Love Lessons at Midnightby Shirl Henke
No one knows the true identity of the mysterious madam who runs London's most notorious brothel, The House of Dreams. This is the place where a man's wildest dreams can come true, but even in his most secret fantasies, Robert St. John has not imagined the pleasure he will find or the danger he will court while seducing its mistress.
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Love Lessons at Midnight
By Shirl Henke
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Shirl Henke
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAfter spending the past two years trying to drive me out of business, you now wish to hire me?" Amber Leighigh Wolverton studied the man standing in her private quarters through narrowed eyes. When his face flushed red as a spring tulip, she felt a keen tickle of satisfaction.
"Not you personally!" Robert Emery Crispin St. John, sixth Earl of Barrington, quickly replied in a strangled voice. Clearing his throat, Rob imagined what he was certain must be the madam's cat-in-cream expression, even though he could not see her face. He felt tongue-tied as a schoolboy, hardly the fiery orator who held members of the House of Lords spellbound. Reaching inside his waistcoat, he took out his purse.
"Pray, put your money away. I do not accept payment before I have a clear understanding of what a gentleman wants. Not all fantasies are ... ah, acceptable here. If what you propose is suitable, there will be time enough to discuss cost."
"I believe you will find my fantasy to be rather mundane," he said with a trace of irony.
She stared at him, again noting his nervousness. "Allow me to be the judge of that."
All he could see of her face was the glow from her eyes. The only light in the large, opulent room was provided by a small branch of candles positioned directly behind her. A part of him wished he could see her more clearly, but perhaps it was better that he did not, lest he lose his nerve and give over this gin-witted scheme. However, he could discern the outline of her body and it was splendid.
She wore a gown of some dark shade. Blue? The soft fabric clung to her pale shoulders. A matching sapphire necklace glinted at her slender throat. Although he took no interest in women's fallalls, he recognized the quality and elegance of the gown and its wearer. Swallowing for courage, he answered her question. "I want instruction from the most skillful female in your employ."
"The women in my employ await instruction by the gentlemen, not the other way around," Amber replied dryly, her curiosity more piqued than ever.
The earl paced across the thick emerald carpet of the opulently appointed office. "If I merely wished a compliant woman, I could damn well afford a mistress," he burst out in frustration, feeling his face flame anew.
"Ah, but if you kept a mistress, how could you rail in the House of Lords against immorality?" Amber watched the tic in his jaw as he clenched his teeth. Was he implying what she thought he was?
"I do not rail against immorality. I speak out against criminality," he replied stiffly.
"But you believe my establishment to be criminal?"
"Most bordellos are criminal, even exclusive ones. But the scandal sheets would have it that your, er, establishment is unique. Every rake in the ton comes here to live his own peculiar fantasy."
Amber quickly interjected, "Not all the rakes in the ton are accepted here, m'lord. I have refused some most peculiar fantasies because I do not permit violence, involve children, bestiality, opium eating, drunken bacchanals, or any other odious things that you and your friends in Parliament might imagine."
Rob watched her slender body stiffen ever so slightly. Lady Fantasia's demeanor indicated that she was displeased. Well, he was not exactly all cock-a-whoop himself! "I intend no offense. If I believed you allowed abusive behavior, I would not have come to you with my ... request."
"I am immensely relieved by your good opinion."
Ignoring her sarcasm, he swallowed and plowed doggedly ahead. "I have investigated your establishment. According to all reports, your courtesans are educated, of sound health, and well trained in the pleasure arts."
Amber raised her chin as proudly as the wife of a marquess, which she was. "They possess all those qualities and beauty, besides." She waited for his next move like a chess player, which she also was. This is humiliating the stiff-rumped devil. She felt another tickle of satisfaction.
"I am considering marriage within the year." His face flushed with heat. Damn, why did his swarthy complexion betray him as if he were a bran-faced boy? "I wish to please my wife ... as much as befits a gentleman to impose himself upon a lady."
She could sense his intense discomfort growing apace. "And you believe a courtesan would prove the best instructor."
