Gareth Lord of RakesBy: Grace Burrowes
“A Young Person to see you, milord.”
The old butler’s very lack of expression was eloquent: beyond doubt, a lady—unchaperoned and uninvited—awaited Gareth Alexander, Marquess of Heathgate, in the smaller formal drawing room.
Gareth walked into the drawing room still dressed in riding attire. That in itself was a bit of rudeness, but merciful saints, what could any decent woman be thinking, to call upon him in broad daylight?
His visitor stood with her back to him, and his immediate impression, based on the tension in her spine and the set of her shoulders, was that this was, indeed, another desperate female looking to him to forgive her husband’s, brother’s, or cousin’s debts of honor.
The worst kind of helpless female too, he concluded as she turned—a virtuous, helpless female.
At first she did not meet his gaze, but aimed a martyred stare at his least favorite Axminster carpet. Her dress was an ugly, serviceable gray; her gloves faded black; and her person without adornment. Her brownish hair was pulled back into a large, simple knot at her nape. She was altogether pathetically unremarkable.
Until she looked at him.
Amber eyes, slanting above high cheekbones and a wickedly full mouth arrested Gareth’s dismissive perusal. He’d refuse what she would offer as collateral for some man’s debt, though he was… tempted. She had a feline cast to her fine features, an intelligence and alertness that made him want to keep his eyes on her. Watching her for a progression of silent instants, he gained the impression she could move like a cat, think like a cat.
The serious gaze she turned on him suggested that she probably, in keeping with solid English propriety, did not purr like a cat.
He approached her with a slight bow. “Heathgate.” He’d purposely neglected to append the courteous “at your service.”
She curtsied. “Thank you for meeting with me, your lordship.”
She did not offer her name, though she had a pretty voice. Gareth’s brother Andrew would call it a candlelight voice.
“Shall we be seated?” He gestured to the settee then ordered a tea tray—to appease his hunger rather than convention—and turned to find his guest once more staring at the carpet.
“So, why have you come to see me, madam? You must know propriety is not served by a meeting under these circumstances.”
To his surprise, that blunt opening comment earned him a fleeting smile.
“Propriety is a luxury not all of us can afford.” Her accent was crisply aristocratic, but musical, as if there might be some Welsh or Gaelic a few generations back. He paid attention to voices, to dress, to the tidy stitching on the index finger of her glove, to the details relevant when dealing with opponents in any game of chance. Hers were a challenge to add up.
“Propriety is a necessity if a young lady is not to lose her reputation, as others have done in similar circumstances.”
At that salvo, the lady removed her worn gloves—probably without realizing the symbolism of the gesture—to reveal pale, elegant hands. The hands—God help her—of a true lady.
The tea arrived, and as the footman withdrew, Gareth closed the door. That got the woman’s attention, for she leveled a questioning glance at him.
He mustered his miniscule store of patience. “You come to see me without invitation or chaperone; you will not tell me your name. I can only conclude you do not want the servants to overhear what you discuss with me. Will you pour?”
She gave a dignified little nod from her perch on the edge of the sofa. “How do you take your tea?”
“I like it quite strong and with both cream and sugar.”
Her movements were confident and graceful; she knew her way around an elaborate tea service. She was a lady fallen on difficult times.
Oh, hell, not again. What was wrong with the young men of England?
“Shall we let it steep a bit, then?” she asked. “I wouldn’t call it strong yet.”
“As you like, but you will please disclose the nature of your errand. This appointment was not on my schedule.” He wanted to get this over with, though his rudeness did not seem to perturb his visitor.
“I am without relations, your lordship, except for a younger sister. My other nearest relation, a distant cousin, has recently passed away. Her will left me with a substantial source of income, provided I meet certain stipulations. The stipulations involve you. Should I fail to meet the conditions of her will in the immediate future, I am without a means of supporting myself, which is no great inconvenience. I could work as a governess or become a lady’s companion. My retainers, however, are elderly, and my younger sister—”
She fell silent and poured a splash of tea into a cup. The lady must have decided it wasn’t strong enough even yet, for she sat back and regarded him with steady topaz eyes.
