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Caro moved lightly across the stage on slippered feet before arranging herself carefully upon the red-velvet chaise, checking that the gold-and-jewelled mask covering her face from brow to lips was securely in place, and arranging the long ebony curls of the theatrical wig so that they cascaded over the fullness of her breasts and down the length of her spine, before attending to the draping of her gold-coloured gown so that she was completely covered from her throat to her toes.
She could hear the buzz of excitement behind the drawn curtains at the front of the small raised stage, and knew that the male patrons of the gambling club were anticipating the moment when those curtains would be pulled back and her performance began.
Caro's heart began to pound, the blood thrumming hotly in her veins as the introductory music began to play, and the room behind the drawn curtains fell into an expectant silence.
Dominic hesitated at the entrance of Nick's, one of London's most fashionable gambling clubs, and one of his favourite haunts even before he had taken possession of it a month ago.
Newly arrived back from Venice that afternoon, he had decided to visit the club at the earliest opportunity, and as he handed his hat and cloak over to the waiting attendant, he could not help but notice that the burly young man who usually guarded the doorway against undesirables was not in his usual place. He also realised that the gambling rooms beyond the red-velvet curtains were unnaturally silent.
What on earth was going on?
Suddenly that silence was bewitchingly broken by the sultry, sensual sound of a woman singing. Except that Dominic had given strict instructions before his departure for Venice that in future there were to be no women workingin any capacityin the club he now owned.
He was frowning heavily as he strolled into the main salon, seeing at once the reason for the doorman's desertion when he spotted Ben Jackson standing transfixed just inside a room crowded with equally mesmerised patrons, all of them apparently hearing only one thing. Seeing only one thing.
A woman, the obvious source of that sensually seductive voice, lay upon a red-velvet chaise on the stage, a tiny little thing with an abundance of ebony hair that cascaded in loose curls over her shoulders and down the length of her slender back. Most of her face was covered by a jewelled mask much like the ones worn in Venice during carnival, but her bared lips were full and sensuous, her throat a pearly white. She wore a gown of shimmering gold, the voluptuousness of her curves hinted at rather than blatantly displayed, and the more seductive because of it.
Even masked, she was without a doubt the most sensually seductive creature Dominic had ever beheld!
The fact that every other man in the room thought the same thing was evident from the avarice in their gazes and the flush to their cheeks, several visibly licking their lips as they stared at her. A fact that caused Dominic's scowl to deepen as his own gaze returned to that vision of seduction upon the stage.
Caro tried not to reveal her irritation with the man who stood at the back of the salon glowering at her, either by her expression or in her voice, as she brought her first performance of the evening to an end by slowly standing up to move gracefully to the edge of the stage as she sang the last huskily appealing notes.
It did not prevent her from being completely aware of that pale and disapproving gaze or of the man that gaze belonged to.
He was so extremely tall that even standing at the back of the salon he towered several inches over the other men in the room, his black superfine tailored to widely muscled shoulders, his white linen impeccable and edged with Brussels lace at his throat and wrist. His fashionably styled hair was the colour of a raven's wing, so black it almost seemed to have a blue sheen.
His eyes, those piercingly critical eyes, were the pale colour of a grey silky mist, and appeared almost silver in their intensity. He had a strong, aristocratic face: high cheekbones, a straight slash of a nose, firm sculptured lips, and a square and arrogantly determined jaw. It was a hard and uncompromising face, made more so by the scar that ran down its left side, from just beneath his eye to that stubbornly set jaw.
His pale grey eyes were currently staring at Caro with an intensity of dislike that she had never encountered before in all of her twenty years. So unnerved was she by his obvious disdain that she barely managed to maintain her smile as she took her bows to the thunderous round of applause. Applause she knew from experience would last for several minutes after she had returned to her dressing-room at the back of the club.
It was impossible not to take one last glance in the scowling man's direction before she disappeared from the stage, slightly alarmed as she saw that he was now in earnest conversation with the manager of the club, Drew Butler.
'What is the meaning of this, Drew?' Dominic asked icily under cover of the applause for the beauty still taking her bows upon the stage.
The grey-haired man looked unperturbed; as the manager of Nick's for the past twenty years, the cynicism in his tired blue eyes stated that he had already seen and done most things in his fifty years, and was no longer disturbed by any of them, least of all by the disapproving tone of the man who had become his employer only a month ago. 'The patrons love her.'
'The patrons have neither drunk nor gambled since that woman began to sing some quarter of an hour ago,' Dominic pointed out.
'Watch them now,' Drew said softly.
Dominic did watch, his brows rising as the champagne began to flow copiously and the patrons placed ridiculously high bets at the tables, the level of conversation rising exponentially as the attributes of the young woman were loudly discussed, along with more bets being placed as to the chances of any of them being privileged enough to see behind the jewelled mask.
'You see.' Drew gave an unconcerned shrug as he turned back to Dominic. 'She's really good for business.'
Dominic shook his head impatiently. 'Did I not make it clear when I was here last month that this is to be a gambling club only in future, and not a damned brothel?'
'You did.' Again Drew remained completely unruffled. 'And as per your instructions the bedchambers upstairs have remained locked and unavailable to all.'
A gentleman, an earl no less, owning a London gambling club of Nick's reputation was hardly acceptable to society. But it had been a matter of honour to Dominic, when Nicholas Brown had challenged him to a game of cards the previous month for ownership of Midnight Moon, the prize stallion kept at Dominic's stud at his estate in Kent. In return, Dominic had demanded that Nicholas put up Nick's as his own side of the wager and obviously Dominic had won.
