To my sister Liz
My deepest thanks to my agent, Marlene Stringer, my editor, John Scognamiglio, and the talented, creative team at Kensington.
London, July 1816
A scandalous wager, a marchioness in disguise and a notorious London brothel. Julian couldn’t deny it had all the makings of an excellent farce.
Off stage, it was rather less amusing.
Bloody hell. One would think a marchioness who gambled with her reputation would choose an anonymous brothel in a quiet part of the city for her whorehouse romp. Instead, the Marchioness of Hadley had chosen this one.
Devil take her.
He peered into the dimly-lit parlor. Despite the muted light and the haze of acrid smoke, he could see the place was crowded with fashionably dressed gentlemen. A man might tend to ignore everything else when he cupped a plump breast or a shapely thigh in his hand, but if one of these drunken dandies happened to recognize him, he’d have a glorious headline in the scandal sheets tomorrow.
Triumphant Hero Returns to London, Frolics with a Whore.
A dark haired doxy sidled up to him and gave his arm a flirtatious tap. “In or out, guv. Wot will it be?”
Julian raised an eyebrow. “In or out? Must I settle for one or the other?”
The doxy blinked at him, then broke into a hoarse cackle. “Aw right then, luv, how’s this? In or out, or in and out.” She punctuated the feeble jest with a rude hand gesture.
Julian’s lips quirked. Ah, there it was. A quick-witted whore. It was something new, anyway.
Encouraged, the doxy rose to her tiptoes, put her mouth to his ear and whispered in what she no doubt imagined to be a seductive voice, “It’s wot ye came fer, innit?”
It stood to reason. If a man wanted ale, he went to an alehouse. If he wanted to shoe his horse, he went to a blacksmith. If he wanted a woman and one wasn’t readily available, he went to a whore. It was a simple enough matter.
Except it wasn’t. Not this time. “No. I came for a marchioness.”
The doxy flashed a gap-toothed grin. “’Course ye did. Dinnit I tell ye, guv? I’m a duchess, I am.”
Julian rolled his eyes. No doubt this duchess was much like every other—more trouble than she was worth, but he couldn’t hover in the entryway all night waiting to snatch a wayward marchioness. He needed a prop, and a doxy in the hand was worth two anywhere else.
Well. Not quite anywhere else, but he wouldn’t be here long enough to maneuver her into a more satisfying location. Damn it, it was just like his cousin, Cam, to send him off to a whorehouse in pursuit of a marchioness instead of a whore. But it could be hours before Lady Hadley deigned to appear, and in the meantime…
He let the dark-haired doxy drag him across the threshold into a shadowy corner of the parlor. The gentlemen around him lounged on sumptuous red velvet divans, glasses of port or whiskey in their hands, many of them with women in various stages of undress perched on their laps. The low, continuous buzz of conversation was occasionally punctuated by a high-pitched squeal or giggle.
“There now,” his doxy cooed, “not so hard, was it, luv? Don’t ye worry, though,” she added with a smirk. “It will be once the duchess gets ahold of it.”
Julian felt an embarrassingly quick surge of interest in his lower extremities. He hadn’t had a woman in…well. He couldn’t quite recall how long it had been, but long enough so even the doxy duchess held a certain appeal. Every other part of him might rebel at the thought, but his body demanded a woman. The need was like a flea crawling under his skin, and the more he tried to ignore it, the more pressing it became.
He’d have to mount something other than his horse, and soon, so he may as well scratch the itch here and now. It insisted on being scratched, and it would have its way whether he willed it or not. If he tried to return to his old life with such a burden of lust in his loins, there was no telling how he’d be tempted to satisfy it.
The doxy ran her hands up the front of his chest, unbuttoning his waistcoat as she went. “That’s it. Just relax, now, luv.”
The burden in question began to swell insistently against his falls, much to the doxy’s approval. Her eyes widened with appreciation. “Coo. Yer a duke right e’nuf, eh, guv? Naught but a duchess will do fer that bit—but wot’s this, now?” She dove for his waistcoat pocket, her fingers as deft as any thief’s, and held up a round, flat object.
Julian grabbed her wrist, hard—much harder than he’d intended to—and held on until her hand fell open. “Don’t touch that.” He snatched it away from her.
She gave him an indignant look. “I wasna going ter take it, guv.”