He saluted her mentally for meeting the challenge: they were quite down to business, thank you very much.
“How do the stipulations involve me?” Clearly, she wanted him to ask, to show some curiosity about her situation, while he wanted to leave the room at a dead run.
“My distant cousin was a… madam, sir, and the source of income she left me was her brothel.”
She had his attention, drat her. He spotted a mahogany bay horsehair on the cuff of his riding jacket and focused on plucking it away. “And the conditions?”
“There are essentially two. First, I may not sell the business for at least one year. During that time it is to be held in trust for me, and the profits available to me for my personal maintenance. That condition is problematic in itself.” She paused, peering at the tea again. This time she poured as she continued speaking, then doctored his tea according to his stated preferences. “If it becomes public knowledge I am living off the proceeds of a brothel, my future is ruined—though that matters little. My younger sister, however, is blameless, and deserves some happiness from this life. She cannot be tainted by this association.”
He accepted the tea and took a sip. This difficult, inconvenient woman had made him a perfect cup of tea. Against all probability, he found his goodwill modestly restored. “The second condition?”
The lady looked briefly away—toward the white roses on the piano—and he had the sense this mannerism was how she gathered her courage, though none of her trepidation was betrayed in her expression.
“I am to spend at least three months under the personal tutelage of the trustee, learning the skills necessary to manage what I am told is a high-class sporting house. I am to learn what the… employees know, how the business works, how to gamble, and how the courtesan’s trade is”—she searched for words with a delicately lifted eyebrow—“undertaken.”
Gareth stood as genuine surprise—a rare emotion for him and unwelcome—coursed over him.
“Did your cousin dislike you so intensely, to put this choice before you?” Her cousin’s generosity would be the ruination of her, whoever she was.
“She hardly knew me,” came the reply. “She had chosen or been forced into her profession when I was but a girl. The family no longer received her, nor did she appear to want their acknowledgment. She probably felt entitled to her anger, if in fact this bequest is a display of anger.”
Gareth lowered himself beside his guest on the settee. He did not ask permission, and she did not shift away.
“How could this not be a posthumous tantrum? You appear to be a decent woman, and your cousin has made sure if you accept this bequest then you won’t be, nor, by association, will your sister be. I call that mean-spirited, particularly when your alternatives are what? To go into service, where your safety is none too assured anyway? It’s a diabolical gift, this bequest.”
The lady regarded him steadily, measuring him with cool, feline eyes. “My cousin was Callista Hemmings.”
He leaned back against the settee, feeling a stab of loss. Callista had been the quintessential grande horizontale, and she’d treated him honorably. When all London had been fawning over the newly invested Marquess of Heathgate to his face and laughing at him or accusing him of murder behind his back, Callista had been honest. She’d taken him on as a project, educated him, refined him, shown him skills and weapons that had needed only the sharpening influence of time to see him into the peerage on his own terms.
She’d passed along tidbits about this peer, or that bit of business that had allowed him to make some brilliant investments. Then she’d dumped him flat, telling him she chose her clientele, and she was unchoosing him.
In hindsight, he’d seen the kindness in what she’d done. Untried as he was, he’d been in danger of losing his heart to her. She was shrewd enough to know that wouldn’t have been in her interests—or his. He was in her debt, and now she was gone. He’d felt the loss of her months ago, and felt it anew at the mention of her name.
“You knew her,” his visitor observed dryly.
“My dear lady, much of London’s titled male population knew her, and the remainder could only wish they had. Your cousin was… quite a woman. Quite a lady.”
“She was not a lady,” his guest countered, the first hint of heat in her words.
He let that observation hang in the air while he took another sip of wonderfully hot, sweet, strong tea. “You resent this choice.”
“I resent it, yes, even as I am grateful it gives me options. Penury would likely cost me my virtue at some point, in any case. I am resigned to traveling a safer road to ruin. Were my sister older, I could get her married posthaste then slide into obscurity, but she is seventeen, and that is…”
Her faltering resolve was interesting. “Seventeen is…?”
