Read an Excerpt
James Stevens entered his office and closed the door with a soft click. He didn’t bother to lock it. His staff was well trained, and none would dare enter while he conducted the coming interview. Not because they feared his wrath if they interrupted, but because not a single one of them could bear to witness what they uneasily called the pleading session that he was about to endure. The meetings were always distasteful, but he’d learned early on that the encounters were just one of the more unpleasant facets to owning a gambling establishment.
The woman waiting for him in the small room hadn’t bothered to sit or help herself to the tea tray his servant had left for her. As with nearly all the others who had come before her, she was too distracted to enjoy the comfort offered by food or drink. She had remained by the window, staring out at the busy, cobbled street, her eyes looking at, but not really seeing, the multitudes of people and carriages passing by. The stiff set of her shoulders gave evidence of her resolve.
The dreary March rain drummed softly against the window, the gray sky shadowing her figure in interesting ways. Upon arriving, she’d relinquished her cloak, so he was able to study her openly, his eyes taking in every curve and valley accented by the cut of her expensive dark blue gown. It was a simple dress—one that she had probably spent hours selecting before deciding it was befitting of the occasion—but the excellent tailoring told him she led a life of incomprehensible affluence and privilege.
She was short, the top of her head just reaching his shoulders, and she was more thin than he typically liked his women to be. But, very likely, stress over her current life circumstance had caused a recent loss of weight. Her waist was tiny; he probably could have fit his hands around it, so tightly laced was her corset. The rest of her shapely torso was hidden by the curve of her skirt, but he’d always had a vivid imagination. With ease, he could visualize the flare of her hips, her long, long legs, her dainty feet.
Narrowing his eyes, he studied the back of her head, wondering as to the color of her hair. Most of it was hidden by her hat, but one perfect ringlet dangled free. It was blond, which made him think her eyes would be blue. A hint of bare skin about her neck showed it to be pale and creamy, the kind possessed by only the richest ladies who could afford the expensive creams and powders necessary to keep it smooth and young-looking. A delicate rosescented perfume, French from the smell of it, wafted across the room and tickled his male senses.
From the feather in her hat, to the fabric of her gown, to the soft leather slippers on her feet, she was the absolute picture of English wealth and nobility.
Her gloved fingers distractedly worked her reticule, hideous scenes, no doubt, playing through her mind. Scenes of ruin, of poverty, of disgrace. Of no roof over her head, and no food for her children. Of the loss of her entire way of life.
She had to be terribly frightened, but as with all the other English ladies whom he’d met over the years, she was simply too well bred to display any sign of the strong emotion that had to be lingering just below the surface. Besides, if he’d learned anything from these heart-wrenching dialogues, it was that the women with whom he spoke had barely an inkling of what was truly coming. Her lack of agitation was presumably caused by her inability to rationally grasp the seriousness of her situation.
Invariably, she could foresee all sorts of horrors lurking just around the next bend, but the fates over which she postulated were still just possibilities. Her fear wasn’t evident, because she still refused to believe that the worst could truly happen. In her world, bad things never did.
He could hardly blame her; he could hardly blame any of them. They were all positively certain that, whatever ghastly sin their wayward husbands had committed, it could be absolved by rational discussion, and if not by talking, then by other means. Nauseating as it sounded, he almost enjoyed seeing to what lengths his visitors would go to safeguard their domains.
All manner of bribes had been flashed before his eyes: cash, jewelry, the family silver, priceless works of art. Whatever the women possessed, they were prepared to offer in exchange for keeping their existences secure. Those who were most frantic always ended up offering themselves. When the meetings fell to that level, he wished he’d taken his father’s advice and bought himself a commission in the army.
How desperate was the woman standing across the room? Who was her husband and what had he gambled away? Their estate? All their funds? Their children’s inheritances? What would it be worth to her to stave off the future that was winging toward her like a runaway carriage? What humiliating act would she be willing to perform in her misguided attempts to save herself and her family?
How he hated this!
