wouldn’t dare,” she said even as she backed up a step, shot her gaze toward the doors. The closed doors.
“I wouldn’t? Very well, I did agree to play. I’ll oblige you, if that’s how you like it. Let’s see, how shall I say this? I suppose I’ll simply say the expected.”
He took another sanity-destroying step toward her. “Ah, Mrs. Linden, as you very well know, there is little I wouldn’t dare. And, out of your own mouth, little you wouldn’t offer. I’ve considered that offer rather pleasantly overnight, deciding a month of your services to be sufficient to my needs, six weeks at the outside, before you bore me. But in the cold light of day I realized I would be remiss if I were to agree to such a bargain without first tasting the wares. For all I know, you might not be very good at pleasuring a man of my peculiar tastes.”
She grabbed at the fragile straw that he was only trying to frighten her, pay her some of her own back for the pistol, if nothing else. The odds weren’t in her favor, but she had no options, none. She’d have to stand her ground.Bluff, knowing she held the inferior hand.
He took another step toward her and reached out, trailing his index finger from the base of her neck to the modest bodice of her gown, hooking that finger inside the fabric and tugging on it. “Is that red hair a promise, or a tease? Is your willing body lying beneath mine a proposition worth my consideration? Tell me, Jessica. Are you any good? Convince me.”
“I’ve only to scream for help.” Her voice shook with the fear she was trying so hard to conceal.
“Be my guest. But remember, my staff is loyal to me. And, being a Redgrave staff, they are doubtless used to all sorts of noises, including feminine shrieks.”
Then she was nudged from the side, nearly losing her balance before looking down to see Cleo had roused herself from her nap and somehow insinuated her body between them. The bitch had the rabbit between her jaws and was nudging at Jessica as if asking her to come away and play with her.
Or was the dog attempting to save her? It was a highly unlikely yet lovely thought.
“Does she attack on command?” Jessica said, putting her hand atop Gideon’s and pointedly removing it from her bodice. “If she were to feel I were under some sort of duress, you understand?”
Gideon looked down at the hopeful dog and smiled, shook his head. All the dark menace was gone, replaced by that insufferable smile. “A good question. You’re a cool one, aren’t you, Jessica? Although Cleo here apparently sniffs something amiss. Fear, perhaps? That would be disturbing and quite puts a crimp in my assumptions, doesn’t it? No matter what, it would appear you’ve been granted a reprieve. You wanted to see your brother. I’ll have Thorndyke fetch him.”
“What?” All that talk, those threats and then…nothing? Damn him.
She watched in astonished relief as he walked over to the bell pull, blindly stepping back until the backs of her legs came in contact with the edge of the sofa, at which point she sat down with a thump. Cleo deposited the fairly damp rabbit in her lap and then lay down, her head on Jessica’s feet.
Jessica bent down to rub behind the dog’s ears. “He may have been all bluster and having some of his own back, you know. Males are like that, always wanting the upper hand, or at least to make sure we females think they’ve got it,” she whispered to the animal. “He only did what I would have expected from him. Yes, that’s it. I don’t believe he actually would have done anything…possibly. Perhaps. But thank you.”
Thorndyke entered the room a few moments later, doing a fine job of pretending he wasn’t looking at Jessica, and then retired with a bow after being ordered to produce young master Collier, who had been last seen by his lordship slopping up eggs in the breakfast room.
Jessica considered this. Did a man, even a Redgrave, seduce a woman while that woman’s brother was in the same house? No, he did not. He’d merely, meanly, meant to frighten her, give her some of her own back (sans pistol, thank goodness, not that the man wasn’t a weapon unto himself). And he’d succeeded, admirably. Again, damn the man!
“Then you did tell him I would be here this morning?” she asked as Gideon picked up his wineglass once more and retook his seat.
“I warned him to get his backside out of bed before two, which is not his custom. I doubt he’ll be pleased to meet anyone less than a scantily clad harem girl wishing to have him recline against her lap whilst she fed him sugared figs.”
“Don’t measure others by your own yardstick, Gideon,” Jessica warned tightly. “He’s not a Redgrave.”
Gideon chuckled softly. “Oh, yes, we Redgraves are mightily high on sugared figs.”