“Seventeen, in her case, is too young.”
Gareth’s guest busied herself sipping her tea, apparently oblivious to Gareth’s perusal. He sipped along with her, waiting to see where she was heading with her disclosures. At seventeen, without the first clue what present company was getting herself into, she would have married to protect her sibling, had it been an option for her. He had no doubt of that.
“I am not the only one who might resent the way my cousin has arranged things,” she said. She had pretty hands, but as she set her teacup down, Gareth noticed a minute tremor in them.
“I expect the ladies in Callista’s employ are not particularly pleased, and the trustee might find himself in a bit of a bind.” The poor bastard would be in one hell of a bind, in fact.
She looked at him directly, and he realized all her previous glances and gazes had been oblique in comparison. Foreboding prickled up his neck.
“Do you?” she asked evenly.
“Do you find yourself in a bit of a bind?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because Callista named you as the trustee of her estate, my lord, and thus the guardian of my virtue.”
Bloody, rubbishing, perishing… Gareth stalled discreetly, calling for more tea and some cakes while his internal world righted itself. He was too taken aback at Callista’s scheming to puzzle through the reasons for it—unpleasantly taken aback. Shocked, even, and it took a great deal to shock him—now.
While his guest nibbled away at a chocolate éclair, Gareth held his peace and found consternation growing into monumental resentment. Miss Shabby Dignity eventually finished her tea and turned her unnerving regard on him once more.
“So, my lord, do you resent the task requested of you? Callista named an alternative trustee should you decline the position.”
Reprieve. Maybe there was a way out—if he wanted one. “Whom did she name?”
“I see.” Callista must have truly hated her cousins. Riverton was a confirmed deviant, sick at best, and evil, more likely.
No damned reprieve whatsoever.
“Riverton will not do.” Did he detect a slight relaxation in her shoulders? “Any provisions for a substitute of my choosing?” And to whom could he delegate this project anyway?
She considered her empty teacup, very likely some of the finest china she’d ever see, much less touch. “None. You take on the job or Riverton will, and I can tell you I do not relish the thought of his personal tutelage one bit.”
His guest was a martyr with some discernment, then. How flattering.
“What exactly does personal tutelage involve?” Because unless his distant recollection of Chancery law was in error, the will would have to be carefully worded to successfully skirt the illegalities of passing along a house of ill repute.
She remained perched on the edge of the settee, while Gareth suspected she was longing to get up and pace. “It isn’t complicated, my lord. I am to learn to be a madam. Your job is to teach me at least the rudiments of that profession, and the will stipulates that I have only so long to complete this education. Make no mistake: my cousin’s solicitors were quite careful to explain that if I want the benefits of Callista’s generosity, I have approximately ninety days left to learn to whore.”
The vulgar term in the midst of her polite diction landed like the sound of breaking glass in a quiet library. Gareth sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees and mentally sorting through curses in French, though being a lady, she’d probably understand those too.
First things first. “Do you want me to teach you to whore?”
“I do not want to starve, and I do not want my sister to starve. I hope to undertake this… apprenticeship for the next several months. One year from Callista’s death you can sell the business for me, and then this episode in my life will be over. The only one who will know of it besides me and the solicitors is you, and I am hoping to rely on your gentlemanly discretion.”
Gareth took a moment to digest her little speech. The course she proposed was probably the most sensible, from her point of view. And he could be discreet. A man on familiar terms with all manner of vice had to be faultlessly discreet if he wanted to maintain his privacy.
Which he did.
“Why do I not simply lie to the solicitors, tell them you have fulfilled the terms, and let us go our separate ways in peace?”
She wrinkled her nose—and it was a pretty nose, in perfect proportion to the rest of her features. “The solicitors are to test me, using a list of questions and answers Callista devised, and if they suspect I’ve not surrendered my innocence to their satisfaction, they implied they could have me examined by a midwife. They would have me believe myself fortunate that I was not asked to entertain a customer before witnesses.”
