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Lord of Pleasure
By Delilah Marvelle
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2009 Delilah Marvelle
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLesson One
'Tis truly a curse to have no coins in your purse. For you lose sight of all pleasure and all means of leisure, which makes life all the more worse. -The School of Gallantry
London, England January 1830
Being a self-respecting lady born of impeccable culture and lineage-at least on her father's side of the family-Lady Charlotte knew all too well that she was not supposed to wink, wave, smile, or nod in the direction of any man as a means of gaining attention. Especially from a hackney. But the pathetic jangling of the few coins that remained in the folds of her ribbon-drawn reticule reminded Charlotte that respectability was not only sorely exaggerated, but outright cumbersome.
Though she had tried these past few months through various means to earn her wage most honorably, it was quite pointless. For it all ended the same. In her dismissal.
As a kitchen maid for a banker, she'd been repeatedly propositioned by his scruffy, pudgy-fingered chef to hitch up her skirts. For better pay. After she had rejected his tasteless advances, he eventually claimed to the mistress of the house that she always burnt the soup, curdled themilk, and evaporated the tea. All of which, of course, was untrue, but all of which, of course, had still led to her dismissal.
As a house maid for a naval captain, she'd been further humiliated and fondled in close quarters by the butler, who was as determined as he was gangly. When she grew rather tired of dodging his eager hands and threatened to report his behavior to their employer, his retaliation resounded in her ears as he marched straight into the parlor and smashed an entire collection of vases. His accusatory finger not only resulted in the loss of her pension, but also all of her references.
And, yes. It ended in her dismissal.
Sadly, the reality of her situation was this: she had no further means of earning a penny, her scoundrel of a husband was dead, and due to his overly inconsiderate nature, his entire family-including his four mistresses-continued to be well-coddled by his estate.
While she? She was left to languish in her father's unfurnished townhouse with absolutely no annuity, still waiting for the cursed Court of Chancery to award her the one-third of her husband's estate that was legally owed her. A portion of which she had brought into the marriage to begin with.
In the end, contesting her husband's will had been more of an expense than she'd expected. It wasn't until she was forced to pawn off her only corset (indeed) that she realized her financial situation was quite pressing. Not to mention depressing.
And so it was, the moment her hired carriage rolled into the most respectable part of the city, just outside of Hyde Park, Charlotte knew it was time to set aside her remaining pride and introduce herself to the genteel masses as being on the market. With all the advances she had fostered since the death of her husband, she was certain an open invitation would secure much better payment.
Or so she hoped.
Charlotte shifted toward the carriage window and nervously eyed the approaching promenade. There were worse things than selling off one's virtue. Like selling off one's only home, which had been in the family for over a hundred years. Or having to beg to her husband's family-or, heaven forbid, one of his four mistresses-who had inherited everything, knew of her plight, and yet offered nothing.
"Lord save me from myself," she muttered, glancing toward the ceiling of the carriage. "For in my desperation I know not what I do."
Pushing aside the faded wool curtains, she unlatched the small glass window and thrust it wide open, allowing a burst of frosty air to blow in. The biting gust slashed at her face, bestowing yet another chiding reminder of how cruel the world truly was. Fortunately, it wasn't raining. Or snowing.
Grasping the sides of the window with her gloved hands, Charlotte leaned out. Her large pleated bonnet bumped against the frame of the small window as she eyed her prospects alongside the promenade.
She glanced in both directions, her brows coming together. Empty? Now, how could the promenade be empty? There had to be some men left in the city. And though, yes, she knew full well that most of the wealthy men of great import were still in the country, she was not in any position to wait for the Season to begin.
She needed coal. And food. And needed to pay the window taxes on her home lest the house itself was collected. None of which even included the long list of legal fees she still owed her lawyer.
Spying a brisk movement up ahead, Charlotte straightened. It was a man! She prepared to signal the driver. Then paused.
A portly old gent marched steadily along, a polished ivory and gold cane clutched in his gray-gloved hand. His large top hat was pulled low against the wind, and his gaze was fixed steadfastly before him. As though he were charging into battle.
Charlotte grimaced, shrinking back slightly, and readjusted her grip on the sides of the open window. Truth be told, debtor's prison seemed far more appealing. Aside from the man's appearance and scowl, what concerned her even more was the pronounced manner in which he slammed his cane into the pavement after every other marching step.
She had no doubt that he frequently used that cane on his servants. As well as on anyone else who annoyed him. He probably also held on to his assets in the same manner in which he held on to his cane. Most possessively. Which, of course, would do her no good.
