The Duke(5)

By: Kerrigan Byrne

The major said nothing, though his knuckles turned white with strain.

“That’s right, Thompson,” another soldier heckled. “Marquess Ravencroft, the Demon Highlander, himself, is Hamish’s younger brother.”

“Younger brother?” Thompson lifted his eyebrows in surprise. “That would mean you’re—”

“A bastard,” Hamish finished darkly. “Want to find out just how much of a bastard I can be?”

“Enough,” Trenwyth clipped quietly, the command effectively ending all conversation. “Scotch for the table, and a gin for my friend the major.”

Hamish threw a grateful, if brooding, glance at Trenwyth from beneath his dark brows. The tension dissipated as Imogen was forgotten by the surly, middle-aged Hamish Mackenzie.

“We can only afford the younger Scotch, mind you, but it’s yours for the taking, as is anything else my establishment can offer you.” Del Toro gestured at the women posing across the bar with far more practiced and inviting smiles than hers aimed at the men.

“Excellent.” Trenwyth’s brusque way of speaking appealed to Imogen, though she couldn’t say why. “It seems the lads are eager for companionship.”

Murmurs of enthusiastic agreement passed around the table as the famous “kittens” of Lower St. James’s Street wound their way to the table with audible purrs. To Imogen’s surprise, Heather gave Major Mackenzie a wide berth and look of reluctance, choosing to lean across a young man on the opposite side of the table. Imogen couldn’t think of a time she’d truly seen the bawdy woman afraid before. Major Mackenzie had spoken of the place as though he’d been here often, though Imogen couldn’t say she recognized him. Perhaps Heather did. Perhaps she’d even had a negative experience with him. Imogen’s own intuition jangled uncomfortably in his presence, alerting her that he was a man capable of the most terrible things.

And yet, so was Trenwyth, of that she was certain.

“You heard him, Ginny,” del Toro said tightly, breaking into her thoughts. “Fetch the drinks.”

Imogen nodded, eager to comply, but remained trapped by the iron grip of Trenwyth’s arm about her waist.

“She stays where she is.” Trenwyth’s statement, delivered pleasantly enough, brooked no argument. Though his accent was that of the noblest of men, a cold note of steel threaded through the highborn gentility. He was a man who needn’t raise his voice to be obeyed. “She serves no one but me tonight.”

Imogen could feel her eyes widen and her lips compress in alarm as Trenwyth tugged the serving tray out of her talonlike grasp and idly handed it to del Toro.

“As you wish, Your Grace.” Her employer bowed over his large belly and snapped his fingers at the staff. He turned away without giving Imogen a second look.

She hadn’t been aware of her trembling until Trenwyth leaned forward, pressing his lips very close to her ear.

“Ginny.” The word rumbled all the way down her spine and skittered along her skin until every hair rose to vibrating attention. “That is your name?”

“Yes, Your Grace.” She whispered the lie. It was her “kitten” name. It was who she became at night in this dim, overwrought, and garish place frequented by poor bohemians, soldiers, and wealthy merchants alike. But rarely nobility. His sort had places like Madame Regina’s and other such pleasure palaces that certainly didn’t reek of absinthe and stale tobacco.

“Don’t let’s use formalities, Ginny.” He exhaled against her ear again, and she had to bite down on her lip against the strange and shivery sensations he’d elicited. “Don’t call me Your Grace again tonight, everyone else has agreed not to.”

She lowered her chin in what was supposed to be a nod. “What should I call you then?” she queried, instinctively turning her head toward him, not realizing how close it brought their lips to one another’s until they almost met.

“Those closest to me call me Cole,” he informed her mouth.

“But … I am not close to you.”

Tightening his arm around her once more, he grasped her hip with his other hand, and pulled her up his startlingly long and muscled thigh with a slow, languid move, until she straddled him as high as his leg would allow. Even through her skirts and petticoats, the movement created an unfamiliar friction against her sex that elicited an alarming but not unpleasant pressure. He didn’t stop until the curve of her bottom settled against his lap. She was aware of a surprisingly insistent cylindrical shape pressed against her. She’d worked at the Bare Kitten long enough to know exactly what it was.