As she stands before the gilded doors of The Grand Russe Hotel, Alecia Loudon is poised on the threshold of a profound awakening. It is the Roaring Twenties, and London is buzzing with opportunities for adventure . . . and indiscretion. The young personal secretary knows nothing of the ways of men, but a chance meeting with the hotel's handsome night watchman sets her imagination afire.
Ivan Salter has noticed the quiet Englishwoman and wonders what delicate beauty might be lurking behind Alecia's plain clothes. As the handsome Russian draws Alecia further into the hotel's luxurious world, he introduces her to fine food, cool jazz, and forbidden assignations. Their dalliance is tested, however, by a surprising link between Ivan's family history and Alecia's bosses. Tangled up in international intrigue, the lovers must decide if their sparkling new romance is worth the cost . . .
Praise for Heather Hiestand's novels
"One Taste of Scandal is a delicious, multi-layered Victorian treat." -Gina Robinson, author of The Last Honest Seamstress and the Agent Ex series
"A fast read with a different view point than many novels in the genre." -Library Journal on His Wicked Smile
"This is definitely one for the keeper shelf." -Historical Romance Lover on His Wicked Smile
"A delightful, sexy glimpse into Victorian life and loving with two wonderfully non traditional lovers." -Jessa Slade, author of Dark Prince's Desire, on His Wicked Smile
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If I Had You the Grand Russe Hotel
By HEATHER HIESTAND
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Heather Hiestand
All rights reserved.
London, midnight, December 28, 1924
The saxophone wailed and screeched over the piano. A trombone blared in, deepening the rollicking sound. Alecia Loudon's foot tapped as a female singer sang the words to the newest tune from America. Underneath the music beat the sounds of the nightclub: cups rattling on plates, champagne glasses clinking, and matches being struck for innumerable cigarettes.
Alecia longed to see the action, but it was hidden from her on the other side of the nightclub's rear door. Cocooned in the luxury hotel that shared the club's wall, she couldn't see the dancing. Styles changed so fast, and she wished she knew the current fads. Of course, the song had about as much relevance to her sex-free life as the dancing. "'My baby don't love nobody but me ...'"
No, the life behind that door bore no resemblance to hers. She was a questionably modern secretary of twenty-two who'd never been kissed. Oh, but she'd thought about kissing, fantasized about kissing, daydreamed about kissing one certain handsome man here at the Grand Russe Hotel ...
She pushed the thought away and tried the handle of the door. One inch to the right, two inches ... it caught. Frustrated, she turned the knob again but it only rattled, metal against metal. Securely locked. She considered leaving the safety of the hotel, darting onto busy Park Lane at Hyde Park Corner, going into the alley where the main nightclub door was. But she wasn't dressed for the nightclub.
Giggles emanating from a dark corner on the far side of the door stole her away from her thoughts. She peeled away from the wall where she'd been leaning, in what was little more than a service corridor between the nightclub and the newly reopened hotel. Even back here, the opulence of the Grand Russe Hotel continued undiminished. The tops of the walls were stenciled in a forest green and red-brown geometric pattern that reminded her of teeth. Colorful paintings of ballet scenes done by itinerant Russian artists dotted the walls every six feet, uniform in size and frame.
The hotel's decorations had been inspired by The Sleeping Princess ballet performed at the Alhambra in Leicester Square a few years ago, but for sure, the couple on the dark velvet sofa in the corner were no Sleeping Beauty and her Prince Charming. The man in the clinch did not meet any masculine ideal. She'd seen a man who did, though, late at night here at the hotel. Alecia ghosted her way through the somnolent hotel in the wee hours, escaping her ever-present nightmares, while he protected it. A night watchman. She'd never spoken to him.
Dark waves of hair gave him a rakish edge. He possessed eyes of a brown that were closer to amber. Thick chocolate brows overshadowed his eye sockets, making for a fiercely probing gaze. Sculpted, full lips, the rosy bottom just slightly larger than the top. A nose almost too expansive for the face, but imposingly masculine. Angular cheekbones and triangular jaw with a mildly cleft chin. Golden sand-colored skin. A real sheik, though she was no sheba to find herself bent back over his arm and ravished. How she wished.