"Only if she were completely honest with me as the ... instructions progressed."
"Ah, then you expect not only skill but honesty. The latter is not a trait members of your reformist cadre usually assign to those in my profession."
"I am willing to pay for honesty. That should suffice." The moment he snapped out the words, he regretted them. "I did not intend an insult," he said.
She rolled the crystal tumbler filled with excellent French brandy between her palms. He had declined to imbibe with her. A moralizing prig ... or a man desperate to keep a clear head? She wondered. Taking a sip, she said, "Give me leave to doubt what you intended, but"-she waved her hand dismissively-"it signifies nothing. You will pay handsomely for this ... honesty."
"I have been given to understand that you are a woman of your word," he said, trying not to sound grudging.
"A compliment? I shall return it, m'lord. You are to be commended for your intentions. Most men do not give a fig for their wives' satisfaction in the marital bed."
"I am not most men." He bit off each word.
Amber studied his face in the dim light. "No, you most certainly are not," she agreed. The earl was the most impossibly handsome man she had ever seen. The broadsheet sketches had not begun to do his physical beauty justice. Worn longer than current fashion, his thick black hair framed his face in unruly waves. Piercing green eyes bored into her while the heavy dark eyebrows above creased in a frown. His nose was long, elegant, and straight, his jaw bold and masculine, but his mouth, ah, that mouth could be wickedly sensual ... if he ever smiled. Did he? She wondered.
His eyes glowed with fiery intensity. Even tense and angry, he was arresting. He should have had women falling at his feet in a swoon. What would make such a man believe he required sexual tutelage? Somehow she knew it would be unwise to ask. "Very well. What you propose is acceptable."
"There is one thing more ..." His voice faded.
"And that would be?" Amber found herself hoping that he was not going to spoil everything with a less than wholesome addendum.
He paced across the room, raking one hand through his already tousled hair. With his back to her he replied, "The bedchamber must be darkened."
"If you have indeed investigated my establishment, you know no woman in my employ would ever stoop to blackmail," she said sharply. "Not even of so tempting a target as a confidant of Mr. Wilberforce and his 'Saints.'"
"I realize some of my associates in Parliament would be shocked to learn I am here, even more dismayed by what I have proposed. But I did not intend to accuse you of blackmail."
"What then?" Amber knew she was toying with him but for some reason could not resist. He appeared to steel his nerve to face her, grasping the back of a Chippendale chair in a whitened grip. His long, strong fingers were lightly dusted with black hair. Suddenly she felt guilty ... and something else. She dismissed the disturbing train of thought when he spoke.
"I would be more comfortable in the dark-and I am certain my future lady will prefer to maintain her modesty."
Amber noted the way he had quickly added that last thought. She nodded gravely, wondering if he had some concealed disfigurement, a scar perhaps? No, he is as green and uncertain as he appears. Although she did not know the reason why this should be so, she determined that she would find out. But she had tormented the man quite enough. "You are a most ... considerate man, m'lord."
"When do we begin?" he asked, eager to be quit of what was becoming an increasingly uncomfortable conversation.
She leaned back in the Robert Adams chair and tapped her chin thoughtfully. "I shall require a bit of time to select the woman best suited for your needs. Say, three days. Will that fit your schedule?"
He fought down a sudden urge to bolt for the door, devil take his cork-brained idea. You've come this far. Only hold fast for another moment. "Quite," he replied with a stiff nod.
"Now you may take out your purse, m'lord." Lady Fantasia allowed herself a bemused smile. "For the initial payment ..."
Rob slipped from the back entrance of the House of Dreams wearing his great coat with the collar turned up, not only against the night wind, but also to conceal his identity. If his presence here ever became known, he would be quite properly dished up. Not only would he lose the good opinion of the reformers whose help he needed in Parliament, but he would lose the widow he intended to court.
What would she think if she knew I was going to receive love lessons from a Cyprian? Somehow he doubted that she would consider his motive before turning away in disgust. The interview had not gone smoothly, but then he had not expected that it would be anything but devilish awkward. Yet, the place and Lady Fantasia were not what he had expected.
