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Chapter 1 - London, August 1891
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Berkley Sensation Books by Susan Johnson
WINE TARTS, & SEX
GORGEOUS AS SIN
(with Jasmine Haynes)
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
GORGEOUS AS SIN
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / March 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Susan Johnson.
eISBN : 978-1-101-01452-3
Berkley Sensation Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,
a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.
BERKLEY® SENSATION and the “B” design are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
London, August 1891
PROSPER HUTCHINSON, THE barrister of choice for London’s wealthy, rose from his chair to greet the tall, handsome aristocrat walking through his door. “At last, Your Grace.” He’d sent the duke a message five days ago.
“I was in the country.” The Duke of Groveland stripped off his tan riding gloves as he crossed the sumptuous Axminster carpet custom-made for the imposing corner office overlooking Piccadilly Square.
“Yes, I know.” The duke was entertaining his newest paramour while her husband was shooting in Scotland. Everyone knew.
An easy smile graced the duke’s fine features. “Don’t glower so, Hutchinson. I eventually arrived, and admit it—your messages always smack of crisis.”
“This crisis could cost you a fortune.”
“How much of a fortune?” George Montagu Fitz-Robbins Monckton calmly asked, tossing his gloves on Hutchinson’s large, ornate desk and taking a seat across from his barrister.
“Ninety thousand.” The portly barrister dropped into his chair with a grimace.
The duke arrested his slide into a lounging pose, his dark brows rising faintly. “That much.”
“Perhaps more should your plans for Monckton Row come to naught because Mrs. St. Vincent won’t sell.”
“Mrs. St. Vincent? A theatrical name or”—a smile quirked his lips—“a female of a certain profession?” Apparently over his initial surprise at the sum quoted by his barrister, the duke unbuttoned his fawn-colored silk tweed jacket, stretched out his jodhpur-clad legs, and rested his head against the tufted green leather some decorator had chosen for Hutchinson’s office chairs.
“She is rather a lady of a certain obstinacy, Your Grace,” Prosper Hutchinson grumbled, rapping his fingertips on his desktop to emphasize his displeasure. “All the other properties east of Berkeley Square have been purchased, but with Mrs. St. Vincent standing in your way, your ninety thousand is at risk. The very mulish lady has asserted that she has no intention of ever selling. She told me your grace may go to Hades for all she cares.”
“She did, did she? You spoke to her?” As a rule, Hutchinson didn’t take part in purchase negotiations. He employed twenty barristers to take care of such matters.
“I had to.” Hutchinson leaned forward over his paunch to underscore his vexation. “The troublesome female had flatly refused five of our offers. And I’d sent my very best men.” The barrister picked up a gold filigreed letter opener, held it between his fingertips, and gazed at it for a moment, pursed lipped. Then he looked up, met the duke’s languid gaze, and said ruefully, “You might as well hear it from me first, Your Grace. Apparently Mrs. St. Vincent disapproves of—I believe her words were ‘Odious, prodigal scoundrels who think their titles and wealth give them carte blanche in the world.’ ”
The duke looked amused. “It seems the lady is of a socialist bent.”
“I rather think her remark was of a more personal nature.” Groveland’s reputation for prodigality and dissipation was well known.
“She isn’t the first woman to disapprove of me,” the duke casually returned, his indifference to censure a marked trait. “But a female who’s not susceptible to your bank drafts”—a note of drollery colored his words—“now that’s a first, isn’t it, Hutchinson?”
“Yes, Your Grace.” Groveland’s female entanglements occasionally required the barrister’s intercession to amiably end an affair. And to date, bank drafts had always proved effective.
“So what now?” A soft, unruffled query. In the duke’s experience, the world generally bent to his will. It wasn’t hubris, just a recognition of reality. He was illustriously titled, the bearer of an enormous fortune, and for what it was worth—in matters of seduction more than anything—blessed with the Montagu dark good looks.
“We are at an impasse unless you wish to increase your offer substantially. I didn’t feel I had the authority to do so without speaking to you and explaining the unfortunate situation.”
The twenty-third Duke of Groveland pursed his lips. “Substantially you say.”
“I’m afraid so, Your Grace. The woman is obstinate to a fare-thee-well and in my estimation outrageously so for someone in her circumstances.”
Groveland’s grey gaze turned razor sharp. “What circumstances?”
“Her husband left her all but destitute when he died. From all appearances she is eking out a living. She resides above the bookstore, which is a saving, of course, but really, she should be exceedingly grateful for your generous offer rather than refusing it out of hand.” Leaning back in his chair, Hutchinson softly sighed. “Women, Your Grace. Quite irrational creatures.”
