To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella (3 page)

BOOK: To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella
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“How do you know of this?”

“I know because he tells me,” Caro said, with
another sigh. “Especially of the girls he meets at Almack’s. He makes no secret
of any of it. I swear
,
it is almost as if he expects
me to approve his choice of a bride.” Or perhaps he did it to remind her of her
place. She did not like to think him cruel, but sometimes, Caro was not so
sure.

“That is awful,” Allie agreed, and then
added, as an afterthought. “I assume, he told you of Mary Holden.”

“You know her?” It did not matter. Not
really. But Caro could not stop wondering about the girl who was likely to be
the next Countess of Blackthorne.

“Not well,” her sister admitted. “Mary and I
do not run in quite the same circles. I have no vouchers, so Almack’s is out of
the question.”

There was no accusation in her sister’s voice
over the lack of acceptance she received, but they both knew the reason for it.
There was no room at London’s finest assembly hall for the sister of a fallen
woman. “If there was some way I could take this back,” Caro admitted, “You know
I would. I was not thinking of you at the time of my disgrace, or what ill
might befall you.”

Allie laughed.
“That I
would be shunned by a society that could not manage to shame my dear sister?
Oh, really, love. I do not mind so very much. If they ostracize me when I have
done nothing to deserve it, what use do I have for them?”

These very visits would be reason enough to
cast her out, if anyone knew of them. But there must be something Caro could
do, if she could not bring herself to send her sister away. “Perhaps, if you
had a larger dowry, you would be more tempting. I could sell some of the
nonsense that Vincent has bought for me and give you the proceeds. There really
is quite a collection of it. I do not need so many gowns, as I never go out in
the evening. And I never wear the jewels.” If Vincent married, she would sell
it all, except for the carriage. She would use that to move to a place where
she might never seem him or his countess, ever again.

Alene gave her a tired look. “If I had a
large dowry, everyone would wonder where I came by it, and what I had done.
They will find a reason to suspect me, you know. I say, fie upon them for
that.” She gave another stubborn sigh.

She had ruined her sister, by her own
behavior. She should have known from the start what would happen. But all she
had been able to think of was Vincent. He had feigned indifference on the day
he had come for her, but he had needed her as much as she had needed him.
Vincent Wilmont was not
so
cold-blooded as he now
pretended, nor was he a violent man. But when he was through with Mr.
Worthington, the seconds had called for both a surgeon and a priest. He had
been devastated by what he had done. And he’d done it because of her.

She could not refuse him. But now, she must
live with the consequences. “There must be some way to help you,” Caro said.

Alene laughed. “Do not worry yourself over
it. It does not bother me. Why should it bother you? What should interest you
is the woman who Blackthorne chases. You asked me of Mary Holden, did you not?”

Not precisely. But her stubborn silence
showed her curiosity, so her sister answered her anyway.

“She is a lovely girl, with a head full of
blonde ringlets, and, in my opinion, little else.”

“She has no wit?” And Vincent was so very
sharp. It hardly seemed fair, now that she was finally to lose him, it would be
to such a weak adversary.

“Not a penny weight of sense. But that should
not bother you, now that you do not want Blackthorne. I expect your next lover
shall have better taste.”

If Allie was ribbing her, she’d managed it
with a straight face. “You know there will be no other. Now that he is gone,”
she gave a theatrical gesture towards the door, “I am retired.”

“Then you will have to settle
for one last revenge
upon your precious Blackthorne.”

“How so?”

“Any attachment that was between him and Mary
is over. What you did to him is all over the scandal sheets. In response to it,
Lord Holden has announced that his visits are not welcome. You have made such a
fool of the poor man that he is quite likely to settle for a spinster, such as
myself. Not that I would have him, of course,” Allie added quickly. “There is
such a thing as family loyalty, after all.”

So Vincent was not to wed Mary Holden. What
was to be made of that? Nothing, she reminded herself. It would not be long
before he chose another fresh faced thing. “It does not matter. I do not want a
man who was stupid enough to court her in the first place. Nor can I stand
being cooped here, like a dove in a cote, while he takes another woman to wife.
All the ‘I love
yous
’ in the world will not console
me.”

“You are truly that jealous?”

Caro gave a little sniff. “It is as it was,
when he was offering marriage. I think too much of myself to accept permanent
competition for his time.  He might think we will be a happy threesome. If
that is what he wishes, he must find another mistress.” Her next sniff was
slightly louder, and she almost feared that she was about to cry. “And when he
does, I hope he will have the sense not to announce his love for her.
If so, he does not understand the meaning of the word at all.”

Her sister shook her head and opened her
mouth, as though about to explain to her the faults in her reasoning. Then she
gave up and shrugged. “In that case, I can assure you, there is nothing to
fear. There is no sign that Blackthorne is courting anyone. He spends all his
time in a brothel.”

