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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Dreams of Desire
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“Did John inform you of how many companions we’ve had?” Miranda inquired.
“Seven?”
“Can you guess why?”
“I’m supposing you don’t want a companion,” Lily said.
“Touché, Miss Lambert.”
The wicked pair talked rapidly, finishing each other’s sentences, as if they were completely attuned. Lily glanced from one to the other as if a ball was being batted back and forth.
“Our father never required us to have a nanny.”
“We were always free to behave however we pleased.”
“I’ll bet you were,” Lily mumbled.
“It’s tremendously annoying to have John smothering us.”
“He means well, but—”
“—we
are
eighteen.”
“He should trust us—”
“—but he’s so accursedly set in his ways.”
“He certainly is,” Lily agreed. For his being only thirty, he seemed fussy and demanding and downright ancient.
“Can you also guess,” Miranda went on, “why the others fled or were fired?”
“Was it because you made their lives miserable?” Lily asked. “Or was it because you got them into trouble with Lord Penworth?”
“The latter. We worked to convince them to go on their own—”
“—and when they wouldn’t, it was so easy to persuade John of their incompetence.”
“He’s quite gullible, and he doesn’t like women very much. You can accuse a female of any wretched conduct, and he’ll believe you. Can you imagine what we might tell him about you, Miss Lambert?”
“Oh yes,” Lily replied, “I definitely can.”
Penworth had alluded to transgressions by the prior companions, and it all made sense now. The twins had tricked or deceived the poor women, then lied to Penworth about what had transpired.
Being an oblivious male, he’d accepted the twins’ version of events, and the companions were left to twist in the wind.
“Do you really think you should stay, Miss Lambert?”
“I’d rather not,” Lily asserted. “I tried to explain to Lord Penworth that I didn’t want the position, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“He can be stubborn. Perhaps you should try a bit . . . harder.”
Miranda pinched Lily’s arm, firmly enough to bruise, and Lily yelped with outrage.
“Ouch!” She flashed her severest frown. “Desist at once. Both of you! You’re not the first miscreants to cross my path, and I don’t graciously tolerate spite.”
“Don’t you? You’d be surprised what we can do—when we put our minds to it.”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
Lily thought they were the most vicious, most despicable duo she’d ever encountered, and over the years, she’d seen plenty.
They didn’t wish to endure her presence any more than she wished to endure theirs. It was a lose-lose situation, and if she could induce Penworth to discharge her, everyone would be happy. Most especially herself.
“We expect,” Miranda said, “that you’ll speak with John immediately.”
“I will,” Lily concurred.
“If he won’t release you, you’ll simply have to vanish.”
They began finishing each other’s sentences again. “If you went missing, what could he do, hmm? We’re leaving for Scotland on Saturday.”
“It’s not as if he’d have time to search.”
“You’ll be gone, and we’ll be free.”
“That’s all we ask.”
“It’s nothing personal—”
“—but we just don’t like you.”
“Good-bye,” they simpered in unison.
They sauntered away, and Lily dawdled in the quiet hall, watching the swish of their retreating backsides. As they disappeared, she blew out a heavy sigh.
“Well,” she muttered to herself, “that was pleasant.”
She whipped around and proceeded to the library to notify Penworth that she quit—whether he wanted her to or not. His wards were monsters, and he needed to be apprised that they were. Hopefully, her fortitude would save their
next
companion an enormous amount of grief.
It took some meandering through deserted corridors before she found the correct room. She’d raised her hand to knock, to announce herself, when she realized the door was ajar and that she could peek inside.
Penworth was still there, but he’d been joined by a woman. They were a few feet away from Lily, standing very close together. And they were alone.
Lily should have tiptoed away, but curiosity had often been her downfall. She presumed his associate to be his fiancée, Violet Howard, and Lily was dying to learn what type of individual would betroth herself to him. However, after a quick perusal, it was evident that—whoever she was—she couldn’t possibly be Lady Violet.
Violet was eighteen, and she was a duke’s daughter, a sheltered debutante who’d just had her first Season and had snagged Penworth, the biggest catch to flounder onto the Marriage Market in a decade.
The woman sequestered with him looked to be his same age, and she was very bold, very brazen.
She had luxurious auburn hair, and a shockingly curvaceous figure, so she was particularly striking. Her breasts were most noticeable, which Lily could plainly discern because her dress was cut so low in the front.
Penworth was riveted, his concentration completely captured by so much bosom being displayed for his prurient enjoyment.
To Lily’s astonishment, the woman placed her palm on Penworth’s chest and massaged in slow circles. While Lily had had experience with licentious males trying to grope and fondle her, she’d never seen the opposite—a woman being so amorously forward. She was enthralled by the sight.
Penworth’s demeanor had been altered, his handsome features softening. His gaze was warm and appealing, his body loose and relaxed. He seemed younger, approachable, and not anything like the pompous aristocrat who’d interviewed her.
She sucked in a deep breath but couldn’t let it out. A frantic warning sounded inside her head—that she should sneak away, that Penworth need only glance over and she’d be discovered—but she couldn’t go. The slightest motion would reveal her presence. How would she explain it?
“I was in the neighborhood,” the woman murmured. “Aren’t you glad I stopped by?”
“It’s a tad inconvenient, Lauretta,” Penworth said.
“Is it?” she pouted. “Are you sure?”
She stepped in so their torsos were connected; Penworth obviously didn’t mind. He gripped her hips and pulled her even nearer.
“What are you really doing here?” he asked.
“Can’t an old friend visit without there being an ulterior motive?”
Their lips were barely separated. Would they kiss?