Now the duke knew women better than most. In fact he had outstripped all previous records apropos the number of females who had fallen prey to his charms. And gentlemen’s clubs were partial to keeping such scores. Seduction was a major amusement for Groveland—some said . . . his avocation. It was only natural he would say, “Why don’t you leave her to me, Hutchinson. I have had some luck with convincing women to, ah . . . accommodate me.”
Forgetting his consequence for a moment, Hutchinson exhaled loudly and blurted out, “I was hoping you might take a hand. The lady is beyond my capabilities, and I’ll admit, I haven’t felt such frustration in a decade or more. I never lose, sir—you know that. It’s intensely disconcerting to acknowledge defeat.”
“Nonsense, Hutchinson. You have no reason to feel defeated. Haven’t you masterfully acquired every piece of property I’ve ever wanted? Of course you have. This woman may be irrational or addled in some way—particularly,” he added with a faint smile, “if she’s a socialist. Her personal biases are certainly not your fault. Let me talk to her, and then we’ll see where we stand.”
“Since her shop is on the corner, it’s a pivotal piece in the architect’s plan,” the barrister pointed out, his shaggy brows knotting in a scowl.
“Perhaps Mrs. St. Vincent knows as much. She may have spoken to some of the other property owners who sold to us. She may feel she now holds the winning hand.”
Another grim scowl. “If so, I wish you well, Your Grace.”
“Come, enough long faces.” The duke nodded at the liquor trolley behind Hutchinson’s desk; a Scotsman was never far from his drink. “Pour me a whiskey and tell me what you know about the properties you’ve already acquired.”
Since he’d cajoled Clarissa into leaving Green Grove and seen her comfortably settled at Frances Knolly’s country house party, the duke was currently free of encumbrances. And frankly, after a fortnight with Clarissa, no matter how heated and exotic the sex, he’d been ready to transfer her into someone else’s care. His capacity for boredom was slight, a defect no doubt of a life free of restraints. He’d been indulged from the cradle save for by his father, and when the former duke had had the good grace to drink himself to death before George could kill him, the title had devolved to the young heir. Despite his youth, the twenty-third Duke of Groveland had found the larger world equally amenable to his wishes.
Although no one but his mother dared call him George. Since he loved her unconditionally and she him, he even allowed her to call him Georgie on occasion. To the world, however, he was Groveland or Your Grace; to his friends he was Fitz or The Monk, while his lovers generally called him darling with great enthusiasm and affection.
Surely he could charm one woman into accepting his offer—particularly a destitute female. Accepting his glass from Hutchinson, he listened while the barrister explained in some detail the entire litany of recent property purchased for what would soon become Monckton Row—God willing and Groveland’s cultivated charm gainfully applied.
When Hutchinson’s recitation came to an end, the duke held out his glass for a refill. “Now, tell me what to expect from this curious woman. If she’s a widow, she must not be in her first blush. And I gather she isn’t a lady of the night or an actress. Would she be predisposed to some small gift—flowers, candy, a bit of jewelry perhaps? You’re certain, too, she knows who I am.”
“I assume so, Your Grace,” Hutchinson replied, pouring a goodly bumper of whiskey into the outstretched glass. “She cited you by name as she consigned you to Hades. As to her age, she’s not young, but she’s not old; she has reddish hair and is above-average height, I believe,” the barrister explained like a man without an ounce of the Lothario in his soul—a man incapable of describing his wife or daughters without a photograph in hand. “In terms of a gift, I confess, sir, you might know about that better than I.” Groveland was not called The Monk without express and explicit irony.
“Is there anything about her deceased husband or her background that might be useful for me to know? The bookshop is a relatively recent addition to the neighborhood if I’m not mistaken.” He often walked by it en route to Bond Street.
“It’s been there almost seven years, Your Grace. Edward St. Vincent was a poet of some small fame thanks to the Queen’s interest in his work, but apparently he was a gamester as well and not a very good one. There were rumors about his death—that he may have taken a hand in ending his life, but it’s impossible to know, of course. Not that losses at cards aren’t often a precursor to self-destruction. We all know such instances.
“As for the widow herself, she is of respectable birth. She enjoys the title, the Honorable Rosalind Pitt-Riverston, but her family is without fortune. Her father, Baron Pitt-Riverston, dabbles in the natural sciences I’ve been told. In some remote area of Yorkshire, I believe.”
“So she is not a working-class female.”
“No. On the contrary. She exudes an air of hauteur.”