Gareth’s eyebrow shot up, because he knew Callista could be ruthless, and he’d damned near loved her for it, but this was beyond ruthless. This was cruel, and not a legacy any court would have a part in enforcing.
Not that the lady would obtain the property or its income in the next decade by bringing suit in the courts of law.
“To summarize, then,” Gareth said, “you want me to spend three months teaching you how to please a man, how to run a brothel, how to play various games of chance, and so on. I am to at least relieve you of your virginity, and I am to complete these tasks without anyone being the wiser? Moreover, I am to sell the brothel for you at the end of one year, all with utmost discretion. What do I get out of it?”
If this woman knew anything about him at all, she’d know to expect that question from him.
“My guess is Callista chose you for her own reasons, believing you would accept. I can’t see that you get anything out of this other than the trustee’s portion of the proceeds, which I doubt you need.” She cocked an eyebrow, perhaps mocking him, perhaps inventorying his physical assets. “If Callista’s faith in you is not misplaced, you will get the free services of a well-trained whore, won’t you? I doubt you need those either.”
He suppressed a flinch at her continued use of the word “whore.” There were so many other ways to say it—soiled dove, courtesan, lady of the night, fashionable impure. His guest seemed to want to shock him, and maybe herself.
Two could play at that. He stood and locked the door.
“Why don’t we gather a little more information before we decide what to do with this situation, hmm? Would you oblige me by standing?” She did, watching him warily as he stalked toward her. “Over here, away from the window, if you please.” He took her cool, bare hand in his and guided her across the room.
“What are you about, my lord?” She put some indignation in her tone, but not enough to cover the unease.
Good, he wanted her unnerved. So unnerved and angry she’d stomp right out of the house and never want to lay eyes on him again. Let her swallow her pride and move in with dear old Aunt Besom or eke out a living on piecework from the modistes.
Though piecework would ruin those pretty eyes and her pretty hands.
“Before you accept me as the guardian of your virtue, to use your words, you should have some idea whether you can even accept my touch on your person. Losing one’s virginity involves a great deal of touching, under ideal circumstances. You have to know that much at least?”
She nodded once, suggesting that was the limit of her understanding.
“I will take on this trusteeship if you conclude you can indeed find pleasure in my carnal touch. I will not force you.” He would not force any woman, ever. To know he could still speak with conviction in this regard was a relief. “You decide if you can allow me to seduce you.”
He purposely stood too close to her, letting her physically experience his six-foot-four inch height, the scent of horse and sandalwood about his person, and the sheer masculine strength he had in abundance. Her pulse beat rapidly at her throat, and she was back to staring at the carpet.
He dropped his voice to a near whisper and leaned in even closer.
“You must be sure, my lady, because once your innocence is compromised, you will never regain it, whether your virtue is intact or not.” He picked up her hand and massaged his thumb slowly across her knuckles.
Her eyes clamped on their joined hands, depriving him of her gaze. “Do you seek to take my virginity now?”
Brave lady. He awarded her points for that, and for amusing him—his reputation would suffer terribly if he allotted her deflowering only the few minutes available. “No time for that today, my dear, but I would ask of you a kiss to seal our bargain and begin your education. We have, after all, but a short time to complete it.”
She glanced up long enough for him to see relief in her eyes, though such a proper lady could have no idea what manner of kiss he contemplated. His hands settled on her waist, and he tugged her closer.
“Close your eyes, my dear, and relax. You have nothing to fret about today.”
She didn’t immediately close her eyes, but watched him as he took both her hands in his, kissed each palm, then slipped them around his neck. He slid his hands around her waist, resting them at the small of her back. She was close enough to him now that he could hear the catch in her breath as his hold grew more firm.
She wasn’t as cool as she wanted him to believe, and that realization gave Gareth a pause in his determination to rattle her. He started off by nuzzling her temple with his lips, and even that caused her to flinch. He repeated that caress, doing nothing more than inhaling the lavender scent of her hair until she relaxed minutely against him.
