Authors: Emma Barron
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
This edition published by Crimson Romance
an imprint of F+W Media, Inc.
Blue Ash, Ohio 45242
Copyright © 2013 by Emma Barron ISBN 10: 1-4405-7120-1
ISBN 13: 978-1-4405-7120-6
eISBN 10: 1-4405-7121-X
eISBN 13: 978-1-44057121-3
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, organizations, events, or locales in this novel are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously. The resemblance of any character to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © istockphoto.com/DaydreamsGirl; sndr; sx70
For J & E
Rhys Camden swirled his brandy, watching the amber liquid coat the sides of the glass, slosh over the rim, and soak into the slightly worn carpet of the gambling club.
“I believe you are supposed to drink the brandy, Camden, not wash the floors with it. Though God knows Belford’s could use a thorough cleaning.”
Camden slowly brought his gaze up from his glass and tried to settle it on his friend, Drew Wittingham, but the man seemed intent on flittering around. Or perhaps it was just that Camden could no longer focus on anything after consuming so much brandy.
we decide to celebrate at Belford’s,” Wittingham continued, “instead of a more fashionable club? Surely Maven’s would have been a more suitable place.” Wittingham cast a red-rimmed eye around the club, a look of disdain etching his features as he took in the raucous crowd.
“Well, for one, we aren’t members at Maven’s.”
“Ah, yes. I like to forget that we are not of the highest echelons of society. Pity, really, that even with all of your money you can’t just buy yourself a title and be done with it.”
money,” Camden reminded his friend.
“Your money, your father’s money.” Wittingham dismissed the distinction with a wave of his hand. “It’s all the same. Especially since you are now twenty-one and joining the family business.”
“And that’s the other reason we are at Belford’s. Farber decided it was the most s-suitable place for the debauchery sure to occur at my birthday party.” Camden’s speech slurred and he swayed on his feet as he struggled to focus on his friend. “It’s the only place with a reputation worse than his.”
“Speaking of the devil, here come our friends now.” Wittingham gestured with his tumbler to the two approaching men. “Must have lost at hazard to be back so soon.”
Camden squinted. He would have to take Wittingham’s word that the approaching forms were their companions; he’d be damned if he could see anything. Then they came close enough that the single blurry shape resolved into Farber and Hollsworth.
“Lost your money so soon?” Wittingham asked.
“Every last shilling,” Hollsworth said with a grin.
“Good God, Camden, you look like hell,” Farber said loudly as he slapped Camden on the back, causing him to spill the rest of his brandy. “You’ll have to clean yourself up by tomorrow morning or your father won’t let you in the shipping office. He’d never let such a haggard-looking creature serve as the factotum of his precious business.”
“I have plenty of time to clean up before I must report to my father,” Camden said.
Hollsworth pulled out his watch. “You have four hours, to be exact.” He put the watch back in its pocket and then took in the appearance of his friend. “Not nearly enough time.”
“I can’t be all that bad.”
Farber laughed and slapped Camden on the back again. “Your clothes are stained and crumpled, your eyes are red and blurry, you’re looking a bit puffy about that pretty face of yours, and God knows where your cravat’s got off to. What an impression you will make on your first day.”
Camden frowned. “Perhaps I should make my way home, if I am that bad off. I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t show up on time looking presentable.”
“Nonsense,” Wittingham said. “It is your birthday and your last night of freedom. Beginning tomorrow morning, you are forever cursed to the drudgery of employment. You might as well stay out the entire night and report to your father from here. Daddy will understand.”
“Indeed,” Farber said. “There is still so much to be done tonight.”
“What more is there to do? You’ve lost all your money,” Hollsworth pointed out.
“Yes, but I haven’t lost Camden’s money yet, so the night is not over.”
Wittingham laughed. “Ah yes, how lucky were are that our friend has some of the deepest pockets in London. When we have gambled almost all his purse away tonight, we can spend the rest on whores and liquor.”
“Let’s not wait on the liquor,” Farber said as he peered into his empty tumbler. “I am in dire need of more brandy. As is the birthday boy.” Farber grabbed Camden’s glass from his loose grasp and turned it upside down. “See?”
“Oh, no, Farber, no more brandy — ”
“Right then. First, we get more brandy,” Wittingham said, as if Camden hadn’t spoken. “Then it’s back to the hazard tables.” He led the way through the crowd, Farber and Hollsworth close behind.
Camden stumbled along for a few steps but then stopped as a wave of nausea hit him. He had been drinking with his friends since early that evening, and had probably consumed more alcohol in that day than in all the rest of his life. His head pounded and his mouth was horribly dry, as if he had tried to swallow a bundle of cotton rags.
He suddenly wanted nothing more than to be out of Belford’s club. It was too crowded and too loud and too chaotic. Too full of groups of drunk and bloated men laughing and yelling as they gambled and fought and chased the club’s whores around the floor. He looked around, squinting, trying to find his friends in the blurry mass of black coats, but they had already disappeared into the crowd. It was just as well, he supposed, that he snuck out without telling them. They would never let him leave while the hazard tables were still open and there was still brandy to drink and women to grope. He would have to slip out the side door.
