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The eighteenth Earl of Saltwood, one Gideon Redgrave by name, struck a pose just inside the entrance of the narrow house in Jermyn Street, looking for all the world a sketch from the Journal des Dames et des Modes come to life. Not by so much as a flicker of an eyelid did he give away the fact that he'd no idea he'd knocked on the door of number forty-seven only to be ushered into a gaming house. His man of business would answer for that omission when next he saw him; the earl didn't care for surprises.
He allowed a curtsying maid of indeterminate years to relieve him of his hat, gloves and cane, and then shrugged off his evening cloak, watching as the woman folded it lovingly over her arm. A gold coin appeared from his pocket, and he held it in front of her wide-open blue eyes. A copper coin would do for most, but Gideon Redgrave believed the gold coin to be an investment, one that would pay dividends when his belongings came back to him in the same pristine condition in which they'd been handed over, rather than having suffered the unfortunate accident of walking out the door in his absence.
"Yours if my possessions are safely returned when I leave," he told her, and the maid bobbed her head enthusiastically before scurrying away.
He resumed his pose, meant to have all eyes come to him and their owners too busy being either envious or impressed to think up mischief while he surreptitiously acclimated himself to his surroundings. And the eighteenth Earl of Saltwood's appearance was, without fail, nothing short of enviably impressive.
The superb tailoring of his darkest blue cut-away tailcoat accentuated the snowy perfection of his silk brocade waistcoat, but not so much as it displayed the earl's astonishingly fit physique, broad shoulders, flat stomach and narrow waist. Pantaloons of formfitting buff doeskin clung lovingly to long, muscular lower limbs, ending just at the calf, above silk stockings and low-heeled black patent evening shoes.
His only ornamentation, other than the thin black grosgrain ribbon hanging about his neck and attached to the quizzing glass tucked into a small pocket of his waistcoat, was the small golden rose depicted in full bloom and no more than a single inch in circumference, nestled in the folds of his intricately tied cravat. This latter bit of fancy was a recent affectation, one that had caused comment in some circles, but to date, no one had dared speak of it to his lordship.
Thick, longish hair the color of midnight tumbled over his smooth forehead in natural curls that sent other gentlemen to their valets and the crimping iron to duplicate. Hints of his Spanish mother could be seen in the strong, aquiline nose that saved him from too much beauty, the unexpected fullness of his mouth, the sensual smolder in his dark eyes. There was an earthiness about the man not completely disguised by the trappings of fine clothes, a sense of dangerous energy tightly leashed yet always simmering just below the sophisticated surface.
In a word, the eighteenth Earl of Saltwood was intimidating. In two, if applying to the female population, he was marvelously irresistible.
When he was noticed, and he was always noticed, several of the men who recognized him for what he was, if not who he was, prudently realized they had pressing business elsewhere and quit the room in some haste. Conversations broke off abruptly. Hands stilled in the act of shuffling cards or pulling in chips. The more daring among the players turned their chairs about for a better view of what was sure to be an interesting few minutes, at the least.
One of the hostesses, the term surely taken quite as loosely as the morals of any female in the hall, ran her moist tongue around her lips rather hungrily. She gave her smiling approval of the impossible-to-disguise manly muscle between the gentleman's thighs and took two steps forward, tugging down on the already low neckline of her cherry-red gown before she was grabbed at the elbow and hastily pulled back.
"For Lord's sake, Mildred, control yourself. He's not here for that."
Gideon Redgrave extracted his chased-gold quizzing glass, raising it to one eye, and slowly surveyed the surprisingly well-lit and clean yet faintly down-at-the-heels room before allowing his gaze to halt and hold on the woman who had just spoken.
She advanced on him with some purpose, the light of confrontation in her sherry-brown eyes, her fairly remarkable chin tilted up as if she had somehow raised the battle flag and was announcing her intention to unleash a broadside. But then she stopped, smiled and dropped into a mocking curtsy.
"Lord Saltwood," she intoned quietly, her voice slightly husky, as if she might be whispering risque endearments in the privacy of a candlelit boudoir, "I've been expecting you. Do you prefer a public airing of our differences, or would you care to retire to my apartments for our chat?"
