Authors: Anne Stuart
Prequel to the House of Rohan Series
Desperate, starving, Kathleen Strong makes her way to a job interview that promises a chance at proper employmentâ¦and maybe a bite to eat. Accused of “gross immorality,” she's adrift after being dismissed from her governess position, despite being entirely innocent.
That innocence is precisely what a mysterious group of debauched aristocrats finds so alluring about Miss Strong. When they propose a scandalous offer that she can't refuseâ¦she can't refuse. But if the darkly gallant Alistair Rohan, a gentleman involved in all manner of wicked deeds himself, has anything to say about it, Kathleen can escape her disrepute in another way.
Of course, the escape route looks very similar to the group's illicit proposition itselfâ¦
Miss Kathleen Strong was so hungry she could have eaten three of the pigeons that normally fluttered through St. Mark's Square, raw. The only problem being that they were wily little creatures, and every time she got close they flapped away, knowing that a scarecrow like her wouldn't be providing bread crumbs.
But today it was pouring rain. There were no tourists. The pigeons had deserted the place.
Still, she could be glad of the rain. It kept her awake and alert enough to make her appointment with Sir Wesley Marblethorpe. She hadn't had a bed in two days, and sleeping in an alleyway had its drawbacks, like rats and other nighttime predators. She had no weapon apart from a particularly nasty hairpin about six inches long, fairly suitable for jabbing a miscreant in the eye. She was long past being squeamish.
She was reasonably clean, thanks to the presence of water everywhere. Her serviceable gray dress was stained, to be sure, but she'd gotten most of the darker spots out, and she'd even managed to plait her hair in severe braids, affixing them to the base of her neck with the hairpin cum Excalibur. She knew that Sir Wesley would see her just as she was, a proper British governess, down on her luck, admittedly, but starched and proper enough; presuming he didn't look too closely, she would qualify for whatever form of employment Sir Wesley was offering.
If she got the job she might even have enough nerve to request an advance on her salary and she could liberate her meager belongings from Signora Montalba, the beady-eyed landlady who'd kicked her out two days ago. The very idea of asking such a boon made her shrink with shame, but her last meal had been a withered apple, and that was a day and a half ago. If she didn't get something to eat soon she was going to end up facedown in the Grand Canal.
Palazzo del Zaglia was up ahead, on one of the less busy campos. There were none of Venice's omnipresent cats around, and Kathleen wondered idly if she'd ever eat one. Probably not. She
In truth, there was no way to tell for sure if this large, crumbling building was indeed Palazzo del Zaglia. She should have approached it from the water side, but she hadn't enough money for a gondola.
She would just have to hope for the best. The steady beat of the rain had turned her bonnet into a sodden mass that hung limply around her face, and her hair was plastered to her head beneath it. She would look unprepossessing indeed, but the advertisement said Sir Wesley was quite desperate. As was she. Surely a match made in heaven.
She climbed the cracked stone steps to the intimidating door and pulled the bell. Next she'd have to face a superior servant, who might just send her off with a flea in her ear. She had no idea what she'd do in that case.
But the man who opened the door was a far cry from a servant. A bit on the short side, with a little too much paunch and a simple bag wig set askew on a balding pate, he wore a well-trimmed goatee and had the smallest, meanest eyes she'd ever seen.
“Miss Strong?” He had a high-pitched, almost effeminate voice. “Miss Kathleen Strong?”
She wondered if she was supposed to curtsy. If she tried she might very well pass out at his feet, which would hardly improve matters. She managed a slight dip. “Sir Wesley?” she said hopefully.
“Indeed. But my poor Miss Strong, you're soaked! Please come in out of the rain and dry off. My friends won't mind waiting.”
“Your friends?” she said doubtfully, relinquishing her bonnet and reticule into the hands of the supercilious servant she'd been expecting.
“Marcello, please take Miss Strong into the dining room or whatever the hell Alistair is calling it. Miss Strong, I'll be joining you in a moment.”
Her brain hadn't melted in the Venetian rain, even if it felt like it. She knew, immediately, that this was not the kind of employment she was seeking. She should say she'd made a mistake, turn and get out of there as fast as she possibly could.
But where could she go?
Sir Wesley must have read the indecision on her face, and he smiled winningly, like a chubby, naughty little boy intent on mischief.
