What an Earl Wants
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She had to know. She felt horribly certain she was right, but she had to know.
ďMy brother, Gideon. Heís here? Heís not, is he? Youíve sent him away. You havenít even so much as told him about me.Ē
Brutus had finished with the rabbit, that hadnít put up much of a fight in any case, and was now sitting beside Gideon, his head on the manís knee. The earl scratched him behind the ears, clearly all forgiven. ďHmm?Ē he said, redirecting his gaze to her. ďIím sorry?Ē
ďNo, you arenít,Ē Jessica said, getting to her feet. ďI donít know what sort of mean game youíre about, my Lord Saltwood, but I am not playing it. My brother, sir. Or else Iíll find my way to the door.Ē
The dark eyes, moments earlier open and amused, narrowed to dark slits. The friendliness was gone, leaving only the man. The menace. The reputation.
ďNot if I donít want you to,Ē he said, rising, as well. ďYou do perceive the difference between now and last night, Iím sure. That is what youíre thinking of, isnít it? You, without a chaperone, clearly a knowing woman, appearing as requested at a bachelor establishmentóworse, 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. Iím amenable either way, actually, although I would prefer you donít prolong the pretense until it becomes tiresome. In other words, Iíll play, but I will not lower myself to halfheartedly chasing you around the furniture. It might upset the dogs.Ē
Oh, God. He was big. He was so big. Handsome into the bargain, yes, but mostly, he was so big. She couldnít outrun him. His servants would be of no help to her. He was right. Sheíd 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 careÖ .
ďYou wouldnít dare,Ē she said even as she backed up a step, shot her gaze toward the doors. The closed doors.
ďI wouldnít? Very well, I did agree to play. Iíll oblige you, if thatís how you like it. Letís see, how shall I say this? I suppose Iíll simply say the expected.Ē
He took another sanity-destroying step toward her. ďAh, Mrs. Linden, as you very well know, there is little I wouldnít dare. And, out of your own mouth, little you wouldnít offer. Iíve 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.Ē
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 werenít in her favor, but she had no options, none. Sheíd 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. ďIs 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.Ē
ďIíve only to scream for help.Ē Her voice shook with the fear she was trying so hard to conceal.
ďBe 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.Ē
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.
ďDoes she attack on command?Ē Jessica said, putting her hand atop Gideonís and pointedly removing it from her bodice. ďIf she were to feel I were under some sort of duress, you understand?Ē
Gideon looked down at the hopeful dog and smiled, shook his head. All the dark menace was gone, replaced by that insufferable smile. ďA good question. Youíre a cool one, arenít you, Jessica? Although Cleo here apparently sniffs something amiss. Fear, perhaps? That would be disturbing and quite puts a crimp in my assumptions, doesnít it? No matter what, it would appear youíve been granted a reprieve. You wanted to see your brother. Iíll have Thorndyke fetch him.Ē
ďWhat?Ē All that talk, those threats and thenÖnothing? 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 Jessicaís feet.
Jessica bent down to rub behind the dogís ears. ďHe 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 theyíve got it,Ē she whispered to the animal. ďHe only did what I would have expected from him. Yes, thatís it. I donít believe he actually would have done anythingÖpossibly. Perhaps. But thank you.Ē
Thorndyke entered the room a few moments later, doing a fine job of pretending he wasnít 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 womanís brother was in the same house? No, he did not. Heíd merely, meanly, meant to frighten her, give her some of her own back (sans pistol, thank goodness, not that the man wasnít a weapon unto himself). And heíd succeeded, admirably. Again, damn the man!
ďThen you did tell him I would be here this morning?Ē she asked as Gideon picked up his wineglass once more and retook his seat.
ďI warned him to get his backside out of bed before two, which is not his custom. I doubt heíll 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.Ē
ďDonít measure others by your own yardstick, Gideon,Ē Jessica warned tightly. ďHeís not a Redgrave.Ē
Gideon chuckled softly. ďOh, yes, we Redgraves are mightily high on sugared figs.Ē
Jessica glared at him. ďThat wasnít the part of your description I was alluding to, my lord. Itís a well-known fact the Redgraves are prone to excesses of aÖof aÖĒ She was at a loss as to how to finish that statement. ďYouíre prone to excesses,Ē she finally ended, lamely. After all, if she had ended with ďof a carnal nature,Ē 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!