Charlotte blew out a ragged breath, sending forth a white, frosty cloud into the frigid air. To be sure, her father-God rest his soul-would be aghast. Though her mother, who had all too recently joined him, would have been rather proud of her being an opportunist. Though perhaps not too proud. Considering.
The icy wind whipped hard at her face, forcing the loose ends of the gauze ribbons tied at her chin to fly up toward the rim of her pleated bonnet. Charlotte ignored the relentless assault and leaned farther out of the swaying carriage, trying to better see down the promenade.
Two young, dark-haired bucks strolled in her direction. Oddly, both were dressed in identical outfits, with matching morning suits, cravats, boots, cloaks, and top hats. And neither seemed to notice her approach, mostly due to the fact that they were much too engaged in their conversation with one another.
As the carriage drew steadily closer, her brows rose, and she noted that their attire wasn't the only identical thing about them. Even their faces were identical. Why, they were twins!
Though the revelation should have increased her hopes, not to mention her chances, she wondered if it also increased the likelihood of a complication. She cringed, knowing she couldn't possibly take on more than one man at a time.
Before she could altogether retreat, however, the two men caught sight of her not only leaning out of the carriage window, but observing them. They instantly ceased their conversation and gawked at her. As if she was being rude.
Which she supposed she was.
Heat splashed across her chilled face. She counterfeited a smile and enthusiastically waved a gloved hand in their direction as if every respectable lady always leaned out of carriage windows. "Good day, gentlemen! Brisk morning, isn't it? Do try and keep warm." She waved again, gallantly holding on to her smile.
Both gents halted, stumbling into one another in a scrambled effort to observe her audacity, but the hackney simply rolled on, leaving them far behind.
Her smile faded as she glanced about. Unfortunately, the promenade had come to an end and the carriage was now being directed down another empty cobblestone street.
As the last of all the wealthy homes wobbled by, Charlotte was about to direct the driver to Pall Mall-for there were always men on that street-when she glimpsed another man much farther down.
Even from the notable distance, she could tell he was a man of great import by the manner in which he carried himself. His overall demeanor demanded not only satisfaction, but the world's complete attention.
Fixing her gaze on the man, Charlotte frantically knocked on the roof of her carriage, urging the driver to desist.
The carriage came to a rapid halt, jerking her far forward and to the side. Charlotte's stomach flipped as she frantically seized hold of the sill, her feet scrambling and slipping against the carriage floor in an effort to remain upright. After a few huffing breaths, she eventually steadied herself into a stable position.
Tinged with a sense of self-consciousness, she prayed that the man hadn't witnessed her absurd theatrics and noted that he had already closed off much of the span between them, allowing her a much better view.
Charlotte couldn't help but stare as she sucked in a slow, disbelieving breath. Who knew such glorious men actually did exist?
His broad upper frame was elegantly pronounced by the exquisite cut of his double-breasted waistcoat. About a dozen brass buttons gleamed, as if very proud to be worn by such a grand species of a man. The silk gray cravat that was bound high around his neck not only framed his masculine, smooth-shaven face, but emphasized it.
His long, athletic legs, which were well fitted into a matching pair of dark wool trousers, were displayed quite delectably by the self-assured, uniform stride he kept. And on occasion, the wind treated her to a bit more by plucking up his black unfastened ankle-length coat and sending it flowing about his large, debonair frame.
Thick bronze hair, scattered by the wind, peered out from beneath his angled top hat. Although she couldn't make out the color of his eyes, she sensed they'd be as striking as the rest of him.
Charlotte tightened her grip on the windowsill until the insides of her palms ached from the pressure. If she did this, if she invited this man into the hackney-assuming he wouldn't laugh her off into next week-there would be no taking it back.
Regardless of her dire monetary situation, this would forever brand her a wanton. But then again, if there was ever a time to be a wanton, and in turn financially profit, it was now. With this man.
The gentleman she'd been blatantly spectating suddenly paused in his firm stride. And stared straight at her. His brows rose beneath the brim of his top hat as he glanced over his broad shoulder behind him and then back at her. He resumed his steady pace, only this time he was decidedly heading toward her. And what was worse, he looked quite determined to see what she was about.
Panic quaked through her. No. She couldn't do this. She simply couldn't!
Charlotte scrambled back into the safety of the carriage and stumbled onto the cushioned seat beside the window. She snapped up a gloved hand to send her driver off, but paused, her hand remaining stiffly poised in midair.