She'd dealt with naughty little boys and she knew just how to handle them. The grown version couldn't be so different.
“Just hear us out, Miss Strong,” he said with the right amount of earnestness and charm. “I just know we can be of service to each other. Please, go with Marcello.”
The absurdity of her suspicions hit so hard she laughed. Venice was filled with the most beautiful women in the world. No one would have any use for a skinny spinster nearing thirty years of age. She was being ridiculous.
“This way, miss,” the servant said, and, consigning her doubts to the Adriatic, she followed his stiff figure down a series of passageways, hallways and salons. They were in the same declining condition of every single palazzo she'd seen since she'd arrived in this beautiful, curst city. The palazzos must be built already disintegrating.
She heard the voices well before they reached the room, and her irrational misgivings came back. Men's voices, loud, slightly drunken.
Courage, she reminded herself. There were almost as many courtesans as there were pigeons in Venice. They didn't want her for
. Nobody did.
Marcello pushed open the door, and the noise and heat spilled forth, accompanied by the unmistakable smell of cinnamon and chocolate. Maybe they'd feed her even if they didn't hire herâif she just had a decent meal she might be able to attend to her desperate problems with a fresh perspective.
She stopped in the doorway, unsure what to do. And then she saw him.
He sat at one end of the table, long legs propped up on the scarred surface, and for a moment she stared. He was jaded, beautiful, dissolute, and his faint smile was dangerously seductive. All the other men in the room seemed to fade into the shadows, and Kathleen stared at him as if she'd seen a ghost.
And ghost he was. The ghost of her girlhood, when she was young and hopeful and daydreamed with her sister about the man who would be her true love.
He'd looked very much like that man, from the tousled wave of thick brown hair, the piercing blue eyesâthe mouth perfect for kissing. A knight on a white stallion, come to rescue her.
Madness. He caught sight of her, and his mouth curved in a smile so cynical that for a moment she was crushed.
“I believe we have a guest, gentleman,” he announced in a lazy voice, and the sudden silence was shocking. “A little gray wren has come to visit us. Let's make her welcome, shall we?”
She wasn't sure what she would have done next. This announcement was greeted with such raucous enthusiasm that she almost turned and ran, but Sir Wesley had come up behind her, taking her arm in his and escorting her into the room as though she were an honored visitor.
“This is the woman I told you about. Miss Kathleen Strong, may I introduce to you our little organization, the members of the Saving Grace?”
“I thought we decided on the Heavenly Host,” a drunken voice called out.
The man at the table spoke again, his voice low, pleasant. Implacable. “What is she doing here, Marblethorpe? I thought we discussed this.”
“We came to no consensus. And Miss Strong is in dire need of employment. Aren't you, Miss Strong?”
She had a hard time pulling her gaze away from the man's eyes. They were a golden color, like dark honey, and that made her think of toast and tea and rich pastriesâ¦. She forced herself to look at some of the other men. All expensively dressed, albeit their fine clothes were in sad disarray after what was presumably a night of carousing. “Yes,” she managed to say in a low voice. “I'm in need of employment.”
“I don't like it,” her hero said flatly, forcing her to look at him again. He'd discarded his neckcloth and if he'd worn a wig it was long gone. His white shirt was open, exposing a quantity of beautiful golden skin, more skin than she'd ever seen on an adult male.
And she really was losing her mind. She glanced back at Sir Wesley. The movement of her head was too swift, and for a moment blackness started to close in.
“You might get Miss Strong a seat if we're going to continue with this nonsense,” the beautiful man said, and her heart sank. She'd already been judged not qualified for the position. She found herself settled into a large wooden chair, just moments before she took a header onto the none too clean marble floors of the Palazzo del Zaglia.
And she drifted into the golden-honey-colored eyes, as the voices flowed around her.
Alistair Rohan was annoyed, at Wesley Marblethorpe, at his dozen or so drunken boon companions, fellow intellectuals and degenerates, but most of all with himself.
He'd called this meeting of the nascent organization they'd dreamed up one drunken night. It was an organization dedicated to excess and debauchery, to questioning the status quo of faith, the existence of God and the devil, and the limits one could go to in search of pleasure. They'd taken their motto from the ancient Abbey of ThelemeâDO WHAT THOU WILTâand Marblethorpe and the others were ready to jump in with enthusiasm.
