In a vulnerable moment, Alethea Forsythe allows herself to be seduced by a married peer. Now she is with child—and without recourse. Her reputation will soon be in tatters and she will be forced to wed a stranger—unless she takes matters into her own hands.
When Jack Fitzwilliam, the Earl of Manning, is summoned from the House of Pleasure on a matter of importance, he hardly expects to receive a marriage proposal. He’s long been aware of Alethea’s infatuation with him, but at twenty-three, taking on an expectant bride is not in his plans. Yet the desperation in the lady’s lovely eyes overrides his misgivings.
Alethea would not have believed it possible for a man to be too chivalrous. But though her new husband is perfectly amicable in public, he insists they maintain separate quarters. Desperate to possess his heart and prove herself a wife in every way, she boldly reaches out to Jack. And as their unexpected connection between silken sheets is tested by jealousy and misfortune, Jack must decide where honor ends…and true passion begins . .
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Late December, 1761
Acrid smoke from a dozen pipes and a damp fire tickled the Earl of Manning's nose almost as harshly as the sharp bite of the tavern's best ale did his throat. The Queen's Arms Tavern was the fourth public house Jack and his friends had visited this evening. The haze seemed to get thicker and the patrons rowdier with each. The Queen's dim interior, rough tables, and malty smell belied the promise of the royal name. He took a pull from his mug and grimaced. Perhaps he'd suggest they move on to the Cock and Hen, well known for its particular brand of stout. If they could stand long enough to stagger out the building, of course. Taking a deep breath, he hefted the glass and downed the rest of his ale.
"Heard there was quite a to-do at Morehouse on Christmas Eve, Manning." Lord Bentley sipped his pint and turned bright eyes on Jack.
"You'd think that was scandal-broth, Bentley." Jack shrugged off the young earl's interest. Too much had transpired with the potential to ruin his sister, her husband, his sister-in-law and her husband. Best to say as little as possible, if the man would let it go.
"Just wanted a hint from the inside, Manning. I've got a hundred pounds on it that your sister-in-law was married to two men. A French count and an ex-army captain is what I heard." He grinned. "However, something tells me that's not the whole tale."
"Trust me, it's not." Sipping his ale to buy time, Jack fished around in his mind for some other topic to either shut Bentley up or distract him from Juliet's plight. His sister-in-law, Lady Juliet Morley, was a sweet lady. Unfortunately, the family couldn't yet discern whether she was indeed married to a scoundrel of a French count, Philippe St. Cyr, or Mr. Amiable Morley, late of His Majesty's 44th Regiment of Foot and the man she had married in good faith last July. "Let's be off to the Cock. First round's on me."
"I'm not done with this lot yet," Cryr shouted over the din of the place, indicating his full glass.
Inwardly, Jack groaned.
"Hurry up, Cryr. If Manning's buying, I'm all for going." Cheeks cherry red in his jovial face, Sir Bart tipped up his pint, his comical slow glug glug heard even in the noisy tavern.
"Don't drown yourself, S'Bart." Bentley had begun to slur. Never one of Jack's closest friends, the earl had reminded him why he avoided the man's company whenever possible. His manners often dubious for a gentleman, Bentley didn't seem to realize his peers tolerated him for the sake of Sir Bart, his cousin, whom Jack actually liked quite a lot. Pity one could not choose one's relations.
"Going to pump ship. Be right back and then we'll go, right?" The bleary-eyed Cryr stumbled toward the rear door that lead to the privy, although the whole outdoors might be Cryr's jakes tonight. The man truly could not hold his ale.
"So your sister-in-law, the great Dalbury's sister's been riding double, has she?" Bentley leered at Jack, his eyes bright with drink and interest. "Always struck me as an odd one. Never thought her that wild, though." He leaned so close the sour ale on his breath singed Jack's nose hairs.
"Have a care, Bentley." Jack laid one hand on the man's chest, pushing him away, the other on the hilt of his sword. "She is a lady and my kinswoman. I'd hate to have to run you through because your mouth ran away with you."