She was magnificent. Gideon could think of no other description. Taller than most women, slim almost to the point of thinness, yet subtly curved. Hair the color of flame against the severity of her high-necked black gown, skin the color of finest ivory. The eyes, mocking, the mouth, full and wide and knowing. No sane man could look at her without imagining his fingers tangling in that mass of warm curls tumbling around her shoulders, sinking himself deep between her thighs, plunging into the promised fire as she wrapped long legs up high around him.
Which, of course, would be total madness.
Gideon's eyes widened fractionally, just enough to dislodge the glass, and he deftly caught it by its ribbon and replaced it in his pocket. "You've the advantage of me, madam. You are?"
"Exactly who you think I am, my lord," she returned, her wide smile frosting only slightly about the edges. "And now that you and your glowering face have served to quite ruin what had promised to be a profitable evening, you will please follow me."
She turned sharply, the scent of sweet lavender tickling his nostrils as her fiery mane, seeming much too heavy for her slim neck, swung about as if in a belated attempt to catch up with her. Her modest gown, a stiff, unyielding taffeta so in contrast to the riot of tumbling curls, rustled as she walked.
"Here now, where do you think you're?"
She raised her hand to the faintly rotund, gray-haired man who had stepped out from behind the faro table, his eyes on the earl as if measuring his chances of knocking him down. Though he clearly found them miniscule, he straightened his shoulders, no doubt prepared to give his best if asked. "Simply carry on, Richard, if you please. I'm fine."
"Yes, you do that, Richard," Gideon drawled as he and the woman easily made their way through the throng of patrons who had all stepped back to afford them a pathway. He was painfully aware he somehow had been put in the ignoble position of potential de-spoiler of virgins, which was above everything ludicrous. "Your employer's virtue is safe with me."
A young man, looking fresh from the country and obviously a fellow with more hair than wit, dared to chuckle at this remark. "There's virtue here? Stap me, I wouldn't have come if it was virtue I was looking for."
"Stubble it, Figgins," the man next to him warned, saving Gideon the trouble of having to turn back and waste a dark stare on the impudent puppy. "Don't you know who that is? The fella's a Redgrave, for God's sakes. He spits bigger'n you."
Gideon suppressed a smile. He hadn't heard that one before. But how convenient that his reputation preceded him; it made life so much easier.
He stepped forward as he realized the woman had stopped in front of a baize door, clearly waiting on him to open it for her. Liked to play at the lady, it would seem, straight down to the prim black gown and the erect nature of her posture. Pity for her that her hair and eyes and mouthand that voicehadn't been informed of this preferred pretense.
"Oh, please, allow me," he drawled sarcastically, bowing her ahead of him as he depressed the latch, before following her up a long, steep flight of stairs surprisingly located just on the other side of the door. The stairs were between two walls and just well lit enough for him to be able to enjoy the sway of her bottom as she climbed ahead of him, holding up her stiff skirts, affording him a tantalizing glimpse of slim ankles, as well. Ah, and a hint of calf. Lovely.
The woman was contradiction after contradiction. Buttoned nearly to her chin, yet her slippers were silver-heeled black satin. He could imagine himself kissing them from her feet and then rolling down her hose, just so far, because he enjoyed the feel of silkencased legs on his back .
He was forced to hold the banister as she stopped, extracting a key from a pocket in her gown and slipping it into the lock. He'd wondered about that, the easy access to the staircase, and how many times in the course of an evening this route might be traveled by patrons and the women.
As if to assure him, she stepped inside the apartments, motioning for him to close the door behind him as she said, "No one is allowed here. We won't be disturbed. Would you care for wine, or would you rather simply be on with it?"
"That's direct, in any case. Be on with what, madam? I had thought I was calling at a private residence, the object conversation. Seeing the nature of this house, the possibilities have become almost limitless. Not that I'm not tempted."
She lit a taper and gracefully moved about the room, lighting candles. "You flatter yourself, my lord, and insult me. I'm not in such dire need of funds. We turn cards here, nothing else."
Gideon sat himself down on a nearby chair, deciding she could remain standing if she so wished, but he was going to make himself comfortable. Redgraves always made themselves comfortable; and the more comfortable they looked, the more on guard any sane person in their midst became. "You might explain that to Mildred, was it?" he suggested amicably.
