Authors: Georgia E. Jones
No one could have guessed that virginal companion Penelope Montague is the author of the scandalous manual
A Woman's Handbook
. Society believes she was educated in a convent, unaware she spent the first half of her life raised by the ladies of the famous Black Swan brothel.
Only rake Robin Sackville Tufton, Earl of Thanet, sees the sensual woman behind Pen's proper exterior. From the moment he sees her, he wants her more than anything else. But Pen isn't fit to be an earl's wife, nor can he simply take herâdespite her passionate response to his touch. Can Robin and Penelope rein in their desireâ¦or will they find a way to indulge it?
Pen Montague fanned herself briskly and watched the dancers whirl in the hot ballroom. She loved to dance. The ladies at the Black Swanâbilled as “An Establishment for Fine Gentlemen,” but which was, practically speaking, a whorehouseâhad taught her when she was a child. But no one would invite her to dance tonight. She was in attendance as the paid companion of the Dowager Countess Prudence Dalrymple. Asking her to dance would be tantamount to asking the parlor maid to dance.
She heaved a quiet sigh, jettisoned the idea of dancing and counted her blessings instead. She had this employment, which kept her fed and housed, and she was genuinely fond of the dowager, who was nothing if not entertaining, even at the advanced age of seventy-six. And the book Pen had written, the mere thought of which sent a shiver down her spine, was well into the second printing. Of course, no one on earth knew she had written it and hopefully never would. Despite its prosaic title,
A Woman's Handbook, by Anonymous,
the content was so scandalous that were she ever identified as its author she would likely be tarred and feathered. Here, Pen, though she was unaware of it, frowned. The fan, hitherto moving at a furious pace, stuttered and then stopped altogether.
Robin Sackville Tufton, the Earl of Thanet, leaned his shoulders against a marble pillar and wished he were anywhere else. He had recently become earl at the death of his father, and in due course would be expected to produce an heir. To be precise, he would be expected to sire one.
He supposed the requisite countess would be the party undertaking the actual production of the heir. Until that occurred, he would be expected to attend these bloody balls in search of a wife. Now he stood, neck itching under his stock, annoyed because he wanted to dance and could not: he was overly eligible. His glance slid to Lady Dalrymple, whose dancing days were over, though mentally she was still as sharp as the proverbial tack. His wandering attention was arrested by the woman seated next to the dowager, fanning herself in the hot air. Overall, her face gave the impression of roundness: big eyes, plump cheeks and a tip-tilted nose. But offsetting this, the eyes were slightly almond-shaped, like a cat's, and her chin, which he caught sight of when she frowned and lowered the fan, was definitely not round. His heart missed a beat. He had no idea who she was. But very shortly he was going to find out.
“Whom are you examining with such feline intent?” Lady Dalrymple asked, breaking into Pen's reverie.
“No one.” She resumed fanning herself. “Only woolgathering, beg your pardon.”
“When I was your age,” Pru began, taking no notice of Pen's apology, “I only spoke to proper gentlemen because they make the best husbands. But now that I'm
age, I prefer rakes because they are by far the more interesting to converse with. And talkâ” she sighed dramatically “âis all I'm currently able to do.” She paused for Pen's laughter and said confidentially, “He is, you know.”
“Who is what?” Pen asked blankly.
“A rake. The man you were staring atâ” she was practically pointing and Pen grabbed gently at the offending digit “âan inveterate seducer, slept with most of the women in this room, I don't doubt it, nothing like his father, I can assure youâ”
Having drawn a deep breath, the dowager, as Pen knew perfectly well from experience, could
go on ad infinitum. Pen interrupted ruthlessly. “I wasn't staringâI wasn't!” This when the dowager gave her the expressionless, wide-eyed stare that meant, Pen also knew from experience, that she was being judged as disingenuous. “I possibly happened to be
in that direction, but I wasn't staring,” she ended firmly. Now that she actually did look, Pen saw that
the first banal words that sprang to mind, were a gross understatement.