Oh God. The mere thought of that man, those broad shoulders and trim hips, six feet of masculine perfection, made her weak in the knees and damp in places her late grandmother had told her never to think about. She ought to set her sights on the kind of man who could take her to the nightclub, but her imagination hadn't released the night watchman yet.
The man on the sofa though, leaning over the woman in the revealing champagne-colored French dancing frock, was the type to be able to afford London nightlife. Unfortunately, he was young, balding, stoop-shouldered, and tending to embonpoint around his midsection. The expensive clothes did not make up for this. The gleaming gold bands on the couples' ring fingers told the tale. A Christmas season wedding, followed by a honeymoon in the most scandalous hotel in London.
The hotel owners no doubt hoped the complete refurbishment of the place, and the name change, would rescue their investment from the ignominy it suffered as the location of the infamous Starlet Murders of 1922, but even she, living then with her vicar grandfather and younger sister in Bagshot, Surrey, had heard the stories. With all the inns nearby, the London news could not help filtering in. Rumors of gin and cocaine and sex and sex and sex and, well, death.
Nothing like the quiet life her employers, Richard and Sybil Marvin, had introduced her to when they took up residence here at the hotel, though they, like the rouged and lipstick-wearing murder victims, were actors.
The bride giggled again as her new husband kissed her décol-letage. The man ran his tongue along his wife's collarbone. Alecia's eyes widened as his hand went up her knee-length skirt. Were they actually going to have sex, right there on the sofa?
She cleared her throat loudly, but they didn't hear her, or didn't care. The silver tray holding two empty champagne bottles and two overturned glasses explained why these two were in their own world. Drunk as lords. What should she do now?
When she glanced away, she saw him. The handsome night watchman wore his uniform of gold coat and deep ruby trousers. Black chevrons were appliquéd on his sleeves. All the buttons were gold, matching the trim on his ruby cap. Underneath the bill, his eyes narrowed as he saw her. He heard the moan behind her at the same time she did. They both turned to see the couple on the sofa. The woman's marcel-waved hair was crushed against the armrest as her husband knelt between her splayed legs and fumbled with his trousers.
"Hvatit," the night watchman ordered.
Alecia didn't know what the word meant exactly, but knew his intent. Stop that, you sex-starved just-marrieds.
Her dream lover moved past her. She smelled birch oil. This was the closest she'd ever been to him. Though his coat went almost to his knees, she could see the contours of his well-muscled backside underneath the fine wool.
"You must return to your room," he said in a Russian accent. His Rs rolled in a way that set Alecia's heart to fluttering.
The woman screamed when she opened her eyes and saw the watchman standing not three feet away from her. Her husband scrambled to his feet, still fumbling under his jacket. Alecia could see the tops of the woman's stockings, the lace edging on her camiknickers. She was too drunk to close her legs properly. Her husband finished fumbling and hauled her to her feet. Without speaking, the duo stumbled down the hall, past the night watchman, their gazes downcast.
Alecia still didn't know if they'd ever noticed she was there. When she lifted her gaze, the night watchman was regarding her steadily.
"Voyeurism is not polite, even at the Grand Russe." He said "is" like "ees," so sexy. The word "polite" rolled off his tongue in a drawl. Heaven. Oh, he was the cat's meow to be sure.
"I didn't know they were there at first. I've been listening to the music." She nodded at the nightclub door and tried to channel her flirtatious sister. "What is your name?"
"Ivan." He paused. "Salter."
"I'm Miss Loudon," she said. "I work for the Marvins on the fifth floor."
"I know who you are," he said, each word clipped and disapproving. "If you want to hear the music, you can go into the nightclub."
"I don't have the right clothing," she said, pointing to the long, shapeless gray frock she'd sewn herself.
"Mrs. Marvin must have trunks full of suitable garments."