Jessica glared at him. “That wasn’t the part of your description I was alluding to, my lord. It’s a well-known fact the Redgraves are prone to excesses of a…of a…” She was at a loss as to how to finish that statement. “You’re prone to excesses,” she finally ended, lamely. After all, if she had ended with “of a carnal nature,” he would most probably have laughed so hard he would have fallen off the sofa. She believed she was beginning to get a sort of figurative handle on the man now, understand him better. In short, he was a menace!
“Really? We’re that bad? I had no idea. Although, clearly, you seemed to have been lapping up tales of the infamous Redgravian debauchery. You should have seen your eyes, Jessica. You believed every word I said.”
He had her there. It wasn’t as if she’d any certain knowledge of Redgravian debauchery. She’d certainly heard about his lordship’s light’s-o-love. Four mistresses? That seemed excessive and spoke of an unhealthy appetite, in her opinion. She knew he was a neck-or-nothing rider who often wagered on himself in races and had yet to lose. She knew he had knocked down Gentleman Jackson not once, but twice, until the renowned pugilist had declared he wouldn’t step in the ring with him again. She knew he won all the top prizes driving with the Four-in-Hand Club. She knew he gambled deep but never wildly. She knew he had no enemies because even the most foolish of London gentlemen perceived the wisdom of calling him friend.
She had, in short, made a study of the man, indeed his entire family, these past weeks. But, really, when she got right down to it, she didn’t know anything about the current crop of Redgraves but what she’d heard.
He had two younger brothers, Maximillien and Valentine, and a single sister, Katherine. Maximillen had sailed as one of the Royal Navy’s youngest coxswains, and Valentine had been classically educated in Paris and Toulon, managing to remain there even as Bonaparte conducted his on-again, off-again war on England, only returning home a few months ago.
Katherine had come to Mayfair for her Season last spring but hadn’t really taken, seeing as how she was unfashionably tall and dark-haired, and favored her infamous Spanish mother in her looks in a year where petite blondes were considered all the go. Her suitors had hoped for the mother’s morals, as well, and their mamas had cringed at the thought of “foreign-looking” grandchildren. But it had been Katherine herself who had answered an impertinent question about her brother the earl, voiced in the center of the dance floor at Almack’s, with a stunning punch to the questioner’s nose, breaking it quite nicely, word had it. She hadn’t come to town this Season, which to Jessica’s mind made more of a statement about Lady Katherine’s disdain for society than any possible fear of it or shame over her actions.
Jessica felt she most probably could like Lady Katherine. Lords Maximillien and Valentine were of no real concern to her, although she imagined they were no better or worse than their brother. As to their grandmother, the dowager countess? All Jessica had heard about the woman was that she knew every secret of every man and woman and even royal, and there wasn’t a single person in all the ton who wasn’t scared spitless by her.
Jessica felt she most probably could like Lady Saltwood, as well.
She did not like Gideon Redgrave, however. Not his reputation, not the man who had just very clearly made a complete fool out of her. Damn him.
“Before your brother deigns to join us,” he said now, presumably having had his fill of looking at her as if she might be a bug under a microscope. “We’re quits of this ridiculous offer of yours? You insulted me with your patently insincere offer, not to mention that idiocy with the pistol. In short, as a seductress, Jessica, you are an abysmal failure. I, on the other hand, succeeded admirably in pointing out I am not to be insulted, not without consequences. And, much as you may believe yourself irresistible, I am more than confident I can stumble along through the remainder of my days without learning, firsthand, and, needless to say, most intimately, whether or not you are a true redhead. In short, I am willing to accept your apology and move on.”
She was certain she now looked as if her eyes would simply pop out of her head. “You…you…how dare you!”
He sighed and shook his head, as if saddened by her outburst. “Make up your mind, Jessica. Harlot or genteel widow fallen on hard times. Which is it to be? So far, I would have to say you’ve mastered neither role. But before you answer, let me make one thing clear to you. I choose my own women, and they come to me willingly or not at all. I’ve no desire to bed a martyr, no matter how lovely.”
There was one part of Jessica, one very small, even infinitesimally tiny part of her that took in the words “no matter how lovely,” and considered them a compliment. She shoved that infinitesimal part into a dark corner of her mind and locked the door on it, intending to take it out later and give it a good scold.