The location on Alpha Road was a newer but exclusive residential neighborhood that afforded privacy, as did the triple lot with its high stone walls and elaborate gardens. The area was called St. John's Wood, an irony that did not escape him. As he made his way around the twisting walk, Rob could not begin to imagine what went on in the topiary maze during warm weather. Best not to dwell on satyrs chasing naked females through the shrubbery!
The house was built in the neoclassical style, an elegant three-story edifice of simple white brick. Inside, the décor was understated yet opulent, nothing such as the lurid visions of crimson-flocked wall coverings and animal-skin rugs he had imagined. Rather, the clean lines of Robert Adams furniture and muted colors of oriental carpets gave the place a feeling of uncluttered welcome and excellent taste. How strange a contrast in a house where men acted out sexual fantasies.
Indeed, the place was more subdued and tasteful than many of the mansions in Mayfair with their clashing mélanges of Egyptian, Turkish, and Chinese furnishings. Just thinking of the Prince Regent's monstrosity at Brighton made him wince. Excess had become the byword of the era.
The "lady" herself, mysterious, aloof, sharp witted, was unexpectedly elegant, not at all the garish bawd he had imagined. Considering her speech and manners, she was well educated. He had heard the speculation regarding her identity. She went to considerable lengths to conceal it in the dimly lit chamber. Recalling how her slender body filled out that dark gown so gloriously, he knew she would be the center of male attention at any fashionable gathering.
What had made a beautiful woman from good family turn to such a sordid business? Freedom from wifely duties? The thrill of flaunting decency? Perhaps her family had fallen in dun territory and she needed the money. She was a mercenary female, no doubt of it. He had paid an exorbitant sum and would owe more when the tutelage was complete.
He would have preferred never again to face the woman to whom he had confessed such an intimate ... inadequacy. But he knew he would have to do so if he intended to go through with his plan. Whom would she select for his lessons? What did it matter? He had stipulated that they be in darkness, intuiting that a lady such as Verity would prefer it that way. Certainly Credelia had insisted on it ... for all the good that did. He suppressed the painful memory, but then images of Spanish women in flickering firelight took its place. Those encounters had been rare and utterly unsatisfying, too.
Yet here I am once more, paying a woman to lie with me.
He pushed the thought aside. His long-held monkish existence would come to an end within the week. For good or ill, he had committed to go through with his plan. He reached the gate, and the keeper opened it for him, showing no interest in studying the guest's face. The well-oiled hinges swung without a sound.
Rob was grateful for the thick fog smothering the city. It obscured the narrow tree-lined lane at the rear of the expansive grounds where an unmarked black coach waited for him. Frog, his footman, jumped agilely from the box and opened the door for him the moment he materialized from the mists. The lane led to Alpha Road, which was deserted on the inclement night. In moments, the clattering of hooves sounded on the cobbles, leaving the sixth Earl of Barrington alone inside the carriage with only bitter memories for company.
"You would not have believed it, Grace," Amber said as she crossed the oriental carpet in Grace Winston's private quarters and approached the liquor cabinet. She quickly poured her friend and mentor a glass of her favorite port. Unlike Amber's simple neoclassical taste, Grace preferred ornate French court furnishings in gold, white and pale blue.
"Pray, do tell me something I would not believe," Grace said with a dry chuckle, accepting the proffered port. She settled back in her Louis XV brocade chair and waited until Amber took a seat in the matching piece across from her. The founder of their establishment was a handsome woman in spite of the years that had turned her once chestnut hair silver-gray. A slight plumpness held facial wrinkles at bay and a skillful touch with paints allowed her to look a well-preserved forty-five when in fact she was already far past the distressing age of fifty. "What does the earl want?"
"Robert St. John requires instruction in how to please a woman in bed. Can you credit that?"
Grace's round blue eyes widened. "Never say it! That troublesome young devil is handsome as Lucifer. I've always wondered why there were no rumors about women in his life. Of course, being associated with those Clapham zealots and Mr. Wilberforce ... Lord save us from religious reformers! Ah, such a waste," she murmured, shaking her head.