"Not for me. I'm just the secretary."
"Myshka," he said, his eyebrows coming together. "That is what you are."
"I don't know any Russian," she said. "What does that mean? Are you really from Russia, or are you playing a role?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Do I seem false to you?"
"No, of course not, but you know how it is. Ladies' maids and cooks and shopgirls pretending to be French, actresses pretending to be Russian. It's all the rage."
"The rage," he growled. "Such a funny expression. When you've seen true rage, it does not seem so fashionable." His gaze wandered to a painting of peasants in a yellow field, before returning to her.
She wondered if he'd been in the Russian army. "At any rate, Salter doesn't sound very Russian."
"It wasn't always my name," he said evenly.
"Ah." She cast about for something to say, but words failed her. How could she stay with him, keep him talking, so she could watch the way his sensual mouth formed each word? "I fancied that staff was given a handbook of Russian phrases and an accent coach, that you're really from Islington or someplace."
He shook his head. His shoulders relaxed. "I was born in Moscow. But I am English for three years now."
"There must be quite a story there," she ventured.
A whistle blew in the distance. A summons? His gaze shifted back to the corridor. "I must go. Return to your room, please. It is late for a young lady to be wandering alone."
She knew she wandered too much, late at night, but she had to wear herself out completely or she saw the submarine approach in her dreams, the Lusitania sinking, her parents' drowned faces. He stood, unmoving, until she began to walk again, quick, nervous little steps. He escorted her as far as the bank of lifts, then continued his path toward the Grand Hall at the front of the hotel.
The lift operator let her out on the fifth floor. She could never remember which direction to turn. The pattern on the wall here, a thick red-brown line underscored by a sharply jagged stripe of forest green, had dots around it, like tiny green berries. A distracting pattern. Staring at it, she nearly stumbled into a fern. She blew a frond out of her face, then noticed the elderly woman standing behind it.
"What are you doing?" Alecia asked.
"Good afternoon," the woman said. She wore a frightfully Edwardian costume, much too rich and decorated for 1924. And a straw boater. And galoshes.
"It is the middle of the night," Alecia said carefully, not wanting to frighten the woman.
"Is it? I seem to have lost my way. On a garden path, are we?" She touched a frond.
"No, at a hotel. Is there someone I can fetch for you?" The elder's heavily-lidded eyes drooped even further. "Oh dear. A hotel?"
"The Grand Russe."
She made a congested noise in the back of her throat. "Never heard of it."
"It used to be the Grand Haldene."
"Very dreadful place. One hears things." She sniffed.
"Yes, well, it's been rather quiet lately."
"My daughter is a bit of an adventuress," the woman said. "Too old for it, though."
Alecia's interest pricked. "Is she staying here?"
"With me. Daft girl. The younger set, all frivolity."
"Can I see you to your room?" Alecia asked, since the woman seemed to be making more sense now.
"It's just down the hall, ducks. Not to worry. Room 502." The elder's gaze lost focus. "Don't know why I was standing outside. Probably didn't want to listen to all that tee-heeing. And the cigarette smoke. So vulgar."
Her daughter must be having a party. "Yes, ma'am."
"Well" — she nodded — "good morning to you."
Alecia didn't correct the woman. At least she had her key out now. Alecia waited until she shut the door, then went down the hall to her own room. She had been housed in the valet's chamber attached to Mr. Marvin's room, since he didn't have a man with him. Mrs. Marvin, however, had a maid, a grumbling, poorly-used person named Ethel.
Her room held none of the decorations of the public spaces. Only three pieces of furniture were present: a bed, a dressing table, and a chest of drawers. The chair at the dressing table had splinters in the seat, and a door connected her room with Mr. Marvin's, which was not proper. She kept her side bolted at night and hoped never to hear him knock in the wee hours. Aside from marital fidelity, something she was not sure applied to actors, he was fifty-one, almost thirty years older than her, and had a luxuriant mustache that all too frequently had food in it.
Nothing like Ivan Salter. She sat down on her bed and removed her shoes, replaying their conversation in her head, reveling in his voice, just as sexy as she'd imagined.