When the encounters ended, he was always so upset that his brother, Michael, insisted he should stop seeing the women who came begging for help. But James couldn’t turn them away without letting them say their piece. Although he’d never been an admirer of the type of gently reared females who called, he couldn’t help appreciating the bit of pluck they exhibited by daring all in a futile attempt to fix their predicaments.
It took such courage for them to come, in their anonymous rented hansom cabs. They knocked softly at the servants’ entrance, dressed in their discreet clothing, their veiled hats, as they made their polite requests for an audience. Just showing up unescorted in his neighborhood, where a lady of Quality had no business being, was evidence of their determination. He felt an obligation to talk with them, and he’d managed to convince himself that he was doing them a service.
Few of them had an accurate understanding of the realities of their situations. Typically, they had no control over their lives. They’d been so sheltered by fathers, brothers, and spouses that they had no idea about the value of money, where it came from, where it went. They truly believed that they could repair the damage done by their male relatives.
If nothing else of substance occurred during the heart-wrenching discussions, he was usually able to open their eyes to the true state of their dilemmas. While not an intentionally cruel person, he nevertheless exhibited a ruthless bearing in dealing with his guests. He was not kind, he was not patient, but he couldn’t afford to be. There was nothing he could do for any of them, and they needed to realize that fact. Because of his behavior at times such as these, he’d earned a reputation as a brutal, hard man.
He wasn’t, but he couldn’t show any weakness, lest the despairing women go away mistakenly believing that rescue was feasible. They all had to begin preparing for the approaching calamity. If he scared them into confronting their dire plights, then he’d succeeded in his efforts.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said. He didn’t intend to ask her name. At this stage, they rarely gave it truthfully. Obviously, she wasn’t aware that he’d entered, and she swung around at hearing his greeting. “I am James Stevens. I was told you would like to speak with me.”
“Hello, Mr. Stevens. Thank you for agreeing.”
Her voice sounded low and husky, intimate, as though she’d just whispered something deliciously erotic. Its timbre conjured intense images of a hot room, sweat-soaked torsos, stained sheets, the smell of sex heavy in the air.
His attention was immediately captured by her breasts; he couldn’t help noticing. Even though her dress was modestly designed, the neckline was cut low in the current fashion, her corset raising and pushing, until he was presented with an arresting view of tempting flesh. The flawless mounds were full and rounded, and strained against her bodice as though wanting to spill themselves out for his perusal. He could imagine them filling his hands, her skin warm against his own, her rose-colored nipples hard and elongated and pressing against his palms.
The unlikely prospect caused him to chuckle inwardly.
What would this troubled creature think if she could read his mind at the moment? She was here on a wretched mission, hoping to protect her family; while he could merely envision her naked, stretched out beneath him, and servicing his carnal needs.
But such was life. He’d sat through too many of these appointments, knew how it would end—badly—and he would much rather concentrate on more interesting topics. Such as the fabulous swell of her bosom. The cleavage she exhibited was dreadfully enticing.
Her face was shielded from view by the netting woven into her hat. All that remained visible was her mouth, the lips lush, moist, and crimson as a ripe cherry. It was the kind of mouth that made a man lose his concentration. Just by staring at it, he began to conjure the varied uses to which it could be put. Quite distinctly, he could conceive of her kneeling down, taking him far inside, giving him frightful pleasure.
Nervously, she ran her tongue across her bottom lip, the pink tip just visible as she wet it delicately. As he watched, he felt a keen stab of desire that took him far beyond fantasizing and into the realm of potentialities. To his great consternation, he could picture himself partaking of what she would eventually suggest once she realized that words would do her no good. The discovery was an extraordinary one.
In the decade that he’d owned the gaming house, he’d never taken advantage of any of the overtures the distressed women made. Not to say he hadn’t been tempted, because he had been. Many of them were incredible beauties, and denying their proposals—to become his mistress, to provide regular sexual favors in exchange for promissory notes, to engage in a brief coupling in the manner of his choosing—was often difficult. He was only human, after all. Plus, taking into account his life experiences, one could hardly blame him for wanting to bring some of them down a peg or two.