"Well, he now wishes to worship at a different shrine," Amber said.
"I vow if I were young enough, I would be happy to be his priestess." Grace gave a rich chuckle. "Why ever has he waited this long? He must be at least five and twenty."
"He is duty-bound to marry and produce an heir."
"That scarcely requires lessons," Grace said with a snort. "It has been my experience that lack of skill has never had a deleterious effect on randy young men."
"He is concerned that he satisfy his wife ... in the dark, so as not to upset her delicate sensibilities, although I suspect 'tis his own that are really at issue."
Grace studied the young woman who had taken the place of the daughter she'd lost in her youth. Amber was lovely as a spring rose with dark cherry-red hair and golden eyes to match her name, but those eyes were all too often haunted by her past. A thought flitted across the old madam's mind. Leaning forward, she asked, "You truly believe St. John is afraid of bed sport?" As are you.
"Why else would an avid reformer associated with rigid moralists chance coming here, even under cover of darkness?" Amber asked rhetorically.
Inclining her head, Grace agreed. "Indeed. If word of such ever reached those 'Saints,' the uproar would make Prime Minister Percival's assassination seem a flea bite. It would appear Barrington is a most considerate man, to risk all for love. In the dark, hmmm ..." She tapped her chin with her index finger and stared at her young protégé.
"You look to be evaluating me as if I were a side of mutton and you a butcher," Amber said suspiciously.
Grace tossed down the remainder of her port and chuckled. "A lamb to the slaughter? No, not at all the thing."
"What, then?" Amber asked.
Grace leaned forward in her chair, her playful expression turning suddenly earnest. "Only think, if you are correct and he is so green and so considerate of a lady's sensibilities ... might he not be the perfect one for you to instruct?"
Amber reacted as if Grace had slapped her. "I have never taken a man to my bed since I fled the marquess! You have never asked such a thing since you rescued me."
"Tut, I would never have you do anything against your will," Grace said reassuringly. "But who was it returned from her education on the Continent with the idea of making an ordinary bordello into the House of Dreams? A place where gentlemen could fulfill their secret fantasies ... Lady Fantasia?"
Excerpted from Love Lessons at Midnight by Shirl Henke Copyright © 2010 by Shirl Henke. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
SHIRL HENKE lives in St. Louis, where she enjoys gardening in her yard and greenhouse, cooking holiday dinners for her family and listening to jazz. In addition to helping brainstorm and research her books, her husband Jim is “lion tamer” for their two wild young tomcats, Pewter and Sooty, geniuses at pillage and destruction.
Shirl has been a RITA finalist twice, and has won three Career Achievement Awards, an Industry Award and three Reviewer’s Choice Awards from Romantic Times. In 2013, Shirl was designated by Romantic Times as one of the influential "pioneers" of the modern romance novel.
“I wrote my first twenty-two novels in longhand with a ballpoint pen—it’s hard to get good quills these days,” she says. Dragged into the twenty-first century by her son Matt, a telecommunication specialist, Shirl now uses two of those “devil machines.” Another troglodyte bites the dust. Please visit her at www.shirlhenke.com.
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From the moment Robert St. John, Earl of Barrington, faced Lady Fantasia in the House of Dreams, London's most notorious bordello, he found himself drawn to the mysterious madam. Heavily veiled and clad in deepest mourning, Lady Fantasia evoked a sense of mystery Rob felt compelled to penetrate. Deeply embarrassed and wondering at his sanity, Rob made his request. He wanted to hire a courtesan to teach him how to please his future wife in their marriage bed. Amber Leighigh Wolverton had spent the last decade hiding from her abusive and sadistic husband, Lytton Wolverton, Marquess of Eastham. As Lady Fantasia, she ran an exclusive bordello where a man's fantasies could come true. For a price. When the Earl of Barrington appeared at the House of Dreams, Amber found herself intrigued by a man she considered an enemy. After all, Robert St. John was known for his arguments for social reform in the House of Lords. If it became known he had frequented a bordello, his career would be destroyed. Amber admired him for risking his career for the chance to please a future wife. Not many men she knew would do that. At the urging of her mentor, Amber became Gabrielle, a French émigré who had been abused. She became Rob's tutor and through their Love Lessons at Midnight two wounded souls discovered love and healing. For readers like me who have grown weary of the stock 'handsome rakehell redeemed by plain bluestocking' Regency stories, Love Lessons at Midnight is fresh and unique. Rob and Amber are well rounded characters with flaws and strengths, who deserve the love they find together. I highly recommend Love Lessons at Midnight.