“You’ve made your point, Gideon. Several times, in a variety of unconscionably crude and insulting ways. In my defense, I can only point out that I was, am, desperate. I offered you the only thing I had—”
“Please don’t tell me you’re referring to your virtue. I don’t believe that’s been yours to bestow for quite some time. Unless the fabled Mr. Linden was a eunuch?”
“No,” Jessica said quietly, “far from it.” She took a steadying breath. “A month. You ignored my solicitor’s communications for a month, and then you came to see me in person, looking just as I’d imagined you. Arrogant, overweening, for all the world as if you owned it. You weren’t going to listen to reason. And you wear the golden rose. That told me all I needed to know. I…I offered you what interests you most. And damn you, Gideon Redgrave, I did it knowing who you are. What you are. If you had half a heart, which you don’t, you would have realized what that cost me.”
Gideon sat back on the sofa, rubbing a hand across his mouth as he looked at her. He looked at her for a long time.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last.
“Excuse me?” She hadn’t any idea what he was going to say, but what he said made no sense at all.
“I repeat, Jessica. I’m sorry. Tell me—sans the golden rose, would you have made your offer?”
Slowly, silently, she shook her head. “No.”
Once again, he rubbed his hand across his mouth, still looking at her closely. “And you believe it still goes on? The Society.”
Jessica shifted uncomfortably on the cushions. “As of five years ago, yes. I can’t say for certain about now. But you know this.”
“No, Jessica, I don’t,” he said, getting to his feet, suddenly seeming decades older than his years. “I only know that in the past twelve months, four of my late father’s cohorts in that damn Society of his have been murdered. Your father included. I wear the golden rose to signal that I know the hunting accident, the accidental drowning, the fall down the stairs, your father’s coaching accident—they all were in fact murders.”
He had to be spouting nonsense. “I don’t understand. My father was murdered? He and his wife both? How can you know that?”
“Later,” Gideon said, turning toward a small commotion in the hallway. “I believe I’m about to be gifted with the sight of a touching family reunion. Or not,” he added, smiling, as a tall, rail-thin, ridiculously overdressed and harassed-looking youth stomped into the room.
“Now what the bloody blue blazes do you want?” the youth demanded, clutching a large white linen serviette in one hand even as he took a healthy and quite rude bite out of the apple he carried with him. Speaking around the mouthful of fruit, he continued, “First you order me out of bed without a whisper of a reason, then you say I leave the house on penalty of death—as if that signifies, as I might already be dead for all the life you allow me. Then you send me off to stuff my face when Brummell himself swears no sane man breaks his fast before noon, and now you want me in here to—Well, hullo, ain’t you the pretty one.”
“Ad—Adam?” Jessica was on her feet, but none too steadily. This ridiculous popinjay couldn’t be her brother. Adam was sweet and shy, and sat by her side as she read to him, and cried when their father insisted he learn to shoot, and sang with the voice of an angel.
The youth turned to her and gifted her with an elegant leg, marred only when he nearly toppled over as he swept his arm with a mite too much enthusiasm.
“Bacon-brained puppy,” Gideon muttered quietly. “Your brother, Jessica. Behold.”
She beheld. Adam Collier was clad very much in the style of many of the youths who, from time to time, were hastily escorted out of the gaming room as being too raw and young to be out on their own with more than a groat in their pocket, so eager were they to be separated from their purses. Unpowdered hair too long, curled over the iron so that it fell just so onto his forehead, darkened and stiff with pomade. Buckram padding in the shoulders of his wasp-waisted blue coat, a patterned waistcoat that was a jangle of lurid redand-yellow stripes, no less than a half-dozen fobs hanging from gold chains, clocked stockings hugging his toothin shanks. And was that a, dear Lord, it was—he had a star-shaped patch at the corner of his mouth.
“Adam?” she repeated, as if, having said the name often enough, she’d believe what her horrified eyes were telling her. She didn’t want to believe it. Her brother hadn’t grown up, he’d simply gotten taller, slathered his face with paint to hide his spots and turned into an idiot. His only submission to the formalities was the black satin mourning band pinned to his upper arm. And that was edged with black lace. He wasn’t oppressed, he certainly wasn’t heartbroken. He was his brainless twit of a mother, in breeches.