Groveland’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You don’t say.” He lifted the glass to his mouth and drank down the whiskey as if it might better clarify his thoughts.
“Indeed, I do,” Hutchinson retorted with a decided sniff. “I was sent on my way with the most high-handed arrogance.”
“Hmm. Audacious and difficult.”
Hutchinson grunted. “A vast understatement, Your Grace.”
The duke held out his empty glass. “One more of your fine whiskeys and then I will take myself off to reconnoiter the formidable opposition.”
But as it turned out, when the duke exited Hutchinson’s faux-Renaissance office block, he ran into Viscount Islay.
“Hi-ho, Fitz!” the viscount cried. “I hear you’re rid of Clarissa. What say you to a game at Brooks’s? ”
“Christ, gossip travels fast.” He’d just left Clarissa three hours ago.
“Margot Beaton stopped by to see my sister as I was leaving home. She was just down from Knolly’s country house party. She despises Clarissa by the way.”
“Most women do,” the duke replied drily.
“And most men don’t.”
Groveland raised his dark brows in sportive rejoinder. “But then Clarissa exerts herself to please men.”
“How much did she exert herself for you?” the viscount quipped.
“She wore me out, hence my rustication in the city. And I’d be more than happy to take some of your money at Brooks’s,” the duke said with a smile, uninterested in discussing Clarissa after a fortnight in her company.
Freddie Mackenzie grinned. “You can try, you mean.”
“But not very hard as I recall?”
Freddie was sober, however, so he paid attention to his cards and taking his money required a degree more concentration than normal for Fitz. But the duke was as lucky at cards as he was with women and ultimately he prospered for having met the viscount.
In the course of their play, the men met several other of their friends, one thing led to another, and it was well after midnight when Fitz stood under Brooks’s portico, inhaling the tepid night air and debating his options. There were numerous ladies more than willing to welcome him to their beds despite the hour, but after only recently escaping Clarissa he wasn’t particularly in the mood to play amorous games. Clarissa could suck the life out of a twenty-year-old stud, not to mention her propensity for banal conversation took away one’s taste—at least temporarily—for vapid female company.
Her acrobatic abilities aside, he should have sent her home a week ago.
Had he been less polite perhaps he wouldn’t now be beset by ennui and indecision.
He abruptly shrugged, having long ago decided that regret was a useless commodity. Bidding a friendly goodnight to Crawford, the seemingly immortal doorman, he took the stairs in a leap and strolled away toward Berkeley Square and home.
Tomorrow he would meet with the intractable Mrs. St. Vincent.
He much preferred tomorrows to yesterdays in any event—his life predicated on the maxim Never look back. A reaction perhaps to a complicated, chaotic childhood.
And truth be told, he was looking forward to the confrontation—discussion, negotiation . . . whatever his encounter with Mrs. St. Vincent entailed.
He was rather of the mind that he would win the day, though.
Didn’t he always?
WHILE THE DUKE of Groveland was making his way home through the gaslit streets of Mayfair, Rosalind St. Vincent was seated at her writing table, nibbling at her penholder, trying to dredge up a synonym for penis that she hadn’t already used a million times. Not that she had the leisure to deliberate for long when the next installment of Lady Blessington’s Harem Adventure was scheduled for the printer in the morning and she still had ten pages to write.
Why not the eunuch’s golden horn? The story took place in Constantinople, after all; she rather liked the play on words. And the eunuch wasn’t really a eunuch—a nice little plot twist if she said so herself.
But not half as nice as the lucrative erotica market that her well-mannered, cultivated husband had discovered. Not that she had known about Edward’s alternate writing career until after his death when she’d discovered the manuscripts in his armoire. In the course of searching for something suitable in which to bury him, she’d found the neatly tied volumes hidden behind his coats, each cover page bearing a notation of the sum realized for the work.
She’d been shocked, both by the discovery and the substantial proceeds such stories commanded. Erotica appeared to be considerably more profitable than poetry.
While Edward had been lauded and feted when his first poems had been published and he’d savored his celebrity, it had soon become apparent that fame was fleeting and the earnings from his verse would not long sustain a household.
Of course, Edward’s unfortunate addiction to gaming had also contributed to their financial problems. As did his unfortunate lack of initiative. And his guileless propensity to befriend unsavory characters. He was gulled by swindlers and artful dodges on more occasions than she wished to recall—always by men he’d perceived as bosom compatriots.
She’d always forgiven him, though. He was so sweet and naive.
Perhaps they both had been at one time.