I received an eARC, from NetGalley and the publisher, in exchange for an honest review. 'Love Lessons At Midnight' by Shirl Henke is book one in the "House of Dreams Trilogy ". This is the story of Robert St. John and Lady Fantasia, mistress of The House of Dreams.. aka Gabrielle and the former Amber Leighigh. This book was originally published in 2010...which at that time I had missed it! So I am so glad to have found this book this time around. It doesn't have the really hot scene you would think but it does have good ones. Lady Fantasia came from abusive marriage and is now the mistress "House of Dreams". Lady Fantasia was originally Amber who was married to a Marquess. Lady Fantasia does not sleep with her clients as a rule but when Robert comes for help she makes an exception. They both have issue from their path that they are dealing with... can they find a common ground in each other? Please follow more reviews at the below sites: https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/1... http://sissymaereads.blogspot.com/ https://www.facebook.com/sally.mae.39... http://booklikes.com/ https://romancebookreviewforyou.wordp... https://www.facebook.com/groups/17091... https://twitter.com/soapsrus68
This is a wonderful book. The characters are original and the story captivating. Incredibly sexy and powerfully sensual. I highly, highly recommend!
In London, nothing that men want shocks Lady Fantasia, owner of the infamous House of Dreams bordello. Her establishment makes the dreams of her wealthy clientele come true for a hefty payment; anything goes with one exception being no one can have her. For two years Robert St. John, as the reformist Earl of Barrington, ripped bordellos like the House of Dreams in Parliament. However he visits the establishment to ask Lady Fantasia to have her most gifted courtesan mentoring him in satisfying the needs of a lady, namely his future spouse. Having been an abused spouse when Lady Fantasia was Amber Wolverton, wife to a sadistic mad Marquess, she is intrigued by her new customer's request as this is a refreshing change than the usual me-me. Breaking her golden rule, she becomes Gabrielle, Rob's French instructress. As he proves to be a star pupil in her class of induction of Love Lessons At Midnight, they fall in love, which in turn heals their battered hearts. However, love may not be enough for the patron and the owner yet at the House of Dreams fantasies do come true. The key to this wonderful Regency romance is the lead couple who both have issues of the heart and soul for bad marriages when he insanely visits her at her brothel. The great adventure of this discerning tale is observing the pair heal through their bonding with love for one another. Readers who relish a character driven relationship drama will enjoy Shirl Henke's fabulous tale of the healing redemption of love even for seemingly lost souls. Harriet Klausner
Shirl Henke delivers yet another gorgeous love story!  Love Lessons at Midnight is an exquisitely crafted tale of mystery, history, and passion that will leave you wanting more.  The characters--whether the honorable but psychologically torn Rob, Earl of Barrington, or the seductively enigmatic Lady Fantasia, madam of London's "House of Dreams" bordello, or Gabrielle, a compassionate French courtesan, or Amber Leighigh, the deeply wounded marchioness--absolutely enchant.  With clever, captivating dialogue, these characters share the pages with plot lines so surprisingly connected and masterfully interwoven that their culmination will leave you breathless. With deeply sensual description, meticulously researched detail, and sparkling style, Shirl Henke offers up a fantastic and incredibly sexy summer read (although this reader would enjoy it just as much in winter, spring, and fall.) How refreshing to find such a new--truly new--take on the Regency era romance. Absolutely splendid.