He stared down at her thin fingers, dumbfounded, a wave of confused shame washing over him. Jesus. He hadn’t meant to grab her like that. She’d only reached into his pocket, but he’d reacted as if she’d put a blade to his throat.
“Well, what it is, then?” the whore demanded. “The crown jewels? Must be, fer ye to take on so.”
He opened his palm to reveal a pocket watch in a plain, gilded case. He hesitated for a moment, then flicked it open and turned the watch in her direction. “It belonged to a friend of mine, and it’s… Well, I don’t like anyone to touch it.”
Her nose wrinkled with disdain. “Wot, that’s all? Wrong time too, innit?”
Julian snapped the case closed. “Yes. It doesn’t tell time anymore. The winding key is gone. Lost for good.” The watch was useless now, but he didn’t have it to keep the time. Ridiculous, to believe time could be kept. A man couldn’t keep it any more than he could catch the sun and balance it on the horizon. He might keep a coach and four, hounds, a mistress—but he didn’t keep time.
It kept him.
The whore made a disgusted noise, released her grip on his waistcoat, and turned away from him to screech into the parlor. “Mrs. Lacey! I got’s a jumpy one here fer ye.” She gave Julian one last offended look, stuck her nose in the air, and flounced away.
Well. Maybe she was a duchess, after all.
A female shape detached itself from a knot of people in the parlor and materialized out of the gloom. A woman, tall, with generous white breasts spilling from the top of a tight bodice sank into a low curtsey in front of him. It was the kind of curtsey that invited a gentleman to ogle her bosom, and Julian obliged.
“Good evening, sir. I’m Mrs. Lacey.”
Red. Her hair, her lips, her scarlet-colored gown—everything about her was red except her eyes, which were a watery green. She was attractive in that hard, painted way the better-looking prostitutes were attractive.
She assessed him with a practiced eye and then held out her hand, a small smile on her full lips. “You’re a pretty one, aren’t you? What’s your name, luv?”
“Does it matter?” She might recognize his name. He’d been mentioned in the papers more than once since his regiment returned to England.
She chuckled. “Not in the least. You may call me Evie. What shall I call you?”
He shrugged. “Call me whatever you want.”
She gave him a curious look. “I don’t want anything, luv. Gentlemen come to me to get what they want. So. What do you want?”
One marchioness. Was it possible she’d already come and gone and he’d missed her? “I’m looking for a woman.”
The red lips curled upward. “Are you now? Imagine that.”
“No, that is, not a woman, but—”
“Sorry, luv.” Mrs. Lacey shook her head. “This isn’t that kind of house. Try Fleet Street.”
For God’s sake. He was going to strangle Cam. “A lady, Mrs. Lacey. I’m looking for a lady.”
“A lady?” Her brow furrowed as if she couldn’t imagine why he’d want such a troublesome thing. “This isn’t Almack’s, luv. The gentlemen here don’t have much use for ladies. They come for a tumble, not a quadrille. So, do you want a tumble or not?”
The knot in Julian’s lower belly tightened and hope creaked to life inside him. Mrs. Lacey looked as if she knew a great deal about fleshly desires. He’d promised Cam, but there was no sign of Lady Hadley yet, and well, this was a brothel.
“Such a fine, strapping young buck you are.” Mrs. Lacey’s green gaze lingered for a moment on his shoulders and chest, then moved lower, and lower still. “It’s not healthy, luv, for such a vigorous gentleman to deny his urges.”
Urges. Yes. He did have those. “No, not at all healthy.”
Mrs. Lacey’s eyes gleamed in the muted light. “That’s right. Now come with me, luv, and we’ll find you just the right lady to satisfy those urges. What do you fancy?”
Anything in skirts. “Blond with blue eyes.” It was as good a choice as any.
“Ah. That’s easily done.” Mrs. Lacey glanced around the room, then crooked a finger at a young woman who stood by the fireplace, chatting up a scrawny lad with a lopsided cravat. “Mary. Come here, my dear girl.”
Mary abandoned her young man without a backward glance and hurried across the room to Mrs. Lacey’s side. “Yes, mum?”
Mrs. Lacey urged the girl forward into better light so Julian could get a look at her. “This gentleman would like a companion for the evening. Do you suppose you could entertain him?”
Mary’s eyes went wide when she got a close look at Julian. “Oh yes, indeed, mum.” She gave Mrs. Lacey a sidelong glance that made the older woman chuckle, and added, “Thank you, mum.”
