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Authors: Shannon Donnelly

A Proper Mistress

BOOK: A Proper Mistress
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A PROPER MISTRESS

 

Shannon Donnelly

 

 

 

For Marsha —
may you always find the courage to choose happiness

 

Bookseller's Best Finalist, Golden Quill Finalist, Orange Rose Finalist

 

 

"With its excellent characterization, polished prose, and humor, Donnelly's latest Regency is a supremely satisfying, deftly plotted delight."
– Booklist, American Library Association, John Charles

 

 

 

"...delightfully offbeat romp with an engaging set of young lovers and a good cast of supporting players...highly enjoyable"  — Romantic Times Top Pick - 4½ Stars

 

"I highly recommend A PROPER MISTRESS, and can't wait for Ms. Donnelly's next book..." — Five Roses - Escape To Romance, Marlene Breakfield

 
CHAPTER ONE
 

"Beauty ain't required, but she's got to catch the eye," Theodore Winslow said, striding across the small salon, one hand fisted behind his back and the other gesturing in the air. "I mean, I'm supposed to be smitten. But she can't be at all acceptable—only she can't be too coarse, either, mind. My father would twig to it at once. No, she must have manners enough that hanging out for the respectability of marriage seems obvious. And it would be best if she had red hair—m'family knows I've a weakness for red hair. But I'll leave that detail to you."

"Red hair," Sallie Ellis repeated, her tone thoughtful.

Theo turned from the window that overlooked the small, quiet square near Covent Garden. Was he making a mull of it? Sallie had a rather calculating look in her bright, blue eyes. A look he'd come to know a good deal about of late. Between his dealings with the temperamental Antonia and the greedy Davina, he'd seen more than he ever wanted to of that look.

But this was not his last hope. No, if Sallie named a sum beyond reason, he would simply walk out. He would, indeed. Only the pressure of time passing nibbled at his heels. He'd had that terse note from his father nearly a week ago: Had the squire acted on his threat already? Well, if he had, he'd just have to unmake his will again. Theo frowned. Law wasn't his strong suit, but he was certain wills could be made and unmade. To be on the safe side, however, he would waste as little time as possible, a course that better suited him anyway. Blazes, did he hate waiting.

"'Course, I'm fond enough of blondes as well," he added. There, that should widen the field and bit and keep the price within means. One had to pay for being too particular. He had learned that lesson years ago when buying his first hunter.

"Mmmmmmmm," Sallie said, now tapping one finger against her plump and powered cheek. For a woman past her prime, she still had a round enough figure to be easy on a man's eye, Theo thought. Yes, nice curves that a fellow would enjoy having his hands around, and a dimple in her right cheek. But those shrewd, assessing eyes of hers left him wary.

Theo glanced around the room again, eyeing the red velvet drapery and the red damask hung on the walls. Rather rich looking, he thought. Cream painted wainscoting kept the room from overpowering, but those sticks of furniture and vases and whatnots had the look of having cost ridiculous sums.

And was Sallie now calculating how much she could raise her usual rates? Well, least he could admire the paintings in the room while he waited—lovely nude women in all of them, with bits of classical white drapery at their heels. Heavens knew why a female could go dancing around in the altogether in ancient times, but not now. Must be that the weather had cooled a touch.

Clearing his throat, Theo stretched his neck. His blasted neckcloth felt tight as a noose, though it had seemed fine this morning when he'd tied it at The Queen's Head where he'd been staying since he'd got to London three days ago. He hoped he looked as cool a customer as ever stepped through Sallie Ellis' painted red doors. Trouble was, he wasn't at all accustomed to dealing for his women. Why should he when he'd always been able to find a willing tavern wench, or a maid with a roving eye, or even a country girl with a flirting glint to her eyes? Women seemed to like him, though he didn't know why. He wasn't a patch on Terrance.

Still, he needed a certain type of female just now—one as could be hired, and he was done dealing with actresses. Lord, was he ever.

So he had made his way to Sallie Ellis. Terrance had recommended the establishment some time ago, in one of those bits of advice he had tossed at Theo over the years. "Good girls there," he'd said, his voice only a little slurred at the time from a night out with Theo. "Clean of body, and not of mind. And Sallie will give you a fair price."

Well, that part he wanted. As to how good the girls really were—well, he wanted one that wasn't too good. No, he had a feeling he would be better off with one more than a little bad.

Sallie had been staring up at a corner of the room as if she was trying to recall a name or a number. The longer she stared, the more Theo wanted to fidget. He rocked forward on his toes and back on the heels of his riding boots, wishing this was over.

It was Terrance's fault, of course. Most things were. Only he didn't hold Terrance to blame, really. No, Terrance was a good gun, a great fellow, the best of brothers, and very much the wronged party here. His father was the most at fault for trying to manipulate him and Terrance yet again. And by heavens it stopped here and now.

Or it would soon as he got home.

He gave a grim smile. He could hardly wait to see his father's face when he made his announcement.

"It is possible that I may have someone for you," Sallie said, her accent too carefully cultured to be natural for her. She put down the china tea cup and saucer that she had had in her lap. "However, you said you would need a gal for a week or more? Couldn't you make do with three days of her time?"