But someone had had to overcome youthful innocence and see the world with clarity. That task, by default, had fallen to her, and she’d mustered the wherewithal to face their challenges. She’d managed to garner enough from Edward’s successful second edition of Yorkshire Memories to purchase the bookstore and in doing so had kept them solvent.
Immediately setting about to learn the trade, she’d asked questions and took advice from any successful merchant who was willing to respond to her queries. She’d also studied the prosperous bookstores in the city, noting which business practices, displays, and public readings drew the most customers. Very quickly—since their funds were limited—she’d mastered the necessary aspects of bookselling and merchandising. To those tried and true principles, she’d added particular elements of interest to her: a free library for the working poor, a small gallery where women artists could show their work, a Saturday evening reading group open to all. She also kept a steaming samovar on a table near the doorway so customers could help themselves to tea when they walked in.
The bookstore had granted them a modest living. But coming as they did from families of moderate means, they were well acquainted with living simply. While Rosalind had concentrated on managing the bookstore, Edward had written and published poems and, unbeknownst to her, authored the auxiliary works that had rendered him funds for gambling.
There had been times during the years of their marriage when she’d felt overwhelmed. Their financial resources were always stretched thin. But she’d never long succumbed to desolation—a testament perhaps to her father’s hearty spirits and her mother’s optimistic nature, which she’d inherited. Her mother had served as helpmate and inspiration to her father, who had spent a life engaged in scientific research. Eschewing fame and monetary recompense, he’d been intent on the pure joy of discovery.
So she’d fully understood Edward’s passion for poetry; she’d even sympathized with his fascination for gambling. She had only wished he might have been luckier at the tables. And slightly less moody. Stronger.
But they had both been so young when they married. Young and full of dreams.
She’d wondered more than once if he’d accidently fallen into the Thames that stormy night or whether he’d jumped from Westminster Bridge.
Her unconscious sigh shattered the silence, jerking her back to reality and her fast-approaching deadline.
She glanced at the clock. Two fifteen.
She put pen to paper, the nib fairly flying over the page. She didn’t have time for maudlin introspection or reflection on what might have been. She had to finish ten pages by eight in the morning. And that was that.
She was paid by the page.
It was piecework, pure and simple—like a seamstress who was compensated for the number of garments she completed in a day.
This was easier.
She’d never learned to sew despite her mother’s best efforts to make her a genteel young lady who could embroider her husband’s slippers or sew a fine seam. Fortunately her father had taken her side and she’d studied his favorite subjects instead: botany, anthropology, history, Latin, and Greek.
Even more fortunately, she’d quite by accident forged a new market for her steamy novels. Her publisher was ecstatic—his delight measured in increased fortune for her and less agreeably in persistent demands that she write faster.
Her stories ran counter to the accepted male narrative of domination bolstered by various fantastic devices with which to restrain female characters. Not that she was averse to an occasional bondage scene. After all, their bookstore had always sold books by Anonymous that were kept behind a screen in a back room. The risqué books and magazines bound in innocuous bindings had generated excellent sales.
But when she’d first undertaken the task of continuing Edward’s secret work, she’d instinctively penned tales appealing to her feminine sensibilities. Almost instantly, word of mouth had translated into a tidal wave of eager customers. Women readers, a major component of the bookstore’s customer base as well, had quickly heard of her writing—not that they knew it was hers—and had taken to indulging themselves in sexual fantasies tailored to female imaginations and passions.
Not that her male customers were averse to purchasing the weekly magazines that published her books in serial chapters. Mr. Edding’s Facts and Fantasy was a typical example of the cheap serial fiction that boomed after the abolition of the Newspaper Stamp Tax in 1855. But what increased the volume of her readership so remarkably was the additional female audience.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising. It was, after all, an era of sweeping social changes, many of them specifically directed toward women’s rights. There was increasing ferment for women’s suffrage, and reforms in marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws had over the past fifty years broadened the scope of female self-determination. Women could now sue for divorce, gain custody of their children, retain control over their own property—not easily, but it could be done. Women were, on the whole, leading much more complex and productive lives.
Female artists were coming to prominence as well in exhibitions previously closed to them. Sexual issues, unrelated to chauvinist bias, were being researched for the first time, and the studies were being published in the burgeoning field of psychology both in England and on the Continent. Radicals, socialists, and feminists had come together in the Men and Women’s Club to debate, dispute, converse, and expound upon the sexual issues of the day even while the vast public barely noticed. The government’s policies directed at mass education had given rise to unprecedented numbers of readers hungry for knowledge and entertainment. And with the advent of the typewriter, more and more women were entering the workforce, domestic service no longer the sole occupation open to females of lesser rank. Also, universities had begun enrolling women, albeit in limited numbers, and those pioneering females were unprecedentedly taking firsts at Oxford and Cambridge.
In some small measure, her stories ran parallel to contemporary women’s pursuit of liberty and freedom in all areas of life. Not that women were free from their corseted, high-collared, straitlaced world of patriarchy, puritanism, and prejudice, but critical change was in the air.
And with it, a crisis of masculinity had begun.
Enough, enough! She had no time for musing.
Her piecework had to be finished.
She smiled. If her stories continued to sell well, someday she might actually visit Constantinople.
She wiggled her toes in her slippers, shoved a heavy fall of auburn hair from her forehead, and bent to her task.
Should Lady Blessington sigh or scream in orgasmic ecstasy?
The erstwhile eunuch was very well endowed—very well, indeed.
She rather thought Lady Blessington might scream, she decided, her pen once again racing over the page.
Rosalind didn’t look up again until the last page was complete, the newest chapter conveniently coming to an orgasmic conclusion. Then she checked the time, smiled, and stretched leisurely.
Six. She had a sufficient interval in which to bathe, dress, and breakfast before carrying her manuscript to Bond Street and turning it over to Mr. Edding. His stationery shop was tres fashionable; only the best clientele ordered their monogrammed writing materials from him. And he looked so very unlike a publisher of bawdy literature that her anxiety about having her secret occupation exposed was minimal.
MR. EDDING LITERALLY rubbed his hands in delight when she walked through the doorway of his shop at eight. “What a pleasure to see you, Mrs. St. Vincent!” he exclaimed. “We are most anxious for your new chapter. You’ll be pleased to hear that the circulation has increased to six thousand copies! I hope you may find the time to increase your production. Perhaps add another serial for our little periodical.” He put up his hand. “I know, I know, your business requires attention as well. But, my dear lady, if you would be amenable to an increase in your wages—say double the amount—you could hire someone to oversee your shop and satisfy your readers in the process.”
“Why don’t I see what I can do, Mr. Edding.” Rosalind refrained from showing her excitement as she handed him her manuscript. Double! Good Lord! Perhaps she might be free of debt soon if she could write faster. Not only did the bookstore require constant funds to maintain its inventory, but her free library and Saturday reading group that offered tea and sandwiches for those less fortunate were also substantial expenses.
In addition, there remained a balance due on Edward’s funeral. It had cost dearly, but she’d wanted her husband buried in a fashionable cemetery with an elegant, tasteful headstone to mark his grave, and such tangibles had come at no small price. “Your generous offer is welcome, of course,” she blandly murmured as if she were generally indifferent to finances when, in fact, she was dancing with delight in her imagination.
“Good. Might I have another chapter of Lady Blessington’s Harem Adventure in a week and perhaps the first chapter of a second series as well?”
She repressed a gasp, and her voice indicated only the veriest agitation when she spoke. “I would need more time I think, Mr. Edding.”
“Very well. But think about hiring a shopgirl.” The clandestine publisher smiled. “You have a rare talent, my lady. Quite, quite rare. I’d like very much to see you devote more time to your writing.” Sliding the package under the counter, he opened the cash register, withdrew an envelope, and handed it to her. “Cash as you prefer, my lady. And may I say how much I appreciate the quality of your work.” Glancing over her shoulder, he waved his hand as though shooing someone away.
Rosalind stiffened but kept her back to the door. She deliberately came to Mr. Edding’s shop before it opened in order to avoid being seen.
“It was some passerby, my dear, who apparently can’t read the hours painted on the door. He’s gone. You’re quite safe.” He understood her fear of exposure; if it were revealed that she was a writer of erotica, her reputation not to mention her livelihood would be at risk. The scandal could ruin her.
A moment later, Rosalind bid good-by to Mr. Edding, left the shop, and walked home through the quiet streets. Only after she entered her apartment above the store did she allow herself to give in to fatigue. Not that she was unfamiliar with weariness after so many nights with little sleep.
Fortunately today was Tuesday—normally not a busy day, particularly in August with the beau monde having deserted London. Even the bourgeois were at the seashore with their families. She didn’t expect many customers.
She would rest for a brief time; the store didn’t open until ten.
Then fortified by another cup of tea—several actually—she would survive another day with limited sleep. But tonight, she would allow herself a rare treat and go to bed by midnight.
GROVELAND ARRIVED AT Bruton Street Books shortly before ten.