Owning a gambling club was one thing, but the half-a-dozen bedchambers on the first floor, until recently available to any man who had wished for some privacy with whomever, were totally unacceptable; Dominic drew the line at being considered a pimp! As such, he had ordered a ban on womenall womeninside the club, and the bedrooms upstairs to be immediately closed off. With the exception of the mysterious young woman, who had so recently held the club's patrons enthralledand not just with her singing!those instructions appeared to have been carried out.
Dominic's mouth compressed. 'I believe my instructions were to dispense with the services of all the ladies working here?'
'Caro ain'tis not, a whore.' Drew visibly bristled, his shoulders stiffening defensively.
Dominic frowned darkly. 'Then what, pray, is she?'
'Exactly as you saw,' Drew said. 'Twice a night she simply lays on the chaise and sings. And the punters drink and gamble more than ever once she leaves the stage.'
'Does she bring a maid or companion with her?'
The older man looked amused. 'What do you think?'
'What do I think?' Dominic's eyes had narrowed to icy slits. 'I think she is a disaster in the making.' He scowled. 'Which gentleman has the privilege of escorting her home at the end of the evening?'
'I does.' The doorman, Ben Jackson, announced proudly as he passed them on his way back to his vigil at the entrance to the club, his round face looking no less cherubic for all that his nose had obviously been broken more than once. His ham-sized fists did not come amiss in a brawl, either.
Dominic raised sceptical brows. 'You do?'
Ben beamed contentedly, showing several broken teeth for his trouble. 'Miss Caro insists on it.' Oh, she did, did she?
Ben Jackson could make grown men quake in their boots just by looking at them, and Drew Butler was a cynic through and through, and yet Miss Caro appeared to have them both eating out of her delicate little hand!
'Perhaps we should continue this discussion in your office, Drew?' Dominic turned away, expecting rather than waiting to see if the older man followed him, his impatience barely held in check. Nevertheless, he still managed to greet and smile at several acquaintances as he moved purposefully towards the back of the smoke-filled club to where Drew's office was situated.
He barely noticed the opulence of that office as Drew followed him into the room before closing the door behind him and effectively shutting out the noise from the gaming rooms. Although Dominic did spot a decanter of what he knew to be a first-class brandy, and he swiftly poured himself a glass and took an appreciative sip before offering to pour one for the manager, too.
The older man shook his head. 'I never drink during working hours.'
Dominic made himself comfortable as he leant back against the front of the huge mahogany desk. 'Well, who is she, Drew? And where is she from?'
The manager shrugged. 'Do you want my take on her or what she told me when she came to the back door asking for work?'
Dominic's gaze narrowed. 'Both.' He took another sip of his brandy, giving every appearance of studying the toe of one highly polished boot as the other man began to relate the young woman's tale of woe.
Caro Morton claimed to be an orphan who had lived with a maiden aunt in the country until three weeks ago, the death of the elderly lady leaving her homeless. Consequently she had arrived in London two weeks earlier with very little money and no maid or companion, but with a determination to make her own way in the world. Her intention, apparently, had been to offer herself as companion or governess in a respectable household, but her lack of references had made that impossible, and so she had instead been driven to begin knocking on the back door of the theatres and clubs.
Dominic looked up sharply at this part of the story. 'How many had she visited before arriving here?'
'Half a dozen or so.' Drew grimaced. 'I understand she did receive several offers of alternative employment along the way.'
Dominic gave a humourless smile as he easily guessed the nature of those offers. 'You did not feel tempted to do the same when she came knocking on the door here?' He had no doubt that Miss Caro Morton was a young woman most men, no matter what their age, would like to bed.
The older man shot him a frowning glance as he moved to sit behind the desk. 'My lord, I happen to have been happily married for the past twenty years, with a daughter not much younger than she is.'
'My apologies.' Dominic gave a slight bow. 'Very well.' His gaze sharpened. 'That would appear to be Miss Morton's version of her arrival in London; now tell me who or what you think she is.'
Drew looked thoughtful. 'There may have been a maiden aunt, but somehow I doubt it. My guess is she's in London because she's running away from something or someone. A brutish father, maybe. Or perhaps even a cruel husband. Either way she's far too refined to be your usual actress or whore.'
Dominic eyed him speculatively. 'Define refined?'
'Ladylike,' the older man supplied tersely.
Dominic looked intrigued; a woman of quality attempting to conceal her identity would certainly explain the wearing of that jewelled mask. 'And you do not think that actresses and whores are capable of giving the impression of being ladylike?'
'I know they are,' Drew answered. 'I just don't happen to think Caro Morton is one of them.' His expression became closed. 'Perhaps it would be best if you were to talk to her and decide for yourself?'
That the manager felt a fatherly protectiveness towards the 'refined' Miss Caro Morton was obvious. That the doorman, Ben Jackson, felt that same protec-tiveness was also apparent. If she really were a runaway wife or daughter, then Dominic felt no such softness of emotions. 'I fully intend doing so,' he assured the other man drily as he straightened. 'I merely wished to hear your views first.'
Drew looked concerned. 'Are you intending to dismiss her?'
Dominic gave the thought some consideration before answering. There was no doubting Drew Butler's claim that Caro Morton's nightly performances were a draw to the club, but even so she might just be more trouble than she was worth if she really were a runaway wife or daughter. 'That will depend upon Miss Morton.' 'In what way?'
He raised arrogant brows. 'I accept that you have been the manager of Nick's for several years, Drew. That you are, without a doubt, the best man for the job.' He smiled briefly to soften what he was about to say next. 'However, that ability does not give you the right to question any of my own actions or decisions.'
'No, my lord.'
'Where is Caro Morton now?'
'I usually ensure that she has a bite to eat in her dressing-room between performances.' Drew's expression challenged Dominic to question that decision of his.