Still . . . to consider breaking his self-imposed rule was immensely out of character, which intrigued him. What was it about this woman? Evidently, she gave off invisible signals to which his body was reacting. He was attuned to her as only a man could be. Attuned to her smell, to the smallest shift of her muscles, to the heat of her skin. Like an untamed animal, he was cognizant of everything about her, as though he knew in some primal way that he had selected the choicest female in his herd.
For some reason, he was tremendously curious as to the color of her eyes. He thought they would be blue, but he needed to know for certain, which irritated him in the extreme. His mental wanderings had led him too far afield, so he forced himself to the tedious task at hand.
“Lift your veil,” he ordered. He never allowed any of his female guests to hide their identities. By the time they arrived in his office, they had few secrets worth keeping.
“Lift your veil,” he repeated, stepping behind his desk and reaching for his favorite bottle of brandy. He poured a glass half full, drank it down, then turned back to her. “I assume you wish to have a discussion about a serious topic, and I refuse to engage in such unless I can see your eyes.”
“I fail to understand how viewing my . . . my eyes is necessary.”
“It will help me to judge if you are being candid.” She prevaricated for the longest time, until he decided she was going to refuse, so he cautioned, “If you don’t do as I ask, I will have my servant show you to the door. What a waste it would be to have come so far . . .” He let the thought trail off, let the implication linger.
Another silence ensued, and he could almost see the internal battle raging within: She had been brave enough to face him, but she had hoped to retain the bit of anonymity afforded by her hat. Just as he resolved to put an end to the charade by having her escorted out, she spoke again.
“I have something quite delicate to discuss with you,” she said, “but if you should deny my request, I would rather that you not be able to recognize me at a later date.”
“I realize that.”
“Then perhaps I could—”
“No.” Taking pity, he added, “I have discussed any number of delicate topics in this room. Whatever you have to say will neither surprise me nor shock me. Nor will it ever be repeated to another living soul. You have my word.”
She assessed him, trying to decide the verity of his last statement. Would he keep her secrets? What value did his assurance hold? After all, his lineage was deplorable: a nobleman’s by-blow, his mother a famous actress. He’d made his living the best he could, becoming quite well off in the process, but along the way, he’d rolled in the gutter with the worst sort of vermin, and none of them were of the lower classes.
On a daily basis, he gambled, drank, and consorted with women of dubious character—the only type he enjoyed—and his mode of employment required that he regularly intermingle with the most despicable sorts of human beings. He had seen and done things that would have slain lesser mortals, yet he persevered. How must one such as himself appear to the woman who was regarding him so meticulously? Could he be trusted?
A second lengthy inner struggle ensued, and she ultimately arrived at a decision.
“Very well,” she said, resigned. Grasping the pin that secured it to the back of her head, she removed the offending hat and tossed it on a nearby sofa.
Her eyes were not blue. They were green, a deep emerald, as deep and vibrant as mowed grass on a summer day, and they were ringed by long, light-colored lashes, winged brows. Her skin was smooth as silk, her cheeks still rosy from the cold, her nose pert with an upturn at the end, a smattering of freckles across it. The hair he had originally theorized to be blond was much more than that: blond with streaks of auburn and gold as highlights. It was pulled up on her head, but he could imagine how it would look hanging free and spilling across her shoulders and down her back.
The man in her life who had sent her to do his begging had chosen well. She was an irresistible enchantress. Whatever her request, it would be difficult to refuse, but refuse he would.
“How may I help you?” he asked.
“I have a proposition for you.”
“Really?” She intended no small talk! Most of them wanted to chat endlessly about their boring schedules or children, completely skirting the issue that had brought them sneaking into his establishment. He couldn’t prevent himself from inquiring, “What kind of proposition?”
“It may sound quite odd,” she said, not answering his question and only serving to pique his curiosity further. “In fact, considering that you don’t know me, you might find it rather astonishing.”