Julian studied the girl. She was young, but not too young, with fair-skin, light yellow hair, and dainty lips, faintly pink. Everything about her was pale and indistinct, like the sun hidden under layers of haze and London smog, pretty in its way, with a wan kind of beauty.
She wasn’t perfect, but she was here, and that was good enough for him. He nodded once at Mrs. Lacey. “She’ll do.”
Mrs. Lacey smiled. “Then I wish you an enjoyable evening.”
Julian watched her go, her lush, wide hips swaying, then turned back to Mary, his eyebrows raised expectantly.
“Fancy a drink before we go up?” Mary jerked her head toward a group of gentlemen who staggered about the center of the parlor, groping at females and guffawing loudly. Julian watched with distaste as one man stumbled to his knees and grasped at a whore’s skirts to try and drag himself back up. “Sometimes the gentlemen like a drink or two first. To relax, I s’pose.”
Julian shook his head. There was only one thing that would relax him, and it wasn’t drink. “No, I don’t care for—”
His words were drowned out by a sudden explosion of catcalls and whistles behind him. Gentlemen who were still lucid enough to stand lurched to their feet and crowded into the front of the room, craning their necks to see what fresh new mayhem was on offer. Whatever they saw caused the low din of conversation to rise until it reached a fever pitch of male voices raised in shouts of approval.
Julian growled with frustration as sweaty bodies surged against him. He took Mary’s arm and tried to disappear up the stairs, but men pressed against him from all sides and blocked his path to the second floor. Jesus. He’d anticipated sweaty body parts pressed together, but his fantasies hadn’t included foul male odors and coarse body hair.
After a great deal of scuffling and good-natured shoving the crowd parted, and four ladies in masques swept into the room, emerging from the chaos of eager male bodies.
“Come here, love, I’ve got something special for you!” One of the gentlemen made a clumsy grab for the lady closest to him—a tall, slender blonde with a jeweled black masque obscuring the upper part of her face. She dodged him, stepping neatly out of the way of his groping hand.
The crowd roared with laughter. “Looks like she doesn’t want what you’ve got, Dudley!” shouted one delighted onlooker.
“Can’t say I blame her,” yelled another. “All the doxies in London know what you’ve got, my lord, and there’s nothing special about it!”
The crowd erupted with laughter again. The four ladies took no notice of the heaving herd of rogues on either side of them, but made their way down the center of the room as if they were on a promenade through Hyde Park with the pink of the ton, not in a west end whorehouse with shrieking men ogling them from all sides.
They were rather too much like the pink of the ton, in fact.
Julian watched with narrowed eyes as the ladies made their way through the crowd to a corner of the room and settled gracefully onto two divans near the fire. A footman leapt forward to attend them, and one of the ladies—another blonde, this one petite and curvy—spoke to him. He rushed off at once to do her bidding, leaving the four ladies alone.
There was a brief silence—a breathless pause, the room frozen in a ludicrous tableau as everyone waited to see what they’d do.
The petite blonde waved a casual hand at the lady across from her, this one a redhead, her fair skin an unearthly white in the dim light. The entire room seemed to hold its breath as the redhead reached into the reticule in her lap. She took out a lacquered case, slid it open, and drew out—
“Cor,” Mary breathed at his side.
She offered one to each of her three companions. The other ladies accepted and held the thin, brown cheroots between gloved fingers as they turned to their fourth companion.
And she… Julian went still, every muscle in his body drawing tight. Mary giggled nervously at his side, but he ignored her, his gaze fixed on the fourth lady.
She wore tight elbow-length black gloves and carried a tiny bag on a string around her wrist. She dipped her long, satin-covered fingers into the bag, took out a small bundle, smoothed the wrappings aside, and withdrew a bit of cloth. Every eye in the room was on her as she rose, crossed to the fireplace, and knelt down to touch the cloth to the fire. It caught at once, and more than one man in the crowd drew in a quick, sharp breath, as if the sight of that tiny flame had snapped them from a collective trance.
The lady held the lit cloth to one end of her cheroot and sucked gently on the other end until the tip glowed red in the dim room; then she tossed the cloth into the fire, resumed her seat, and handed her lit cheroot to the petite blonde next to her. One by one, each lady passed their lit cheroot to the next, until all four tips burned like identical red eyes.