"Damn, Manning." Rearing back, Bentley pursed his lips, then took another swig. "Just asking for a little information. The story's been going around the town since Christmas Day. Thought you might want to put the matter straight."
Jack sighed. Indulging in this little revel had been a mistake. "I'm not in possession of all the facts. Suffice it to say I believe my sister-in-law's story rather than the count's. He's an oily villain if ever I saw one."
"Who's a villain now, me lord?" Betsy, the plump barmaid, grabbed their empty glasses and slung them onto her tray with a practiced hand. "None of you fine gentlemen, I'll be bound."
"You're right about that, my love." Bentley patted the girl's ample derriere, covered in a coarse brown skirt.
Betsy winked at him. "Now don't be making me a liar, me lord." Giving him a brazen look over her shoulder, the girl sauntered toward the kitchen, her round bottom swaying enticingly with each step.
"That's a sight to warm a man on a cold winter's night." Lecherous gaze lingering on the retreating maid's figure, Bentley licked his lips.
"She is that." Cryr chimed in as he seated himself once more next to Jack. "Keep a man warm all night long where it counts."
"You speak from experience, Cryr?" Sir Bart grinned and slapped his friend on the shoulder. "Does our Betsy grace Harris's List? I know you're working your way through it."
"Harris's List?" Jack frowned. The name had a familiar ring, but he couldn't place it. Too much ale.
"Oh, come now, Manning. Are you saying you don't have a copy?" Bentley made a snorting noise through his nose. "I'll not believe that."
Jack shook his head, sorry he'd brought it up. "I may have heard about it. I don't recall having one. A list of what?"
All three of his friends laughed. Sir Bart snorting into his ale.
"A woman of the town, of course. A light-frigate. A moll."
"A blower. A bob-tail."
"A doxie. A trollop."
"Peace, by God. I get the point." Jack chuckled at the colorful terms. Back in Virginia they'd just called them whores. "So this Harris has got a list of all the lady-birds in London, has he? Enterprising man."
"Ho, wouldn't I say?" Cryr shook his head, his light hair frizzing around his face where it had come loose from his queue. "And just think of all the women he's interviewed for each edition."
"He's hardly lain with every one of them, surely?" Jack struggled to maintain a straight face. "How many women does he mention on the list?"
"Good God." Bentley drained his glass and signaled Betsy for another. "I've never made it through the whole thing. Maybe a hundred, hundred and ten?"
"One hundred and twenty-two in this year's edition," Sir Bart put in. "I counted it first thing."
"Some of Jack's poetry needs work" — Bentley laughed, then gave them a smug look — "but the sentiment is dead on as I have known it. Last year I made quite an effort to work my way through the ladies. Hope to outdo myself this year."
"You never did, Bentley." Cryr gave him a shove. "You dog."
"Makes for a right rousing read at any rate." Sir Bart grinned like a basket of chips, pumping his fist as though it enclosed a male member. "The newest edition just came out." He fished in his pocket and withdrew a small paperbound book, the edges of the fresh yellow pages already bent. A lurid illustration of a woman showing her stockinged leg graced the cover.
"Leave it to you, S'Bart, to get the first copy off the press." Cryr grabbed the volume from his friend's hand and began leafing through the thin pages. "Is Battling Bertha still in here?" He thumbed the pages faster.
"Here, now, don't tear it." Sir Bart snatched it back. "It's only a couple of shillings. Get your own."
"May I, Sir Bart?" Curiosity piqued, Jack held out his hand. Having arrived from Virginia only about nine months ago, he'd never seen a copy of the List before.
"Of course, Manning." Sir Bart handed it over with a flourish, still glaring at Cryr.