“I’ll make you a promise.” He moved on as he spoke, breathing against her hair, the curve of her ear, the silky skin of her neck, even as his hands went questing over her back in long, slow strokes.
“I will promise you if at any point you want me to stop, no matter what we’re doing, then I will stop. You have only to tell me.” He’d begun kissing her, sipping at the spot where her shoulder and her neck joined, and Gareth had to wonder if speech were already beyond her. Her scent was lovely, fresh and clean, without paint, powder, or the slightly singed odor of the curling tongs.
Despite her prim and proper airs, despite the mad scheme she’d brought to his door, despite the niggling itch of what remained of his conscience, his body at least was enjoying itself.
“Kiss me,” he whispered against her cheek. “Kiss me now.”
She turned her face toward him, tensing up for what she no doubt expected would be a grinding, wet, teeth-bumping awkwardness. She was too pretty not to have suffered the attentions of a callow swain or two.
So his lips were feather-gentle as he played at her mouth and invited her to trust him for the duration of one soft, sweet kiss. His mouth parted over hers, and he was rewarded when she sighed, her body finally losing its starch against his. Her fingers drifted through the hair at his nape, and Gareth realized she didn’t have to go up on her toes to fit him perfectly—more’s the pity.
He traced his tongue over her lips, thinking not only to steal a taste of her, but also to distract her from the hand resting due north of her derriere. He molded her against the length of his body and continued plying his tongue along her mouth. Tentatively, she touched her tongue to his, provoking him to growl in satisfaction at her overture.
She shyly tested the contours of his lips, and he let her explore while his hands stroked her back. Gareth sensed she was just becoming aware of the ridge of male flesh rising against her belly, when his instinct for self-preservation had him easing out of the kiss and letting his hands fall still on her back.
Her breathing was slightly accelerated as she curled against his chest and rested her head on his shoulder. He tucked his chin on her crown and held her, unable to locate a compelling reason to let her go.
“My dear woman, I should at least know your name.”
She remained quiet against him, and he brought one hand up to massage the nape of her neck in slow circles.
The kiss had gotten a bit out of hand was all. Spinsters were, on the whole, a courageous lot, but he hadn’t been expecting this particular variety of courage from her. This variety of honesty.
She stood unmoving for another moment then stepped away.
“You’ll do it then—take on the trusteeship?” Her eyes were a little unfocused, which pleased Gareth inordinately.
“I’ll take on the trusteeship for now, and I will be as discreet as possible. You must realize, though, if word of this gets out, I can do nothing to protect you from the scandal that will result from the terms of Callista’s will. I doubt her solicitors want anyone knowing they’ve created such a bequest—one Chancery would scoff at, mind you—but given who I am, I won’t be able to repair your reputation, nor will I try.”
She nodded at him soberly. “If this becomes public, nothing will save my reputation, and I don’t suppose you want people knowing you’ve taken on a spinster protégé, either. Such a liaison hardly flatters you.” She stepped back farther and put her gloves on, donning another increment of reserve as she did.
She was wrong, of course. She would be ruined, while Society, being stupid, venal, and easily entertained, would regard this as another one of his titillating larks, nothing more.
“So how shall we go about this?” he asked, his voice holding a detachment his body did not feel.
“Don’t scowl at me, your lordship. This situation is not of my doing or yours. I appreciate your willingness to comply with the terms of the bequest, but just as you asked me if I were willing to be seduced, you must be a willing seducer.”
The women who would scold him were few in number. That this pretty, proper spinster might be one of them suggested their dealings could grow… interesting. “I can assure you, my dear, I am a willing seducer, enthusiastically and often. When do you next have your courses?”
“Wha… I beg your pardon!” She gaped at him, her self-possession gratifyingly absent. “What can that have to do with… why would you ask such a thing?”
“How much do you know about the mechanics of copulation?”
He’d chosen one of the more polite terms, and yet it raised a magnificent blush against the lady’s fair coloring.