The man was ludicrously, ridiculously, unfairly, unreasonably and overwhelmingly beautiful, so much so that for a few moments Pen could not separate the whole into its component parts: a face longer than it was wide, a high forehead and dark brows, beneath which were eyes of the clearest blue. Dark hair flecked with gray, though he could not be above thirty years of age, and a bladelike nose in perfect symmetry with the rest of his features. A deep chest narrowed to waist, hips and long, rangy legs, the whole encased in finely tailored clothes. Pen's tumbling, chaotic thoughts were brought to a full stop by his mouth, a sheer marvel of engineering. Pen's insides gave a disturbing little lurch and she judged him in that moment to be a man she should not speak to under any circumstances.
“Not classically handsome, of course.” The dowager was still talking, as if Pen had never spoken. “Not like his father and, oh, my, you should have seen his uncle, but he died years ago of the sweating sicknessâ” At this point, the rake in question, perhaps sensing himself to be a topic of feminine conversation, pushed his shoulders away from the pillar and began moving in their direction.
“Oh, God,” Pen said.
“Oh, good,” Pru said.
He stopped in front of Pru and bowed. “Lady Dalrymple,” he acknowledged formally.
“Robin,” she replied, nodding to him but not bothering with a more formal address. She had known him in the cradle and in short pants. The fact that he was now an earl changed none of that. She turned to Pen. “You've met my companion, Miss Montague? Pen, the Earl of Thanet.” Pen waited, steeling herself against the flare of dismissal in his eyesâa servant, that look always said: beneath my notice. But it did not come.
He merely bowed politely and said, “I haven't yet had the pleasure. Would you care to dance, Miss Montague?”
“I keep her with me in the country,” Prudence Dalrymple said. “I never bring her up to town. She does not dance.”
“No,” Pen agreed. “I don't.” But her legs stood up nonetheless and she put her hand in his. “You lead, and I'll follow.”
“A happy coincidence,” he countered, taking her hand. “It's exactly how I was taught.”
Oh, dear, Pen kept thinking. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.
They danced perfectly, like silk pulled through a thin gold ring; taut and focused at the center, then opening and flowing outward effortlessly. The points at which they touchedâhis hand over hers, her hand on his shoulder, the brief intrusion of his thigh into her skirts as they turned in time to the musicâall these she felt as a fluid heat rippling throughout her heretofore solid being. She only stumbled once, afterward, when he held her hand on his arm and escorted her back to Lady Dalrymple. They did not speak. She could not gain her bearings.
The dowager gave Pen a thorough appraisal. “Rakes,” she said with satisfaction, “by far more
to talk with than other men.” Pen, who could normally conjure a witty rejoinder at the drop of a hat, said nothing. For hours afterward, she could not catch her breath.
Pen heard the bell peal from the library, where she had her nose buried in a book. Books, she often thought, were like dear friends one never lost sleep over. Unlike certain men who could deprive one of all rest for a fortnight without so much as lifting a little finger. Pen had given up trying to describe to herself what exactly had occurred with the Earl of Thanet. All the more galling was the fact that he had taken as much notice of her as he would of a dishrag and that given their respective positions in the world this was in no way momentous. If a small green man had arrived on her doorstep and told her he was made of cheese from the moon she would not have been more bewildered or suspicious than if someone had said, “At the Mortimers' ball you will dance with a man and you will think of nothing else from that moment until the time you see him again.”
Which would be never, she hoped, made cantankerous from lack of sleep. At the same moment, like a badly cast spell, none other than Robin Tufton appeared in the open doorway of the library, preceded by Lucy in her plain gray homespun. “Begging your pardon, ma'amâ” she dropped a brief curtsy “âbut the lady is in the gardenâ¦”
She looked so worried that Pen smiled, closed her book, rose and said pleasantly, “Of course it's fine, Lucy. Please have the tea brought in.” Though why he couldn't have been left to wait for Prudence in the drawing room, where earls belonged, was a mystery for the ages. But her heart was beating too fast and she was horribly aware that she was very glad to see him.
“I take it I'm not intruding?” He smiled, making her think that he was quite sure he was. “Lucy made an honest attempt to install me in the proper location, but I asked for you.”
Pen wanted to throw her book at him. She wanted to put her mouth against his. She did neither; simply watching him as he prowled the room, broad shouldered and lithe. He sent her occasional sidelong glances from the bookshelves, from the double doors opening onto the flagstone walk, from the vase of roses Pru had picked the day before: intent, without particularly seeming to be so. Having spent the first half of her life in a whorehouse and the second in a convent, there was little in the way of events Penelope could not reconcile. This man was the first, and the extremity of her reaction to him deprived Pen of the meaningless conversational banter in which she often took refuge. Her silence did not dissuade him. “Is it true you were raised in a convent?” he asked, fingering the drooping petal of a rose.