The tiny volume, scarcely bigger than his palm, proved to contain a wealth of information, both in writing and illustrations. Jack opened it near the middle, on an illustration of a woman, down on her knees before a man. The entry read, "Miss B — nd, No. 28, Frith Street" followed by the poetry Bentley had decried:
"A rose-bud blows in either cheek Round which the lily makes its bed;
Beneath this dubious ode, a description of the "genteel and agreeable little girl," who while not deemed quite tolerable, had made the list due to her willingness "to receive the well-formed tumid guest" and "press out the last precious drops of the vital fluid" during her "performance of the venereal rites."
Despite his being in a somewhat foxed state, the illustration and the description of services had started a familiar stirring in Jack's groin.
"Is Madame Vestry in the book again?" Cryr mentioned a name that brought Jack's head up, drunk or not.
"Not that I recall." Sir Bart shook his head. "She's a mite particular these days. Probably wouldn't agree to Harris's interview."
"You know he'd want one for free as payment for getting into the List, I'll be bound. The day you see Amorina Vestry give it up for free is the day you can skate in hell. Money grubbing bitch." Bentley guzzled his ale and wiped the foam from his mouth with his coat sleeve. "Best beware her, Manning. Her girls are some of the priciest flesh in London. Instructed in all manner of pleasures by the madame herself. Any one of them will warm your cock in any number of delightful ways, but leave Vestry alone if you value your jewels."
"Huh. Little worry about that." Jack had become aware of Amorina Vestry shortly after his and his sister's arrival in London. The encounter had ended in his sister being kidnapped and worse. The woman had, however, likely saved his sister's life in August, so Jack reserved his judgment on her for now. "I've not been to Vestry's House of Pleasure and I don't believe I'll start tonight."
"Ho, Manning. You mean to say you've never sampled the wares at Vestry's?" Sir Bart stared at him aghast, as though he'd sprouted horns.
"No, I haven't." Christ, worse and worse.
"Gentlemen, I say we cannot allow our good fellow Manning to remain ignorant of the bliss, the outright pleasures that await him a mere three blocks from here." Bentley staggered to his feet, grasped Jack's coat and tried to haul him to his feet.
"You've had a pint too much, Bentley. Go take a piss and we'll head back to your lodgings." Jack wanted out of this company worse than he'd wanted to shake the attentions of Miss Alethea Forsythe at the Braetons' Christmas Ball.
"I agree with Bentley." Cryr leaned toward him, a fog of pungent beer engulfing Jack when the man exhaled. "Manning needs his initiation to the rites of Venus at the House of Pleasure posthaste!"
"Damned shame he's been here almost a year and hasn't been to Vestry's School of Venus. The vestals there will make you worship at their shrines." Sir Bart started laughing, so tickled by his own witticism he fell over onto Bentley. "Oh, my, we must make you the sacrifice tonight."
"Come on, chaps, let's do Manning up proper." Bentley pushed Sir Bart away and grabbed Jack's shoulder, Cryr the other.
Sir Bart, wheezing with laughter still, wrapped an arm around his neck. "Let's go show you the meaning of pleasure."
* * *
Had he not been quite so drunk, Jack could easily have extricated himself from the company of his cronies, hailed a hack, and gone home. The sad truth that his friends' idea sounded damn good dawned on him when he came to a stop outside a silvery gray clapboard house. His member still stirred against his breeches at the memory of the ladies in Harris's book. Maybe it was time he sampled the house's wares.
Raucous cries, loud music, and bawdy laughter blared from the establishment on the border of the Covent Garden district, known equally well for its theatres and brothels. A particularly shrill cry from an upper room brought Jack up short and he peered up at the house, a sudden sense of foreboding seizing him. How the devil had he agreed to this?
"Right this way, Manning." Sir Bart steered him up the three steps to a dark door. Candlelight showed through the curtained windows to either side, where he caught glimpses of what seemed to be a party going on. Men and women hung upon one another, the women's garb garish and low-cut, revealing much more than was acceptable in Society. In various stages of undress, the men were mostly missing jackets and cravats, although one man stood swathed in a sheet draped reminiscent of a Roman toga. Behind these revelers, other couples danced, though the dancers rather rubbed and groped one another in time to the music. Good God. The cold walk and lewd display had sobered him marvelously quickly.