“The way’s clear now, guv.”
Julian started, then turned to Mary in surprise. “What?”
She jerked her head in the direction of the stairs. “Don’t ye want to go up?”
“Not yet.” Julian let his gaze wander back to the fourth lady. “I think I’d like a drink, after all.”
Mary shrugged. “All right, then.”
He led her to a dark corner of the room, to another red velvet divan where they were cast in shadows, but which still afforded a clear view of the four ladies, who now sat, as prim as a quartet of governesses, sipping at the whiskey the footman had delivered and occasionally touching their cheroots to their lips. No one approached them despite the earlier burst of excitement at their arrival, for by this time it was obvious they weren’t here for the gentlemen’s amusement.
Why precisely they were here—well, that was anyone’s guess. They weren’t whores. They were ladies—ton, if one could judge by their fine gowns and jeweled masques.
Julian’s lips stretched into a mocking smile. Four bored aristocratic ladies out on a whorehouse adventure. It wasn’t unheard of—more than one titled lady had set out to test the ton’s limits for scandal—and yet a clandestine visit to a west end whorehouse was more than enough to leave a lady’s reputation in tatters. Nothing but four silk masques stood between these four and social ruin.
Quite a risk for a bit of fun.
Julian leaned back against the divan, let a healthy swallow of whiskey burn a trail of fire down his throat and studied the fourth lady. Her masque covered the entire upper part of her face, just as the other ladies’ did, and yet…
A masque couldn’t cover everything.
She had dark hair, coiled into a mass of heavy curls at the base of her long, slender neck, red lips, an elegant body, too slim, but still curved where a man wanted curves. No wan, indistinct beauty here, but a lush, glorious explosion of warmth and color, like a blazing sun in a pure blue sky.
The kind of sun it hurt to look at.
Masque or no masque—it made no difference. He’d have recognize her anywhere.
No, not Sutherland. Not anymore. She was the Marchioness of Hadley now.
Now what would make a marchioness abandon her grand country estate for a Covent Garden whorehouse? Wilted roses in the flower gardens, perhaps, or lazy servants? Whatever it might be, it hadn’t anything to do with him. She looked perfectly content to stay where she was. Despite his promise to Cam, Julian decided he’d leave her here, teetering on the edge of scandal.
He tipped the rest of his whiskey into his mouth and turned to Mary. “I’m ready. Shall we go upstairs?”
She rose to her feet. “Whatever you say, guv.”
He was halfway to the stairs when it happened.
Charlotte laughed. Soft—a titter more than a laugh. No one else in the noisy room noticed it. Well, no one would, would they? No one, that is, who hadn’t heard that laugh before, low and suggestive, her red lips pressed to his ear. Her laugh pulled him back at once, back into the dimly lit room, away from Mary and the sweet release her body promised.
As little as a year ago he’d dreamed of that laugh, dreams of such exquisite yearning he couldn’t tell whether they were dreams at all, or nightmares. Odd, how much could change in a year. Dreams faded. A man traded one nightmare for another. Brides became widows, and widows became whores.
What the devil was she doing here? She should be tucked away in Hampshire like a proper little widow, mourning her late husband, not in some whorehouse in the west end, drinking whiskey and blithely courting ruin with every draw on her cheroot. Courting ruin and laughing about it, as if her family’s reputation were of no consequence. As if Cam and Ellie weren’t at this very moment torturing themselves with visions of her disgrace.
Julian dropped his empty glass onto the table with a dull thud. Very well, he’d escort the marchioness out of here just as he’d promised he would, but he’d be damned if he’d be a gentleman about it. After all, a marchioness who entered a whorehouse shouldn’t expect to be treated like a lady.
“Here. Take this.” He took Mary’s wrist, turned her hand up, then reached into his pocket, grabbed a fistful of coins, and dropped them into her open palm. “I won’t need your company tonight, after all, but I do need a room. Which one is yours?”
Mary gaped at the pile of coins in her palm for a moment; then her hand snapped closed. “Top of the stairs, last room on the left.”
“Stay out of it for a time, until you see me leave the house. Can you do that for me, Mary?”
She gave him a curious look, but she knew better than to ask questions. “Whatever you say, guv.”
Julian walked back across the parlor and resumed his seat on the divan. He signaled to the footman for another glass of whiskey and settled in to watch and wait.