"Three days!" Theo said, his voice rising with outrage. "What, am I to gallop her to Somerset and back? Well, you may think again on that. I need her a week, perhaps more, and I've brought fifty guineas, with a hundred more to pay at the end of it. And that ought to buy well more than three days!"

Sallie's eyes widened and her accent slipped as she breathed, "'Coo, that's a right nice bit of the ready."

Scowling, Theo pressed his lips tight. Devil a bit, but he should have waited for her to name a price. Still, she seemed to be rethinking herself now, and if he brought this off for the sum he named, he would be thankful. Davina had wanted four hundred guineas, after all. And for only four days. Actresses! He ought to have known their seeming concern for a fellow's plight always amounted to nothing more than a sham. That was their trade, after all. Far better to hire a woman whose trade was making a fellow honestly feel better.

Sallie still had not answered, so he asked, brow furrowed and already starting to wonder where he might try next, "But if you cannot spare a girl so long, I—"

"Now, now, Mr. Winslow, let us not be hasty," Sallie said, her accent again acquiring the smooth gloss of the upper class. "I consider it my duty to never let a gentleman leave my house unsatisfied. So let us put our heads together. Are you certain you could not make do with a brunette? No—I see by the look in your eyes that would not do. You gentlemen are so particular about some details. But for such a long time...well, that does seem rather worth more than a hundred and fifty."

Theo stiffened. He had reached the end of his patience. "Well, I don't see how. It's a guaranteed sum, and who's to say she might otherwise sit idle here, not bringing you a penny!"

Sallie chuckled. "Oh, Mr. Winslow. My girls never sit idle, though they do lay around a bit." She laughed at her own coarse joke, and Theo tried to summon a smile, though he found himself rather offended by such vulgarity.

Devil a bit, if Sallie had a girl anything like herself, she'd be perfectly horrible. Just what he wanted, in fact.

A soft knock sounded on the door and a moment later a black pageboy in cream satin—turban, coat, and breeches—came in. He carried a note on a silver tray, balancing the tray in one hand, and holding the note down with the other. But when he reached Sallie, he took his hand off the note and offered the tray with a small, well-practiced bow.

"Your pardon, Mr. Winslow," Sallie said, taking up the note. "The business of pleasure is far from pleasure itself."

She waved a plump hand for the boy to go away, her rings flashing, and he bowed himself out as she tore open the note and scanned it. She rose with a shake of her gold satin skirts, those blue eyes of hers even more calculating, enough so that Theo founds himself shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

"A trifle I must attend to, Mr. Winslow. Do help yourself to wine or brandy. I promise to be back in just a moment with perhaps a most excellent solution." She offered a brilliant smile, her teeth white and small, and the charm that had built this house swept over him, sweet as honeysuckle. It would, no doubt, become just as cloying over time, but for now, he found himself setting aside his doubts about her and grinning back, and wishing he had just a bit more time to spend here.

Lord, she was a bit of a rogue—and if she were twenty years younger, he'd hire her for the job. But it wouldn't do to bring home a ladybird his father's age. No, the squire would see though that in two seconds.

"Now, don't you slip away," Sallie said, wagging a finger at him.

With a flirtatious wink, she left, hips swaying enough to catch a gentleman's eye—Sallie prided herself that she knew all the tricks of her trade.

However, as soon as the door closed behind her, she pressed her back to it and glanced heavenwards. "Thank you," she said, the words heartfelt.

Here she'd been thinking just this morning she might not have the ready at hand to pay the rent on her townhouse this month, and had been cursing those girls of hers what had run off with that dratted Frenchman.

She ought to know better than to cater to the foreign trade, but he had flashed a fistful of banknotes and she had let her own rules slip. Business first, she taught her girls. Or tried to. And what did she get for not keeping to her own rules—why, he had upped and run off with Bette and Jane, two of her best, leaving his bill unpaid as well. That's what she got! Gone off to Paris, Jane had said in the note she had left behind. All three of them. Why it wasn't even decent!

And without so much as a single day's notice.

In the normal course of things, it would not have mattered. She would have replaced those two within the month, for there seemed an endless supply of girls in London with foolish hopes and no skills to hire out but what God gave them.

Sallie shook her head. She had been one of those girls. But she'd learned. Oh, she had learned. And she tried to teach her girls well, too. Survival and success depended on a hard head and an even harder heart. But with two girls skittered off only just yesterday, and three more laid low by the influenza this past week, she had been looking at her books and fearing some of her jewels might have to go into hock before the end of the month. She gave a small shudder. Her jewels were her retirement, and she'd rather have a tooth pulled than be parted from so much as a single pearl. Once they started going, after all, no telling but what she might end up on the street.

And that wasn't for Sallie Ellis mind!

But along comes this young gent with his ready money—and those lovely blue eyes of his.

She gave a small sigh. Oh, to be twenty again—or even thirty—and able to hire herself out. But she had given up that side of the business. Still, he could tempt any girl, what with that thick black hair of his, which did not seem to want to stay in place. She'd already guessed he'd strip as fine as any prize fighter she'd known—all that masculine broad shoulders and long, hard muscle. Oh, didn't she just have a weakness for a tall gentleman. And didn't he just have a mouth for kisses, all finely made and with that quirk at the side when he smiled. It'd be a lucky girl who had him for her job.

BOOK: A Proper Mistress
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