“It… It involves sleeping in the same bed, and probably some kissing, and… touching. I know there is a maidenhead.” Her blush deepened, so he gave her a moment to compose herself by unlocking the door and retrieving her wrap. He returned with her cloak and slipped it around her.
Without thinking, he turned her by the shoulders to face him and fastened the frogs of her cloak under her chin. Such caretaking was an intimacy, one he took completely for granted with any woman he’d kissed—until he noticed how stiffly this lady was standing.
“Intimate business between men and women involves a bit more than you perceive,” Gareth said, finishing a bow off-center beneath her chin, “and it will be my pleasure to educate you. I would remind you, though, I have promised if you at any time want to desist from this project, you have only to say so. I can probably find you and your dependents decent employment on one of my estates.”
“That is generous of you, my lord, but having imposed on you to this extent, I would not seek employment from you. I have no doubt my mortification is just beginning, and you will be the last man I ever want to spend more time around once this situation is resolved.”
He nodded, relieved, because having her in his employ didn’t sit well at all. She’d then be under his protection in the unavailable sense, and that could only be awkward as hell. She ducked her chin and said in a low voice, “I will likely… start Monday next.” She looked around self-consciously, as if afraid of being overheard by the very furniture.
How long had it been since a woman had blushed in his company? “And how long are you indisposed?”
“Three or four days.” Her answer was barely a whisper. She donned a bonnet that was the same color as old horse droppings, not at all flattering in its style and years out of fashion.
When he taught her how to be a madam, surely he could dress her, too? He took her elbow and walked her toward the door.
“If you will send your direction to me, I will have my coach pick you up Monday afternoon at two of the clock, sharp. Expect to spend the balance of the afternoon with me, and at least several afternoons each week thereafter.”
She paused at the door to the hall, making an intense study of her gloves. “Will you give me some idea what to expect?” she asked, very much on her tattered dignity.
He considered the brim of a very unprepossessing bonnet. The only decent women he consorted with frequently were his dear mother and her aging friends, and even they—veterans of years of genteel warfare in the best ballrooms—knew not to reveal their emotions.
The lady in the ugly bonnet and mended gloves was scared. Also affronted, humiliated, and many other things—likely including outraged—but under it all, she was afraid.
Of him, of what he would ask of her.
Gentlemanly sensibilities chose that inconvenient moment to rouse themselves from a nap of years’ duration. Of course she was frightened. Terrified—what if he’d refused her? What if he’d raped her? God in heaven, what had Callista been thinking?
Long ago, grieving, guilty, and bereft, hating the lofty title that had made a laughingstock of him, Gareth had been scared. As young men will, he’d used other terms for it: daunted, challenged, or when things had been particularly bad, overwhelmed. In truth, he’d been terrified, and Callista had been his one ally against that fear.
He scowled at his visitor, resentment resurging at her and at the bargain he’d been inveigled into honoring. “Remember my promise, madam. You hold the control, no matter what I or Callista’s solicitors have planned. Considering your indisposition, why don’t we start next week with the business aspects of the operation? The expenses, suppliers, ledgers, household budget, and so forth. Have you seen the property?”
“I drove by it in a hackney.”
Did everything make her blush? “Well, then we’ll find things to keep us busy next week. Shall I notify Callista’s solicitors I’ve taken the post?”
“If you’d contact them, I would appreciate it. They make me… uncomfortable,” she replied as he escorted her to the front door. She stopped before taking her leave. “My lord?”
Didn’t he make her uncomfortable? “Yes?”
“Thank you. Riverton was not a prospect I could have endured.”
Her gratitude was surprising, and some part of him also found it… insupportable. Repugnant. “I know.” Neither could I. “There’s just one more thing, if you would be so kind?”
She turned to go and beamed a smile at him over her shoulder. Her smile embodied benediction, relief, and pure female beauty all at once. Had he been a less experienced man, it would have bowled him over.
He was a very experienced man, and still, her smile stunned him momentarily witless.
“I am Felicity, your lordship. Miss Felicity Hemmings Worthington.”