ďReally? Weíre 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.Ē
He had her there. It wasnít as if sheíd any certain knowledge of Redgravian debauchery. Sheíd certainly heard about his lordshipís lightís-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 wouldnít 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 didnít know anything about the current crop of Redgraves but what sheíd heard.
He had two younger brothers, Maximillien and Valentine, and a single sister, Katherine. Maximillen had sailed as one of the Royal Navyís 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 hadnít 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 motherís morals, as well, and their mamas had cringed at the thought of ďforeign-lookingĒ 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 Almackís, with a stunning punch to the questionerís nose, breaking it quite nicely, word had it. She hadnít come to town this Season, which to Jessicaís mind made more of a statement about Lady Katherineís 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 wasnít a single person in all the ton who wasnít 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.
ďBefore your brother deigns to join us,Ē he said now, presumably having had his fill of looking at her as if she might be a bug under a microscope. ďWeíre 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.Ē
She was certain she now looked as if her eyes would simply pop out of her head. ďYouÖyouÖhow dare you!Ē
He sighed and shook his head, as if saddened by her outburst. ďMake up your mind, Jessica. Harlot or genteel widow fallen on hard times. Which is it to be? So far, I would have to say youíve 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. Iíve no desire to bed a martyr, no matter how lovely.Ē
There was one part of Jessica, one very small, even infinitesimally tiny part of her that took in the words ďno matter how lovely,Ē 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.
ďYouíve 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 hadóĒ
ďPlease donít tell me youíre referring to your virtue. I donít believe thatís been yours to bestow for quite some time. Unless the fabled Mr. Linden was a eunuch?Ē
ďNo,Ē Jessica said quietly, ďfar from it.Ē She took a steadying breath. ďA month. You ignored my solicitorís communications for a month, and then you came to see me in person, looking just as Iíd imagined you. Arrogant, overweening, for all the world as if you owned it. You werenít going to listen to reason. And you wear the golden rose. That told me all I needed to know. IÖI 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 donít, you would have realized what that cost me.Ē
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.
ďIím sorry,Ē he said at last.
ďExcuse me?Ē She hadnít any idea what he was going to say, but what he said made no sense at all.
ďI repeat, Jessica. Iím sorry. Tell meósans the golden rose, would you have made your offer?Ē
Slowly, silently, she shook her head. ďNo.Ē
Once again, he rubbed his hand across his mouth, still looking at her closely. ďAnd you believe it still goes on? The Society.Ē
Jessica shifted uncomfortably on the cushions. ďAs of five years ago, yes. I canít say for certain about now. But you know this.Ē
ďNo, Jessica, I donít,Ē he said, getting to his feet, suddenly seeming decades older than his years. ďI only know that in the past twelve months, four of my late fatherís 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 fatherís coaching accidentóthey all were in fact murders.Ē
He had to be spouting nonsense. ďI donít understand. My father was murdered? He and his wife both? How can you know that?Ē
ďLater,Ē Gideon said, turning toward a small commotion in the hallway. ďI believe Iím about to be gifted with the sight of a touching family reunion. Or not,Ē he added, smiling, as a tall, rail-thin, ridiculously overdressed and harassed-looking youth stomped into the room.
ďNow what the bloody blue blazes do you want?Ē 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, ďFirst you order me out of bed without a whisper of a reason, then you say I leave the house on penalty of deathóas 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 toóWell, hullo, ainít you the pretty one.Ē
ďAdóAdam?Ē Jessica was on her feet, but none too steadily. This ridiculous popinjay couldnít 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.
ďBacon-brained puppy,Ē Gideon muttered quietly. ďYour brother, Jessica. Behold.Ē
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 wasóhe had a star-shaped patch at the corner of his mouth.