Pushing open the door, Cryr led them into the dim establishment where the din of several hundred or more party goers swelled to a roar. Sir Bart and Bentley shoved him forward and the whiff of mingled perfumes, smoke, and sex overpowered Jack so badly he coughed.
"Bit thick tonight." Bentley scanned the room, acknowledging an acquaintance with a nod. "Means it must be a good 'un. This way, Manning." He steered Jack to one side and into a corridor with multiple doors on either side. From the first door on the left came a cackle of laughter. The next room seemed silent at first, until Jack caught a male voice softly grunting while a louder female voice urged the man on.
Gritting his teeth, Jack tried to dismiss his surroundings and took a deep breath as his three companions hustled him down the corridor to the last door on the right.
The door stood open, Madame Vestry seated behind a black lacquer desk, neat stacks of coins and bills spread out before her on its gleaming surface. Her appearance wasn't quite what Jack expected from a woman running a brothel. A neat gown of blue silk, cut low to reveal ample breasts, and a slender white neck above which perched dark, dangerous eyes.
Looking up from counting, she gazed at them, then a smile touched her full red lips. She laid her pen down, her scrutiny resting briefly on each of the other men, and lastly coming to rest on Jack. Her delicately arched eyebrows swooped up, and her face lit with keen speculation.
"What pleasure may I arrange for you gentlemen this evening?" The throaty purr sent hot blood straight to Jack's groin. He shifted uncomfortably, but managed to meet her dark, entrancing eyes.
"Thank you, Madame Vestry." Cryr bowed and smiled knowingly. "That is indeed our intent this evening."
Though the others had not expressed a desire to engage one of the "ladies" for the evening, now they all three looked like eager, guilty schoolboys. Perhaps the aura of the house had changed their minds. The bawdy dance and lewdly dressed "ladies" had a pull, especially the smell of the place, with its musky undertone of male essence that bespoke why they came to this place. It had stiffened Jack's resolve, among other things.
"We want special attention paid to Manning here. This is his first visit to your establishment, Madame," Bentley said, a smirk on his face. "If you would be so kind as to make it especially memorable, I would be very grateful."
God, there was nothing for it now. Despite the service Vestry had done his family, Jack still wanted nothing to do with her or her girls. That his body protested something different didn't matter a damn. He could withstand the temptation if only he could get the hell out of this house.
Madame Vestry continued to stare at Jack, a calculating look in her eyes that chilled him. Even the presentation of generous payment had had no effect on her gaze. At last she smiled and nodded. "As you wish, gentlemen." Running a shapely finger down a list of names in a big, black ledger, she halted halfway down the page. "Sir Bartholomew?"
Sir Bart swelled forward, an eager light in his eyes.
"Chloe will attend you in the yellow room. I recall you enjoyed her the last time you were here. She has learned" — the madame paused and Sir Bart leaned forward over the desk — "something new to show you."
A muffled groan and Sir Bart quickly tossed several coins on the desk and hurried out.
"Now as I recall, Lord Cryr, your tastes run to buxom blondes. There is a new girl, Solange, whom you may find to your liking. Long honey-blond hair and plump, tantalizing breasts you won't want to miss." She raised a pert, dark eyebrow. "If not, Jenny will be available shortly."
"Solange is such a sultry name." Cryr licked his lips and swallowed hard.
"She has eyes dark as sloes. A very striking combination." Vestry poised her pen over a name.
"I believe a new face would cheer me excellently this evening, Madame Vestry."
"I suspected it might, my lord. The burgundy room at the top of the stairs." She held out the pen.
He plucked it from her hand and scratched out the letters IOU with mounting excitement that made the quill tremble. He scurried from the room with a parting, "My thanks, Madame Vestry," over his shoulder.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Only Seduction Will Do"
Copyright © 2018 Jenna Jaxon.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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