Alistair was already bored with the notion. But then, he grew bored easily, particularly nowadays. What had seemed like a brilliant idea when he was roaring drunk now seemed tawdry and childish by the light of day. He didn't need the approval of his friends to plumb the depths or heights of his erotic nature. He wasn't interested in dressing in costumes or playing at blasphemy. He believed in nothing, therefore there was nothing he needed to flout. In truth, he had always done what he wished, from the time his bastard of a father died and left him his sole heir. There was no titleâhis cousin was the English Viscount Rohanâand all he'd inherited had been a crumbling castle in Ireland and enough money not to have to live there. He'd rented this moldering palazzo and availed himself of the myriad pleasures Venice had to offer, and there had been an impressive number of them, and never looked back.
In fact, it was because he'd finally run out of diversions that he and Marblethorpe and his friends had come up with this ludicrous idea of the Heavenly Host, and he hadn't sobered up enough over the past few weeks to talk the others out of it.
He looked at the girlâno, womanâwho'd been ushered in. She looked as if she might faint, which would have been an annoyance. He'd gotten her a chair because he didn't want her smashing her skull on the floorâthe marble was cracked and stained already and blood was the very devil to clean up. At least, his servants had never managed it well.
“So who the hell is this, Marblethorpe?” His voice was lazy, though he already knew exactly what this pathetic creature was.
“You know perfectly well, Alistair,” Wesley said in a stiff voice. “Miss Strong can provide the one element we need to make our revels complete. Indeed, she's probably the only one in Venice, unless you're willing to involve children, and I believe you all overruled me on that?”
“You're a sick bastard, Wesley,” Alistair said evenly, turning to look at the woman. She'd started at the mention of his nameâclearly his reputation preceded him, even among little gray wrens. She seemed oddly familiar, but he was certain he'd never seen her before.
“Miss Strong,” Wesley said, and the woman looked up, slightly dazed. She was pale, but her bone structure was lovely, he thought dispassionately. Too thin for the optimal sensual pleasures, but there was still something indisputably appealing.
There were no fresh glasses on the table, and he didn't want any of his servants bothering them, so he refilled his own glass of wine, rose, and sauntered over to stand in front her. It took her a moment to look up, and when she did so, he noticed she had particularly lovely eyes. A warm brown, almost like rich chocolate, though at the moment she could barely focus. He wondered if she were a laudanum addictâthey often were too thin and had that dazed look.
He put the wineglass in her cold, gloveless hand. “Here,” he said, “Drink this. You'll need it before you hear Wesley's proposition.”
“I shouldn't,” she said, and it was no polite demurral. She really thought she shouldn't.
He didn't care what she thought. “Drink it.”
She did, and a faint blush of color rose to her pale cheeks. She started to thank him, but he turned away, taking his seat once more, ignoring the astonished looks from his fellow rakehells.
He shrugged in response to the unasked question. “She's just so damned pathetic,” he said.
She raised her head at that, and her brown eyes sharpened. So, she was more alert than she seemed. Well, she
pathetic. Pale, thin, half-drowned.
He waved a hand at Marblethorpe to continue, and he did so with a portentous clearing of his throat.
“As I was saying,” he continued, his high, nasal voice only slightly slurred. “Miss Strong is a virtuous gentlewoman fallen on hard times. She arrived in Venice four months ago as the governess to the children of Mr. and Mrs. Brandon. After two months she was summarily turned out for improper behavior. She was able to secure another post, which lasted less than a week once Mrs. Brandon paid her new employers a visit. Since then she's been eking out a living with English and Italian lessons and the occasional fine needlework. As you can see, the perfect impoverished English gentlewoman.”
Marblethorpe was like a cat with a mouse. He liked to torture any poor creature he managed to capture. Usually Alistair didn't mind. In fact, he didn't mind now, he told himself, watching her.
“Would you tell us why you were dismissed, Miss Strong?” Jasper Fenton was slightly less drunk than the evening's ringleader and therefore able to form a coherent sentence.
She'd ducked her head again, her shoulders bowed, but she looked up at that. “Gross immorality, sir,” she whispered.
“Demme, Wesley, we need a virgin, not a blasted soiled rose,” Lord Maxwell protested.