The Duke(9)

By: Kerrigan Byrne

“I’ve employed girls as young as thirteen before. And I made you that promise before I was handed twenty pounds.” He shrugged. “What does your family think you do all night? Are they so stupid they don’t already suspect that you are a whore?”

“I told them I work extra shifts at the hospital and give the money to you.”

“It’s you or your sister.” His voice and color began to rise, heralding his dangerous temper. “You are getting old to be of much use to me for long, perhaps I will not need you for the two years it would take to work here, but Isobel is young and supple … It would be easy for me to turn her out, and there would be nothing you could do.”

A sick weight landed upon her shoulders, compounding the exhaustion caused by working and living under such stress. At three and twenty, she was indeed beginning to age out of the profession. Not only that, she was dangerously close to becoming a permanent spinster.

Reaching down, del Toro grabbed her arm and yanked her to her feet, his fingers digging into her flesh with a painful pinch. “Get back there,” he snarled, shoving her toward the curtain. “You do whatever he wants, and if he doesn’t leave the most satisfied customer ever to pass through this door, I’ll have my men ugly your face after they teach you some humility, so you’ll be of no use to anyone.”

Woodenly, Imgoen turned toward the curtain; its crimson and black arabesque design was faded and dingy from so many men tossing it aside on their way back to the bedrooms.

“Room seventeen,” del Toro called after her.

Of course it was room 17. Only the best for the Duke of Trenwyth.

Room 17 was one of the very few suites abovestairs in the narrow, long building that housed the Bare Kitten. Climbing those stairs felt like scaling Kilimanjaro to Imogen, who was out of breath by the time she reached the top. Not because she was unused to stairs, but because her corset, combined with the band of fear squeezing her lungs, didn’t allow her to properly inhale. Room 17 might as well have been the gallows. It wasn’t that the man within didn’t appeal to her—his beauty was unparalleled—but it would mean that she’d truly become what she’d never imagined herself to be.

A prostitute.

Reaching for the latch, Imogen paused, placing a hand low on her belly where it seemed an entire flock of birds flapped and churned their wings in equal measure to the violent trepidation she felt.

She closed her eyes and sent a prayer for strength to a God who would condemn her for what she was about to do. Then she stepped inside, shutting the door on her innocence.

Trenwyth was already naked.

Her shock had her flattened against the door as she gaped at him with blatant stupefaction. As a nurse, Imogen had been privy to the nude male form before, and again as an artist. But nothing in her extensive experience had prepared her for the pure splendor of Collin Talmage. Not even when she’d been held against him did she comprehend the raw, corded strength he wielded. With his back to her, she was able to somewhat adjust to the sight of all that perfect bare flesh.

Before she was compelled to touch it.

One lantern sputtered dimly on the bedside table where he set a drink next to a ready decanter, completely unabashed by his own nudity. The shadows cast by the lone flame into the grooves of his long, taut muscles were just as tantalizing as the illumination.

“Would you like a drink?” He gestured to the golden liquid he’d abandoned. “I believe I’ve had quite enough.”

He turned around, and Imogen couldn’t have swallowed had liquid been poured straight into her gaping mouth. Somehow, she knew that Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, had never in his life been afflicted with the Irish curse. His sex stood proudly erect from the sinewy definition of his lean hips. He glanced down, rather sheepishly, and flicked her a look full of pure, sinful invitation.

Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her. It wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly fit. Her mind recoiled, but her body … her body responded. She suddenly felt like a rosebud about to bloom, trembling with the instinct to open. To bare herself. The impulse frightened her enough that she wrapped her arms around her middle in a foolish attempt to hold together.