“I doubt that. As I said, I’ve had any number of amazing topics reviewed in this office.”
“Yes, well . . . I don’t expect you’ve ever heard anything like this.”
“What is it?”
“Before we begin”—she glanced out the window, suddenly embarrassed to meet his gaze—“I must admit that I’ve listened to gossip. Others insist that you are remarkably circumspect.”
“Previously, you vowed that you would never disclose what we discuss, but I must ask anew for your guarantee that what I’m about to say will be held in the strictest confidence.”
“What you have gleaned from others is true. I will never divulge your secrets to anyone. As we are not acquainted, I don’t know how to convince you other than to repeat myself: I am discreet.”
She found the nerve required to look at him once again, and she stared, taking his measure. “Yes,” she eventually mused, “I can see how you might be.”
“Why don’t we make this easier by your telling me who your husband is. I shall then have a frame of reference about of what and of whom we are conversing.”
“My husband?” she queried, her brow wrinkling attractively. “I’m not married.”
“Oh, I see.” Perhaps a brother or her father had asked her to come. “Then who is it who has sent you to plead so prettily on his behalf?”
“I’m alone. No one knows I’m here.”
“So . . . this is your own mission of mercy. Well, what is it you would have me do? Refund the money? Tear up the promissory notes?” When it appeared as though she might comment, he held up a hand, stopping her. “Before you respond, let me point out that I can very probably do none of those things. I hold few men’s markers, and they are all for small amounts. Whatever your family has lost is most likely not mine to return.”
“I think perhaps you have . . .”
“Aren’t you listening?” He rudely cut her off, angry because she was disposed to sacrifice all, prepared to completely demean herself for an undeserving man. “I doubt I can be of service, but if I can, what will be my reward should I grant you a favor?”
“I’m not here to ask for a favor,” she declared, clearly offended. “I fully intend to pay you for your services. I realize you are a busy man, and I would never dream of occupying your time without remuneration. I had thought fifty pounds might be about right.” Apparently ready to retrieve the cash and hand it over, she glanced down at her bag.
“Fifty pounds?” He wasn’t certain he’d understood correctly.
“Well, I’ll go as high as seventy-five, but no higher.”
Just when he’d deemed that nothing could surprise him, he was halted in his tracks. She wanted to pay him? “I guess I am confused. About what are we speaking?”
“I need to hire you with regard to a very personal undertaking.”
“Hire me?” Coming around the desk, he rested against the edge directly in front of her. She was only a few feet away, and if he’d desired, he might have easily reached out and touched her waist or gripped her hand. At his unanticipated nearness, he could sense a prickle of sensation moving across her skin, see the manner in which her eyes widened, how she struggled to steady her breathing. Clearly, the lady felt the same strange attraction he was experiencing, and she had no immunity from these bizarre physical responses, either.
“What would you engage me to do?” he inquired.
“I need you . . .” she began, then paused, swallowed, started over. “Rather . . . I need your knowledge and skills.”
“I’m good at so many things,” he said facetiously. “In what arena do you require my marvelous attendance? My pugilistic abilities? Marksmanship? Swordplay? Gambling? Drinking? What?”
“Don’t tease me. Please.” She requested it quietly, fervently. “Simply being here is difficult enough.”
“You’re right, of course.” He nodded his head in agreement. “My apologies.”
“No. ’Tis I who apologize. I’m handling this poorly.” Sighing in frustration, she added, “Perhaps, I should explain.”
“Perhaps you should.”
“I have it on good authority that you have quite a way with the ladies.”
A muscle twitched in his cheek, but he did not immediately respond.
His reputation with the women of her social circle was shocking, contemptible, and mostly accurate. After his wife’s death, he had blazed a carnal swath through the Quality, making certain that he enjoyed the sexual company of those females who had shunned her in her short life. He’d intentionally broken hearts, strained marriages, and corrupted any number of women, but he had no regrets.