He did his best not to blink as she toed off the silver-heeled shoes and kicked them beneath a table as if happy to be rid of them. "I cannot presume to control the world, my lord, only the small portion of it beneath this roof. Mildred and the others make their own arrangements as to what they do outside this establishment."
"That's civilized. So, a gaming hell, but no brothel. A fine line between disreputable and despicable. Am I to perhaps applaud?"
She looked at him, long and hard, and then reached up both hands and deftly twisted the heavy mass of curls into a knot atop her head before walking over to a small drinks table holding a single decanter of wine. "I don't particularly care what you do, my lord," she said as she poured some of the light amber liquid into a single glass before turning to face him. "As long as you relinquish guardianship of my brother to me."
"Oh, yes, Miss Collier, the demand presented to me via your solicitor. I can readily see the eminent sense in that. Clearly a fit place for the boy."
"The name is Linden, my lord. Mrs. Linden. I'm a widow."
Gideon could not suppress his smile this time. "Of course you are. How very proper. My apologies."
"You can take your apologies, my lord, and stuff them in your ear," she said, and then turned her back to him as she lifted the glass to her lips. She didn't sip; she drank. He could see that her hand trembled slightly as she lowered the empty glass to the table-top. The wine was for courage, clearly. He almost felt sorry for her.
But then she turned back to him, her eyes shining in the light of the candles. "We've begun badly, haven't we? Are you certain you don't care for a glass of wine?"
"A lady shouldn't drink alone, I suppose. Very well." Gideon got to his feet and availed himself of the decanter. The wine, when he tasted it, was unexpectedly good, when he'd assumed it would be cheap and bitter. "Do you have a first name, madam?"
The question seemed to surprise her. "Why would you Yes. Yes, I do. Jessica."
"Preferable to either Linden or Collier. Very well.
My condolences on your recent loss, Jessica. I was remiss in not stating that at the outset."
"My father's death means nothing to me, my lord, as we'd been estranged for several years. But, thank you. I only wish to become reacquainted with my brother."
"Half brother," Gideon corrected. "The son of your father and your stepmother, also sadly deceased. You have no questions about that sad event?"
Jessica shrugged her shoulders. "No. Should I? When I read about their deaths in the Times, an accident with their coach was mentioned. I'm only glad Adam was away at school, and not in the coach with them."
"All right," Gideon said, looking at her carefully. "There's still the matter of a rather large fortune, not to mention the Sussex estate. All of it in trust for your half brother, who was not estranged from his parents."
"That's also of no concern to me. I support myself."
"Clearly," Gideon said, casting his gaze around the sparsely furnished room. "Bilking raw youths in town on a spree profitable, is it?"
"We don't bilk anyone, my lord. We don't allow it. If we see some fool gaming too deep, he's sent on his way."
"Vowing to sin no more, I'll assume, his ears still ringing from the stern lecture you've administered."
Jessica looked at him unblinkingly, her brown eyes raking him from head to toe before seemingly settling on his chest; perhaps she wouldn't be so brave if she looked into his eyes. "I don't like you. Gideon?''
"I can't imagine why not. Another man wouldn't have answered your summons. I'll admit to curiosity being my motive for obliging you, but please don't hold that against me."
"And it only took you a month, and then you arrived on my doorstep at this ungodly hour of the night, clearly as an afterthought. Or perhaps your planned evening turned out to be a bore, leaving you at loose ends? I'm sorry, I suppose I should be flattered."
She turned her back to him once more, bending her neck forward. "You may as well be of some use. If you could help with these buttons? Doreen is still busy at the front door, and I'm near to choking."
Gideon raised one well-defined eyebrow as he weighed the invitation, considering its benefits, its pit-falls her motives. "Very well," he said, placing his wineglass next to hers. "I've played at lady's maid a time or two."
"I'm certain you have played at many things. Tonight, however, you'll have to content yourself with a very limited role."
"You're a very trusting woman, Jessica," he said as he deftlyhe did everything deftlyslipped the first half-dozen buttons from their moorings. With the release of every button, he made sure his knuckles came in contact with each new inch of ivory skin revealed to him. Even in the candlelight he could see where the gown had chafed that soft skin; no wonder she longed to be shed of it.
Still, he took his time with the buttons until, the gown now falling open almost entirely to her waist, she stepped away from him just as he considered the merits of running his fingertips down the graceful line of her spine.