“Yes,” Pen answered truthfully. Then, thinking of the Swan, said “No,” and then “Yes,” again, but too quickly. She meant to answer firmly, “Yes, I was raised in a convent.” But the indignant words that emerged from her mouth were, “You rob me of my wits and I don't care for it in the least.” His head came up, the fine nostrils flaring. He moved quickly to where she stood, following when she fell back a pace and then another, until she was spine against spine at the bookshelves. He brought one arm up, his hand coming to rest near her left ear, on Plato's
. The other wrested the book from her nerveless fingers. She jumped a little when it hit the floor. “One should never abuse books,” she said primly. “They are valuable for the knowledge contained therein.”
He raised an eyebrow. “I wasn't the one abusing it. If it were alive you would have strangled it. And as for losing your witsâ” he leaned closer, until they were not quite body to body “âthat would only be fair, my little cat, because you have certainly robbed me of mine.”
He was so close she could smell himâbay rum and soap and something else that was only him. She took a deep breath, drinking him in, and as she did his fingers began to play with a loose tendril of hair at her temple, coiling and sliding it along his index finger. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, not wanting to move, but it was too much, and to forestall anything further she said, as drily as she could manage, “You seem perfectly sane to me.”
“Deceptive,” he said, and went on with her hair. His chest lifted and fell with his even breathing. On each breath his chest brushed hers. Pen knew a fragmentary irritation that she had produced an entire sentence and he had answered with one word. Surely this was not fair? But that light, tugging touch dissolved it and her body began to warm and open to his. The hand that was not in her hair was toying with her fingers. Shorn of the book, they curled uselessly until he touched them with his own. In response, she tucked her elbow defensively into her side and he noted the gesture but kept hold of her hand, stroking the palm, touching each one of her fingers in turn until she shivered and linked her hand with his. He loosed her hair and the broad palm shaped itself to her skull. His fingers tightened, caressing, and he dropped his head so his lips were near her ear.
“Do you know why I left the Mortimers' ball?”
“No.” It was breathless, almost a moan. Needing an anchor, she brought her free hand up to his chest, fingers skimming across the striped silk of his waistcoat to the smoothly shaven jaw and the soft skin beneath, where jaw merged into neck.
“I left the Mortimers' ball,” he went on, his breath a rhythmic huff against her ear, “because I couldn't talk. I couldn't think. I went outside and put my head into the nearest fountain.”
A startled gasp of laughter escaped Pen and she felt his lips curve into an answering smile before heâquite gentlyâbit her neck. She shuddered, and shuddered again when he laved the spot with his tongue. The low, roughened voice went on. “âHave her,' a voice in my head kept saying, as if I could lift your skirts right there and bury myself inside you and keep dancing until we both came.” His breathing was no longer even, but even so, the mildest suggestion of humor entered his voice. “A ridiculous notion, I know, but my whole body broke into a sweat and I couldn't imagine anything I'd ever wanted more.”
Mesmerized by his words, Pen turned her head and opened her mouth against his skin, desperate to taste him. His hands closed with sudden force on her waist, he tipped his head to catch her mouth with his, and Pru's voice, clarion-loud, rang out from the flagstone walkway adjacent to the library. “No, Lucy, the blue vase,” she called. Pen was across the room and halfway out the other door when Pru entered the room with a basket of roses over one arm, talking as she came. “There you are, Penelope. Lucy is bringing your pelisse. We're going for a drive in the park. And we need to pick up Meredith on the way.”
Though he had been staring at the pointed tip of Pen's parasol for the better part of twenty minutes, Robin was having a tremendously good time. Women who swooned at one's feet were not amusing. Women who took their clothes off in return for expensive jewelryâmore succinctly known as mistressesâwere not particularly amusing, although they could be temporarily satisfying. People, in general, who did not say what they thought for fear of offending an earl were the least amusing of all. Sitting across from him in the excruciatingly slow-moving barouche was a woman who was none of these things.