ďAdam?Ē she repeated, as if, having said the name often enough, sheíd believe what her horrified eyes were telling her. She didnít want to believe it. Her brother hadnít grown up, heíd 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 wasnít oppressed, he certainly wasnít heartbroken. He was his brainless twit of a mother, in breeches.
ďI fear you have the advantage of me, madam,Ē 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. ďStupid cur. Do I look like a bitch in heat to you?Ē
ďDonít blame the dog, you sapskull. You might instead want to rethink the brand of scent you bathe in. As it is, weíre chewing on it,Ē Gideon said, retiring to the mantel, but not before shooting Jessica an amused look. ďSay hello to your half sister.Ē
Adam stopped, searched among his many chains for a gilt quizzing glass on a stick, and lifted it to his eye. ďMísister? Jessica, was it? No, thatís impossible,Ē he said, shaking his head. ďSheís dead these past half-dozen years or more. Bad fish, something like that. Mama told me most distinctly.Ē Then his mouth opened in shock, and he pointed the quizzing glass accusingly in her direction. ďImposter! Charlatan! The old reprobate cocks up his toes, and they come out of the woodwork, looking for his blunt. Fie and for shame, woman!Ē
Gideon rejoined Jessica in front of the sofas. ďIíve 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,Ē he suggested quietly.
At last Jessica regained use of her tongue, which sheíd been in some danger of swallowing. ďI donít think so,Ē she told him, still goggling at the creature in front of her. ďYou can have him. As to the other, Iíll expect you in Jermyn Street tonight, at eleven.Ē Then she clapped her hands to her mouth, realizing what sheíd said. ďTheÖthe other being discussing this business of murders. NotÖnot you know.Ē
ďWhat? Sheís leaving? Iíve routed her, by God!Ē Adam clapped his hands in delight. ďYoicks! And away!Ē
ďOh, stubble it, you nincompoop,Ē Jessica bit out as she brushed past him.
Gideonís delighted, infuriating laughter followed after her, all the way down the stairs.
ďYOUíRE LOOKING HARASSED,Ē Lord Maximillien commented as he entered the study in Portman Square and perched himself on the corner of his brotherís desk. ďAt least youíd look harassed if you were anyone else. The Earl of Saltwood is never harassed. He is aóIs there such a word as harasser?Ē
ďWhat do you want, Max?Ē Gideon asked, putting down the letter opener heíd been balancing between his fingertips.
ďMe? To bid you farewell, I suppose. I leave for Brighton in an hour, on orders from Trixie. Thereís some clever barque of frailty sheís befriended, a bit oímuslin with a problem our grandmother thinks might rouse me from my boredom. In any case, sheís been matchmaking. In a weak moment, I agreed to sign on as cohort. Itís my adventurous spirit, you understand.Ē
Gideon looked at his brother and shook his head in mock dismay. ďYou even look like an adventurer. Your shirt cuffs are unbuttoned and too long, that cravatís an insult, those smoked glasses a ridiculous affectationóand I may soon enlist Thorndyke to help hold you down while I scrape all that hair off your face.Ē
Max bent his head and looked at his brother overtop the blue-smoked rimless glasses heíd discovered a few months earlier in a small shop on Bond Street. ďAll that hair? A simple mustache, a cunning patch beneath my bottom lipóhardly all that hair.Ē
Gideon pointed up at him, twirling his finger. ďAnd the rest of it? Looks to be the beginnings of a beard to me. I imagine even a whore with a problem wonít tolerate a fellow who only allows himself to be shaved three times a week.Ē
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 Gideonís, threw out the warning that this was no pretty fool; perhaps why Max had delighted in finding the smoked glasses. ďAllow? Iím not so lazy. I shave myself, brother. Shave myself, dress myself, wash my own rump.Ē
ďAnd two of those tasks performed in the dark, apparently. Never mind,Ē 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. ďWhatís the Cyprianís problem?Ē
ďOther than being ambitious, penniless and of questionable morals? Transport. Iím 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. Sheís a romantic.Ē
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