Lily was agog with anticipation, as her brain roiled with conflicted thoughts: Was this the same straitlaced Penworth who’d lectured her on vice? Who’d bragged about his high moral standards? His ridiculous principles?
What a hypocrite!
“You didn’t attend my grand opening party.” Lauretta twined her arms around his neck. “Didn’t you receive my invitation?”
“Yes, but you know I’m not much for brothels—even a fancy one like yours.”
“I realize that, so I came to you instead. I wouldn’t want us to lose . . .
touch
.”
Lily stifled a gasp.
The woman, Lauretta, was a prostitute? Penworth had welcomed her into his home? With his wards just down the hall?
The tedious man—for all his posturing and sermons—was a fraud. A pretentious, conceited fraud, and Lily could scarcely keep from marching in and telling him so.
Lauretta’s hand dropped between their bodies, and she shamelessly stroked his private parts, a daring maneuver that he clearly relished. He rippled with pleasure; a charming smile quirked his stern mouth.
“Lord Redvers split with me,” Lauretta said. “He dumped me over like a bag of rubbish.”
“I’d heard that he had.”
“So I’m at liberty to consort with whomever I choose”—she licked her lips—“and I choose you.”
“Do you?”
“It’s been ages since we dallied.”
“Yes, it has.”
Penworth’s voice had descended to an entirely new range. It was low and smooth, and the timbre did something interesting to Lily’s innards. She felt hot and tingly all over. Butterflies careened through her stomach.
Penworth dipped down and nibbled on the bare skin at Lauretta’s nape. She moaned with delight as his fingers settled on her breast and squeezed the large mound. At viewing the naughty spectacle, Lily’s own breasts swelled and ached, the nipples growing firm so they rubbed against her corset in an irritating fashion.
It had never occurred to her that a man might caress a woman in such an intimate manner, that a woman might enjoy it. She was literally frozen with shock.
Penworth drew away, and Lauretta rose on tiptoe and kissed him.
“I have a few hours,” she said, “before I must proceed on to London. How about a tumble for old time’s sake?”
“I don’t know,” he grumbled, but his resolve was weakening.
“Won’t it be cold and lonely at your castle in Scotland?”
“Yes.”
“Those rural villages are awfully conservative. It’s not as if you can chase after any of the widows.”
“No, I wouldn’t be able to.”
“Who will entertain you?”
Penworth studied Lauretta, assessing her beautiful hair, her eloquent green eyes, her shapely figure. He grinned. “Why not?” he gushed. “I’m not busy. Let’s take the rear stairs up to my room.”
He clasped her hand and spun so quickly that Lily had no opportunity to flee. In a thrice, they were face-to-face, with Penworth gaping. His expression was perplexed, as if he couldn’t remember who she was.
Recognition dawned, and he barked, “Miss Lambert? Why are you still here?”
“I don’t have any idea.”
“Are you spying on me?”
“No!” she insisted, though she absolutely was.
“Then what in the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing?” She turned and ran.
Chapter 3
“SHE’S a lovely girl.”
“Who is?”
John was staring across the crowded parlor at Miss Lambert, and he yanked his distracted gaze away from her and struggled to focus it on his stepmother, Esther.
“I’m talking about Violet, John,” Esther said. “She’s lovely. I’m delighted with your engagement to her.”
“Oh yes, Violet. Of course.”
For a moment, he’d thought she referred to nosy, meddlesome Miss Lambert, who was very pert and very sassy and too pretty for her own good.
While Violet was demure and shy, she couldn’t hold a candle to Miss Lambert. Lambert exuded a maturity and sagacity that separated her from other young women. Her composure rattled him, made him want to march over and demand answers.
He simply couldn’t decide what the questions should be.
“I hope,” Esther grouched, “that Edward has a chance at someone as perfect as Violet.”
Edward was John’s half brother, Esther’s only child. A more slothful, worthless soul, John couldn’t imagine.
“Don’t worry about him,” John said. “He’s hardly ready to settle down, so his marriage is a long way off.”
“When he
is
ready, promise me that you’ll find him a bride as marvelous as Violet. It’s only fair.”
It was her constant complaint that Edward was the second son, and thus not afforded the advantages he deserved.
In reality, Edward was a spendthrift who frittered away his money, but in Esther’s eyes, he was wonderful. In John’s eyes, he was a negligent wastrel, and if Edward had been left in charge after their father’s death, he’d have swiftly beggared them. They’d be starving on the streets, dressed in rags.
Edward’s profligacy was an exhausting source of familial discord, and as John peered around the cheery room, filled with neighbors who were chatting, drinking, and playing cards, he was overcome by the worst wave of melancholy.
What he wouldn’t give to walk away, to shuck off his responsibilities and leave the entire mess behind. But he never would. His strict, unyielding father, Charles Middleton, had trained him too well.
“Edward will make a fine marriage,” he insisted.
“Not on the pittance he inherited from Charles.”
“He was bequeathed plenty, Esther.”
“Easy for you to say—when you have it all.”
He sighed. It was an argument he couldn’t win with her.
“Edward gambles it away, which you know to be true, and I won’t debate his conduct in the middle of a party.”
“If you would—”
“Esther!” he sharply but quietly seethed. “You forget yourself. Stop nagging me.”
He hated scenes and wouldn’t tolerate hysterics. It was another lesson drilled into him by his father, who’d loathed gossip and scandal. John’s disgraced mother, Barbara, had reveled in ignominy, had loved to frolic and offend and draw attention to herself.
As a result, John never did anything out of the ordinary, being determined to act appropriately in all circumstances so he would never be compared to her. Quarreling with his stepmother, while others watched, was beyond the pale.
BOOK: Dreams of Desire
12.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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