“I fear you have the advantage of me, madam,” Adam drawled with a truly irritating and affected lisp as he approached, clearly intent on kissing her hand. His red heels made his progress somewhat risky, but he managed it, nearly coming to grief only when Brutus ran up to him, intent on sniffing his crotch. “Stupid cur. Do I look like a bitch in heat to you?”
“Don’t blame the dog, you sapskull. You might instead want to rethink the brand of scent you bathe in. As it is, we’re chewing on it,” Gideon said, retiring to the mantel, but not before shooting Jessica an amused look. “Say hello to your half sister.”
Adam stopped, searched among his many chains for a gilt quizzing glass on a stick, and lifted it to his eye. “M’sister? Jessica, was it? No, that’s impossible,” he said, shaking his head. “She’s dead these past half-dozen years or more. Bad fish, something like that. Mama told me most distinctly.” Then his mouth opened in shock, and he pointed the quizzing glass accusingly in her direction. “Imposter! Charlatan! The old reprobate cocks up his toes, and they come out of the woodwork, looking for his blunt. Fie and for shame, woman!”
Gideon rejoined Jessica in front of the sofas. “I’ve been thinking, Mrs. Linden. I may have been unduly hasty in denying your request for guardianship, and even thin-skinned. It must have been the pistol. Perhaps we can reopen negotiations,” he suggested quietly.
At last Jessica regained use of her tongue, which she’d been in some danger of swallowing. “I don’t think so,” she told him, still goggling at the creature in front of her. “You can have him. As to the other, I’ll expect you in Jermyn Street tonight, at eleven.” Then she clapped her hands to her mouth, realizing what she’d said. “The…the other being discussing this business of murders. Not…not you know.”
“What? She’s leaving? I’ve routed her, by God!” Adam clapped his hands in delight. “Yoicks! And away!”
“Oh, stubble it, you nincompoop,” Jessica bit out as she brushed past him.
Gideon’s delighted, infuriating laughter followed after her, all the way down the stairs.
“YOU’RE LOOKING HARASSED,” Lord Maximillien commented as he entered the study in Portman Square and perched himself on the corner of his brother’s desk. “At least you’d look harassed if you were anyone else. The Earl of Saltwood is never harassed. He is a—Is there such a word as harasser?”
“What do you want, Max?” Gideon asked, putting down the letter opener he’d been balancing between his fingertips.
“Me? To bid you farewell, I suppose. I leave for Brighton in an hour, on orders from Trixie. There’s some clever barque of frailty she’s befriended, a bit o’muslin with a problem our grandmother thinks might rouse me from my boredom. In any case, she’s been matchmaking. In a weak moment, I agreed to sign on as cohort. It’s my adventurous spirit, you understand.”
Gideon looked at his brother and shook his head in mock dismay. “You even look like an adventurer. Your shirt cuffs are unbuttoned and too long, that cravat’s an insult, those smoked glasses a ridiculous affectation—and I may soon enlist Thorndyke to help hold you down while I scrape all that hair off your face.”
Max bent his head and looked at his brother overtop the blue-smoked rimless glasses he’d discovered a few months earlier in a small shop on Bond Street. “All that hair? A simple mustache, a cunning patch beneath my bottom lip—hardly all that hair.”
Gideon pointed up at him, twirling his finger. “And the rest of it? Looks to be the beginnings of a beard to me. I imagine even a whore with a problem won’t tolerate a fellow who only allows himself to be shaved three times a week.”
Max stabbed his fingers through the heavy thatch of dark brown hair he wore halfheartedly parted in the center of his head, its length covering his ears, the whole waving around his almost aesthetically beautiful face. Only his dark eyes, so like Gideon’s, threw out the warning that this was no pretty fool; perhaps why Max had delighted in finding the smoked glasses. “Allow? I’m not so lazy. I shave myself, brother. Shave myself, dress myself, wash my own rump.”
“And two of those tasks performed in the dark, apparently. Never mind,” Gideon said, not about to admit his brother was one devilishly handsome creature, the sort who could cause small riots among the ladies if he put his mind to it. “What’s the Cyprian’s problem?”
“Other than being ambitious, penniless and of questionable morals? Transport. I’m simply to find a way to get clever girl and ardent swain to Gretna, wed over the anvil and all but publicly bedded so there can be no annulment, all accomplished ahead of any pursuit. You know Trixie. She’s a romantic.”
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî