By Grace Burrowes
Sourcebooks, Inc. Copyright © 2013 Grace Burrowes
All rights reserved.
"A Young Person to see you, milord."
The old butler's very lack of expression was eloquent: beyond doubt, a lady — unchaperoned and uninvited — awaited Gareth Alexander, Marquess of Heathgate, in the smaller formal drawing room.
Gareth walked into the drawing room still dressed in riding attire. That in itself was a bit of rudeness, but merciful saints, what could any decent woman be thinking, to call upon him in broad daylight?
His visitor stood with her back to him, and his immediate impression, based on the tension in her spine and the set of her shoulders, was that this was, indeed, another desperate female looking to him to forgive her husband's, brother's, or cousin's debts of honor.
The worst kind of helpless female too, he concluded as she turned — a virtuous, helpless female.
At first she did not meet his gaze, but aimed a martyred stare at his least favorite Axminster carpet. Her dress was an ugly, serviceable gray; her gloves faded black; and her person without adornment. Her brownish hair was pulled back into a large, simple knot at her nape. She was altogether pathetically unremarkable.
Until she looked at him.
Amber eyes, slanting above high cheekbones and a wickedly full mouth arrested Gareth's dismissive perusal. He'd refuse what she would offer as collateral for some man's debt, though he was ... tempted. She had a feline cast to her fine features, an intelligence and alertness that made him want to keep his eyes on her. Watching her for a progression of silent instants, he gained the impression she could move like a cat, think like a cat.
The serious gaze she turned on him suggested that she probably, in keeping with solid English propriety, did not purr like a cat.
He approached her with a slight bow. "Heathgate." He'd purposely neglected to append the courteous "at your service."
She curtsied. "Thank you for meeting with me, your lordship."
She did not offer her name, though she had a pretty voice. Gareth's brother Andrew would call it a candlelight voice.
"Shall we be seated?" He gestured to the settee then ordered a tea tray — to appease his hunger rather than convention — and turned to find his guest once more staring at the carpet.
"So, why have you come to see me, madam? You must know propriety is not served by a meeting under these circumstances."
To his surprise, that blunt opening comment earned him a fleeting smile.
"Propriety is a luxury not all of us can afford." Her accent was crisply aristocratic, but musical, as if there might be some Welsh or Gaelic a few generations back. He paid attention to voices, to dress, to the tidy stitching on the index finger of her glove, to the details relevant when dealing with opponents in any game of chance. Hers were a challenge to add up.
"Propriety is a necessity if a young lady is not to lose her reputation, as others have done in similar circumstances."
At that salvo, the lady removed her worn gloves — probably without realizing the symbolism of the gesture — to reveal pale, elegant hands. The hands — God help her — of a true lady.
The tea arrived, and as the footman withdrew, Gareth closed the door. That got the woman's attention, for she leveled a questioning glance at him.
He mustered his miniscule store of patience. "You come to see me without invitation or chaperone; you will not tell me your name. I can only conclude you do not want the servants to overhear what you discuss with me. Will you pour?"
She gave a dignified little nod from her perch on the edge of the sofa. "How do you take your tea?"
"I like it quite strong and with both cream and sugar."
Her movements were confident and graceful; she knew her way around an elaborate tea service. She was a lady fallen on difficult times.
Oh, hell, not again. What was wrong with the young men of England?
"Shall we let it steep a bit, then?" she asked. "I wouldn't call it strong yet."
"As you like, but you will please disclose the nature of your errand. This appointment was not on my schedule." He wanted to get this over with, though his rudeness did not seem to perturb his visitor.
"I am without relations, your lordship, except for a younger sister. My other nearest relation, a distant cousin, has recently passed away. Her will left me with a substantial source of income, provided I meet certain stipulations. The stipulations involve you. Should I fail to meet the conditions of her will in the immediate future, I am without a means of supporting myself, which is no great inconvenience. I could work as a governess or become a lady's companion. My retainers, however, are elderly, and my younger sister —"
She fell silent and poured a splash of tea into a cup. The lady must have decided it wasn't strong enough even yet, for she sat back and regarded him with steady topaz eyes.
He saluted her mentally for meeting the challenge: they were quite down to business, thank you very much.
"How do the stipulations involve me?" Clearly, she wanted him to ask, to show some curiosity about her situation, while he wanted to leave the room at a dead run.
"My distant cousin was a ... madam, sir, and the source of income she left me was her brothel."
She had his attention, drat her. He spotted a mahogany bay horsehair on the cuff of his riding jacket and focused on plucking it away. "And the conditions?"
"There are essentially two. First, I may not sell the business for at least one year. During that time it is to be held in trust for me, and the profits available to me for my personal maintenance. That condition is problematic in itself." She paused, peering at the tea again. This time she poured as she continued speaking, then doctored his tea according to his stated preferences. "If it becomes public knowledge I am living off the proceeds of a brothel, my future is ruined — though that matters little. My younger sister, however, is blameless, and deserves some happiness from this life. She cannot be tainted by this association."
He accepted the tea and took a sip. This difficult, inconvenient woman had made him a perfect cup of tea. Against all probability, he found his goodwill modestly restored. "The second condition?"
The lady looked briefly away — toward the white roses on the piano — and he had the sense this mannerism was how she gathered her courage, though none of her trepidation was betrayed in her expression.
"I am to spend at least three months under the personal tutelage of the trustee, learning the skills necessary to manage what I am told is a high-class sporting house. I am to learn what the ... employees know, how the business works, how to gamble, and how the courtesan's trade is" — she searched for words with a delicately lifted eyebrow — "undertaken."
Gareth stood as genuine surprise — a rare emotion for him and unwelcome — coursed over him.
"Did your cousin dislike you so intensely, to put this choice before you?" Her cousin's generosity would be the ruination of her, whoever she was.
"She hardly knew me," came the reply. "She had chosen or been forced into her profession when I was but a girl. The family no longer received her, nor did she appear to want their acknowledgment. She probably felt entitled to her anger, if in fact this bequest is a display of anger."
Gareth lowered himself beside his guest on the settee. He did not ask permission, and she did not shift away.
"How could this not be a posthumous tantrum? You appear to be a decent woman, and your cousin has made sure if you accept this bequest then you won't be, nor, by association, will your sister be. I call that mean-spirited, particularly when your alternatives are what? To go into service, where your safety is none too assured anyway? It's a diabolical gift, this bequest."
The lady regarded him steadily, measuring him with cool, feline eyes. "My cousin was Callista Hemmings."
He leaned back against the settee, feeling a stab of loss. Callista had been the quintessential grande horizontale, and she'd treated him honorably. When all London had been fawning over the newly invested Marquess of Heathgate to his face and laughing at him or accusing him of murder behind his back, Callista had been honest. She'd taken him on as a project, educated him, refined him, shown him skills and weapons that had needed only the sharpening influence of time to see him into the peerage on his own terms.
She'd passed along tidbits about this peer, or that bit of business that had allowed him to make some brilliant investments. Then she'd dumped him flat, telling him she chose her clientele, and she was unchoosing him.
In hindsight, he'd seen the kindness in what she'd done. Untried as he was, he'd been in danger of losing his heart to her. She was shrewd enough to know that wouldn't have been in her interests — or his. He was in her debt, and now she was gone. He'd felt the loss of her months ago, and felt it anew at the mention of her name.
"You knew her," his visitor observed dryly.
"My dear lady, much of London's titled male population knew her, and the remainder could only wish they had. Your cousin was ... quite a woman. Quite a lady."
"She was not a lady," his guest countered, the first hint of heat in her words.
He let that observation hang in the air while he took another sip of wonderfully hot, sweet, strong tea. "You resent this choice."
"I resent it, yes, even as I am grateful it gives me options. Penury would likely cost me my virtue at some point, in any case. I am resigned to traveling a safer road to ruin. Were my sister older, I could get her married posthaste then slide into obscurity, but she is seventeen, and that is ..."
Her faltering resolve was interesting. "Seventeen is ...?"
"Seventeen, in her case, is too young."
Gareth's guest busied herself sipping her tea, apparently oblivious to Gareth's perusal. He sipped along with her, waiting to see where she was heading with her disclosures. At seventeen, without the first clue what present company was getting herself into, she would have married to protect her sibling, had it been an option for her. He had no doubt of that.
"I am not the only one who might resent the way my cousin has arranged things," she said. She had pretty hands, but as she set her teacup down, Gareth noticed a minute tremor in them.
"I expect the ladies in Callista's employ are not particularly pleased, and the trustee might find himself in a bit of a bind." The poor bastard would be in one hell of a bind, in fact.
She looked at him directly, and he realized all her previous glances and gazes had been oblique in comparison. Foreboding prickled up his neck.
"Do you?" she asked evenly.
"Do you find yourself in a bit of a bind?"
"Why would I do that?"
"Because Callista named you as the trustee of her estate, my lord, and thus the guardian of my virtue."
Bloody, rubbishing, perishing ... Gareth stalled discreetly, calling for more tea and some cakes while his internal world righted itself. He was too taken aback at Callista's scheming to puzzle through the reasons for it — unpleasantly taken aback. Shocked, even, and it took a great deal to shock him — now.
While his guest nibbled away at a chocolate éclair, Gareth held his peace and found consternation growing into monumental resentment. Miss Shabby Dignity eventually finished her tea and turned her unnerving regard on him once more.
"So, my lord, do you resent the task requested of you? Callista named an alternative trustee should you decline the position."
Reprieve. Maybe there was a way out — if he wanted one. "Whom did she name?"
"I see." Callista must have truly hated her cousins. Riverton was a confirmed deviant, sick at best, and evil, more likely.
No damned reprieve whatsoever.
"Riverton will not do." Did he detect a slight relaxation in her shoulders? "Any provisions for a substitute of my choosing?" And to whom could he delegate this project anyway?
She considered her empty teacup, very likely some of the finest china she'd ever see, much less touch. "None. You take on the job or Riverton will, and I can tell you I do not relish the thought of his personal tutelage one bit."
His guest was a martyr with some discernment, then. How flattering.
"What exactly does personal tutelage involve?" Because unless his distant recollection of Chancery law was in error, the will would have to be carefully worded to successfully skirt the illegalities of passing along a house of ill repute.
She remained perched on the edge of the settee, while Gareth suspected she was longing to get up and pace. "It isn't complicated, my lord. I am to learn to be a madam. Your job is to teach me at least the rudiments of that profession, and the will stipulates that I have only so long to complete this education. Make no mistake: my cousin's solicitors were quite careful to explain that if I want the benefits of Callista's generosity, I have approximately ninety days left to learn to whore."
The vulgar term in the midst of her polite diction landed like the sound of breaking glass in a quiet library. Gareth sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and mentally sorting through curses in French, though being a lady, she'd probably understand those too.
First things first. "Do you want me to teach you to whore?"
"I do not want to starve, and I do not want my sister to starve. I hope to undertake this ... apprenticeship for the next several months. One year from Callista's death you can sell the business for me, and then this episode in my life will be over. The only one who will know of it besides me and the solicitors is you, and I am hoping to rely on your gentlemanly discretion."
Gareth took a moment to digest her little speech. The course she proposed was probably the most sensible, from her point of view. And he could be discreet. A man on familiar terms with all manner of vice had to be faultlessly discreet if he wanted to maintain his privacy.
Which he did.
"Why do I not simply lie to the solicitors, tell them you have fulfilled the terms, and let us go our separate ways in peace?"
She wrinkled her nose — and it was a pretty nose, in perfect proportion to the rest of her features. "The solicitors are to test me, using a list of questions and answers Callista devised, and if they suspect I've not surrendered my innocence to their satisfaction, they implied they could have me examined by a midwife. They would have me believe myself fortunate that I was not asked to entertain a customer before witnesses."
Gareth's eyebrow shot up, because he knew Callista could be ruthless, and he'd damned near loved her for it, but this was beyond ruthless. This was cruel, and not a legacy any court would have a part in enforcing.
Not that the lady would obtain the property or its income in the next decade by bringing suit in the courts of law.
"To summarize, then," Gareth said, "you want me to spend three months teaching you how to please a man, how to run a brothel, how to play various games of chance, and so on. I am to at least relieve you of your virginity, and I am to complete these tasks without anyone being the wiser? Moreover, I am to sell the brothel for you at the end of one year, all with utmost discretion. What do I get out of it?"
If this woman knew anything about him at all, she'd know to expect that question from him.
"My guess is Callista chose you for her own reasons, believing you would accept. I can't see that you get anything out of this other than the trustee's portion of the proceeds, which I doubt you need." She cocked an eyebrow, perhaps mocking him, perhaps inventorying his physical assets. "If Callista's faith in you is not misplaced, you will get the free services of a well-trained whore, won't you? I doubt you need those either."
He suppressed a flinch at her continued use of the word "whore." There were so many other ways to say it — soiled dove, courtesan, lady of the night, fashionable impure. His guest seemed to want to shock him, and maybe herself. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gareth by Grace Burrowes. Copyright © 2013 Grace Burrowes. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
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