He changed course and pushed his way through the crowd. He pulled out his watch as he lurched along, bumping into furniture and men in his dizziness. He took the watch from its chain and brought it nearer to his eyes, but no matter how hard he squinted, he couldn’t make out the time.
“Need some help, love?” a soft feminine voice asked from behind him. Camden turned to find a demimondaine sidling up to him. She was a garish creature, heavily made-up, with a thick coat of powder highlighting the lines of her face and two bright spots of rouge on her cheeks. Her lips were thin and dry, and when she spoke he could see she was missing teeth. “I can give ye the time,” she said huskily. “I’ll give ye all night.”
Camden backed away from her. “Just tell me what that says.” He took another step back and put his watch in front of her.
“Almost five,” she answered, stepping close to him again.
“Dammit, Hollsworth was wrong. I have only three hours.”
“Plenty o’ time,” the woman breathed. She backed Camden up against the wall, hitched up the skirts of her frayed and crumpled gown, and straddled one of his legs. She rubbed her breasts into his chest, running one of her hands along his torso, stopping coyly near the waistband of his trousers. His watch clattered to the floor.
“I — I must go.” Camden pushed past her, not stopping until he reached the side door, and then he burst out onto the street. He stood still for a moment, trying to regain his balance and remember which way to his new townhouse. The residence was a birthday gift from his father, and he had barely moved in. He began walking down the empty street, realized he was going the wrong way, and turned around.
He had only three hours to get home, catch a little sleep, clean up, and report to his father’s shipping office at eight. Contrary to what Wittingham thought, his father would most definitely
understand if he showed up looking anything less than impeccable and eager to work. Not the father who had once punished him for showing up at dinner with his cravat slightly off center. Not the father who drilled him daily on the importance of appearance and the necessity of increasing the Camdens’ social standing to match their great wealth.
Camden quickened his gait, his boots making a sharp clipping noise against the cobblestones, and the sound echoed eerily through the empty streets. It seemed there wasn’t another soul out tonight, nothing around him except the faded yellow glow of the gas streetlamps and the cold tendrils of an early morning fog. He heard a loud commotion behind him, a strange thumping punctuated by an otherworldly shriek. He whipped around to see two cats clawing and hissing at each other. He was about to turn back around and continue on his way when another struggle caught his eye. Further down the street, pressed into the shadows, a man clutched at the skirts of a woman. She slapped at him, crying, “You mustn’t!” as she backed away. The man grabbed her by the upper arm and pulled her toward him, and Camden could just make out his low growl telling her he could and he would.
Camden was drunk, his vision was blurry, and he had the sensation he was moving through water. He was slow to react to what he saw, and by the time he began to walk toward them, the woman had already broken free. One of her slaps had connected soundly with the man’s face and he had released her as he stumbled to the ground. She came running down the street toward Camden, passed him without noticing him, and turned down a dead-end alley. Camden glanced at the man, expecting to see him pursuing her, but he hadn’t yet regained his feet. Camden decided he would first find the woman and offer her his assistance before dealing with the man.
He turned into the alley, searching the shadows until he caught movement off in the corner. She was there, standing in a dim halo of gaslight, leaning against the brick wall of a sooty building, one hand against her chest as she struggled to catch her breath.
“Madam,” Camden said as he hurried to her.
The woman went still. “You aren’t Lord Ashe,” she said.
Camden startled at the name. He hadn’t realized the man she was struggling with was Lord Ashe. He knew the man — knew
him, at least. Ashe was an aggressive and pompous earl who had business dealings with Camden’s father. He was a man of dark temper and dark secrets, and Camden wondered how such a beautiful woman had become tangled up with him. “No, I’m Camden — Rhys Camden.”
“What is it you want, Mr. Camden? Why have you followed me here?”
Camden stood a few feet from her. He stepped forward and reached for her, but stopped when he saw her draw away. “I’m not going to harm you,” Camden said, and though he was trying to be reassuring, his voice sounded thick and strange to his ears. “I’ve come to rescue you, actually.”
He expected a dramatic reaction from the woman; perhaps she would cry in relief or throw herself into his arms in gratitude. He never expected her to laugh. Her slender shoulders shook slightly, causing the fine silk of her gown to tremble, and the loose tendrils of her golden hair to bounce and sway. Camden did reach for her then, his fingertips lightly touching the smooth, cool skin of her arm.
“I’m not in need of rescue,” she said.
“But I saw you struggle with Ashe. I saw you slap him and run away. Do not be frightened, madam. I will protect you from him.”
A slight smile touched the woman’s lips. Camden knew he should be concentrating on assisting her, but he couldn’t help but notice how lovely she was. Even in the dim, hazy light of the streetlamp, he could see how the golden curls of her thick hair framed the fine, high cheekbones of her face. His gaze traveled over her plump lips the color of claret, then along the delicate bones of her neck and shoulder, and down to her full breasts. Every part of her telegraphed an ethereal, sensual beauty.