Her reticule slowly slid from her wrist down the length of her arm toward the puffed bombazine sleeve of her elbow, the sparse coins within chiming in reminder. She stared up at the ceiling, noting the small distance remaining between her hand and her departure. Why did a part of her wish to stay and engage him?
Because it is far better to secure this man than the next, who may resemble the foot of a horse. Charlotte sighed and dropped her hand back to her side, her reticule hitting her thigh. The truth was, there was nothing left to sell. Nothing but the house. A house she refused to part with, as it was all she had left of her parents.
Her stomach gargled. Then grumbled. Loud even to her own ears. She glared down at her uncorseted belly hidden beneath her bombazine gown. "Oh, hush," she seethed. "You had bread last night."
"I take it you scold your stomach often?" an amused, deep voice drawled through the open window of the carriage.
Charlotte froze, her eyes widening as dread overtook not only the beat of her heart but her entire body. From the corner of her eye she could see the man's well-fitted black leather glove gripping the sill of the open window.
She dared not move or face him for fear that she would encourage him out of her own desperation.
"Forgive the intrusion, Miss." He leaned in closer, his top hat preventing him from completely fitting through the window. "Was there something you needed?" His deep, low voice was now edged with genuine concern. "Assistance of any sort?"
How utterly unfair. Even his voice was divine.
Send him away, Charlotte. You needn't do this. Your virtue is worth far more than any man can pay.
Sensing the gentleman was still waiting for a reply, Charlotte turned her eyes in his direction, determined to send him off. But the moment her gaze met his striking green eyes across the small expanse between them, she knew her virtue had found a price.
For few men resembled the perfection of a Greek statue. While he? He was by far the most splendid of replications she'd ever come upon. Utter perfection, with full lips and the most incredible eyes she'd ever seen on a man.
"How much will you offer for me, sir?" she blurted out.
The moment the words tumbled from her lips, she wished to the high heavens that she could somehow retract them. For they weren't in the least bit intelligent.
Her cheeks burned. Like the rest of her.
The man's jaw tensed as his black-gloved hand slipped away from the sill and dropped to his side. He stepped back toward the pavement and into full view. His green eyes sharply penetrated her own, challenging her to recant her inquiry.
Her resolve, however, did not need to be challenged. And neither did her growling stomach.
"I was hoping you'd join me, sir," she offered again, only this time more firmly. More definitively. To show him that she was quite serious and capable of being steady minded.
His bronzed brows rose a small fraction as he glanced left then right, clearly in disbelief of his situation. He blew out a slow, pained breath, as if arguing with himself over the matter, then straightened the curved brim of his hat and turned fully in the direction opposite to which her carriage was heading. Then disappeared from view by walking on.
Charlotte lowered her eyes to her gloved hands, which continued to lay limply in her lap, and stared at the reticule dangling from her wrist. The one she had hoped to fill. At least he hadn't laughed her off into next week. Which he could have. And should have.
She pinched her lips together from the humiliation of her predicament and blinked back the tears stinging her eyes. No. She would not give in to her emotions. She would find a means to survive without selling her home. No matter what. Charlotte lifted her hand and rapped on the carriage ceiling.
"Hold!" a man yelled from outside.
The side door suddenly jumped open and the carriage tilted slightly to one side. Charlotte's eyes flew up in astonishment. It was him!
Chapter TwoLesson Two
When a man proclaims to be a gentleman, you'd best gather up your skirts and run. For what he truly seeks in turn is what I call a bit of fun. Now unless both parties are full aware of this and willing, in the end, I guarantee you, it won't be worth a shilling. -The School of Gallantry
Charlotte grabbed on to the upholstered seat of the carriage to steady herself as the man, who had earlier walked on, snatched off his hat and climbed inside. The expanse of his tall, muscled body within the small confines of the carriage was as shocking as realizing that the man was in fact accepting her offer.
He tossed his top hat onto the small seat across from her, and with an equally quick movement, slammed the carriage door shut. After latching the window, he tugged the wool curtains closed on both sides, encasing them in dull darkness.
He sat directly across from her and knocked on the roof of the hackney. As they rolled forward, Charlotte found herself practically gasping for air. She'd never done anything like this before and had certainly never been with any man aside from her husband. Though clearly, the sands of time were about to fill his absence. And how.
The tantalizing crispness of lemon and leather lingered in the air of the carriage. His scent. It tinged each and every shallow breath she drew. She stared back at the blurred outline of his body and face, knowing full well, despite the lack of good light, that he was watching her. Weighing her.
Excerpted from Lord of Pleasure by Delilah Marvelle Copyright © 2009 by Delilah Marvelle. Excerpted by permission.
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