Greetings from Peter Eyre.
The next evening, Ivan stood in front of a notice pinned to the employee board in the hotel's basement. The place was a dank, groaning hive of activity. He suspected the scarred furnishings of the employee dining hall had been in place since the hotel was first opened in the 1890s, but the daily notices from the fastidious general manager were always crisp and clean.
29 December! The increase in petty theft is alarming. Watch for pilferers of ashtrays, glasses, furniture cushions. If you see any Gypsies entering the premises, please escort them out right away. We don't want them stealing our rugs and chairs. Please report any concerns, or concerning persons, in full detail to your supervisor. Your servant, Peter Eyre.
"Now we are to man all the doors and still make our rounds to the second?" complained Ivan's fellow night watchman, Norman Johnson, tucking his pocket watch away.
"Not you," Ivan said, pointing to the day's roster. "You've been assigned the top floors. Extra security."
Norman squinted at the roster. The habitual expression had left premature lines around his eyes. "Who is in residence?"
"Some American businessman. A film actress. Lady Cubult," Ivan recalled.
"Who is the actress?"
"I don't remember. I don't go to the movies."
"You should. What else is there to do?"
Ivan shrugged. "Family, friends."
"You have some? I thought you were from Russia." Norman straightened his cap and licked his teeth.
"I came here with my sister."
"The rest of your family still there, then?"
"Dead," Ivan said through clenched teeth. He didn't like speaking of them.
"Awful thing, the wars. My little brother died in the trenches, you know. Don't know why I survived." Norman sniffed.
"I should not have survived either. But we go on. We remember our dead." Catherine. My parents.
Norman nodded. "I'm off to prowl the halls. Maybe I'll be invited in for a drink. Someone must know who that actress is." Whistling jauntily, he strode off.
Ivan went to start his rounds on the main floor. It was still terribly busy at ten P.M. because Peter Eyre was holding court in the glittering, silver-and-blue Coffee Room. The real draw, despite the gorgeous geometric wallpaper and stunning parquet floor, could be said to be the glamorous Eyre himself, wandering through most evenings, greeting the anointed, glaring at the out of favor. His eyes would narrow at times as he decided who would be paying the champagne bill for everyone that night, as if mentally calculating the worth of each visitor.
Eyre was an obscure fellow, about the same age as Ivan, and much whispered about in the dens where the maids and valets waited for summonses. He might be an offshoot of some German royal family. Or the son of an Irish peasant. No one knew. He hadn't been to Eton or Harrow, but that crowd adored him as much as they were adored by gossip columnists. He'd sprung whole from the hotel the day it had been reopened. Who knew? He might even be the owner.
But Eyre wasn't the ever-present figure that most intrigued Ivan as he left the Coffee Room and made his way through the web of corridors on the main floor. Miss Loudon, the little mouse who had not run away when that dreadful twosome were coupling on the sofa behind the nightclub. A woman who would not avert her eyes from sex and insisted on listening to jazz.
It would not take much to turn her from a mouse to a cat. She had the very English peaches-and-cream skin, large bright-blue eyes, and yellow hair. Classic beauty, hiding in a dress that was too large. A boyish figure that was all the rage. She could be in style if she wore red lipstick and cut her hair. A little paint, some money for better clothes, and she might be on the arm of some man, entering the club instead of skulking behind it.
He made his way past the Salon, the Reception Room, the Ballroom, the Restaurant, the Reading Room. The only trouble he found was a damp wad of chewing gum decorating the armrest of a chair, and two occasional tables that were missing their ashtrays. He made a note in his book and moved on.
By eleven P.M., he had done a full round of the two main floors of the hotel and had circled the outside of the building. Part of the duties of the night watchman downstairs was to keep an eye on the nightclub. Drunken dramatics tended to spill into the hotel.
Excerpted from If I Had You the Grand Russe Hotel by HEATHER HIESTAND. Copyright © 2016 Heather Hiestand. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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