Caro hid a shudder of distaste. She supposed,
if she were more honest, she’d have admitted the similarity between herself and
the poor unfortunates working in such houses. But that would destroy the lies
she’d told herself while with Vincent. She had been willing to stoop to this
life because of her feelings for him. All of society might turn its back upon
her, but when had it done either of them any good? When the two of them were
alone, and the door of her house was shut to keep away the rest of the world,
Blackthorne became the one man she truly wanted: the sweet, kind Vincent that
she had met in Bath.

But now, he was visiting a brothel. She had
not expected their separation would turn him into a monk. But even at his worst,
he had been more selective in his partners than to resort to houses of ill
fame. Perhaps her loss had affected his mind.

And then, she remembered the source of the
information. “What would you know of such things?” she said, hoping that her
sister must be wrong.

“It is the only explanation I can make for
his behavior. He spends all of his time at a certain house on Jermyn Street.
There is no number, no sign, and I never see anyone enter the place but men.
The windows are heavily curtained, for I have peered in them myself.”

“Alene!
You have been following him?”

Her sister shrugged. “I can think of no
better way to discover what he has been up to, since the two of you parted.”

“Have you lost your senses? Suppose someone
sees you trailing after him? Think of your reputation.” If her actions were
discovered, the gossips would announce that she was no better than her older
sister.

She took a deep breath and did her best to
focus on the most part of this latest revelation. “You must stop this
immediately. Not only is it unladylike, Blackthorne’s doings are none of your
business.”

“I know,” Allie said, with a proud smile.
“And do not fuss at me, so.” She patted her bonnet. “I wear a veil, and bring
my maid with me, just as I do when I visit you.”

“And you tell mother…”

“That I am doing good works,” she completed.
“Now, admit the truth: you burn with curiosity as to what he is doing. Though
you cast him off, you adore the man, and always will.”

It was true. But it was her secret, and she
had done her best to keep it, since she’d had no evidence that he cared for her
in any but an obvious, physical way.

Then, he had said those words.

But it had happened only once. Surely, if the
affection was deeply rooted, he’d have said something of it before. And if he had
loved her, why was he so quick to replace her?

At last, she sighed. “Give me the direction
of this place then, for you know you want to.”

Her sister leaned forward eagerly on her
chair. “What do you mean to do with the information?”

“Nothing that concerns you.
And you must promise to avoid Blackthorne
from this moment on. It is bad enough that one of us is totally ruined. Please
do not break our mother’s heart further than it already is.”

CHAPTER
THREE
 

Caro sat in her carriage in front of the
green door on Jermyn Street, gathering her nerve. Considering her profession,
it should not have been possible to shock or disgust her. She was a courtesan
and beyond the pale. The activities that took place behind that door were not
unfamiliar to her. In fact, she quite enjoyed some of them.

But if she was honest with herself, she was
terribly sheltered. She’d spent too much of the last year hiding in her house.
She could not go about in polite society. But she had made no effort to mix
with others of her set.

That made her too proud, she supposed. She
had not wanted to think of herself as a demimondaine, so why should she mix
with them?  To make up for the absence of friends, she had filled her days
with activity. Mornings, she had walked in Hyde Park, early enough to avoid the
majority of society. Then she had received her sister. In the afternoon, she
read, tended the flowers in her garden and embroidered innumerable
handkerchiefs, screens and pillows.

In the evenings, she had Vincent. Between
them, they had created their own world: a harmony of quiet conversation, shared
jokes, and leisurely lovemaking.

Now, he was behind that green enameled door,
doing God knew what with God knew whom. Was he guilty of perversion? She hoped
not. Despite his reputation, when he was alone with her he was the most decent
of men. To find him holding a whip, or bending beneath it, would spoil her
opinion of him.

As she watched the door a man approached,
clearly planning to enter. If he was representative of the clientele the place
could not be too terribly bad. This stranger looked in no way worldly, the very
opposite of the rakish Blackthorne. He was pale skinned and bespectacled. His
ill-fitting coat hung from shoulders set in a scholarly stoop. While he might
be the sort of man to frequent a house of ill fame, she had trouble imagining
him at the same one as her Vincent.

She would not know the truth until she had
seen the other side of the door, and her curiosity grew by the minute. She
signaled to her driver to circle the block and took to the street, walking a
few paces behind the man as he climbed the granite steps and raised a hand to
the knocker.

After a short series of
raps
,
it opened for him, and the porter greeted him by name. “Hello Mr. Howard.”

Before he could answer, she was up the steps
and beside him, slipping her hand into his arm and propelling him forward
through the open door.

He jumped, as shocked as if she’d assaulted
him, and tried to pull his arm away.

In response, she gave him her most
devastating smile and held on even tighter. Then she looked to the mortified
servant. “I am sure Mr. Howard does not mind if I partake in the pleasures here
this evening.”

“I don’t?” he said absently. Then he shook
his head to clear it. “Actually, I do.” He glanced down at her. “It would be
most improper.”

“That is the point of this place, is it not?”
She squeezed his arm, hoping that he would use his imagination rather than
requesting a demonstration. It did not look like the sort of place where events
happened
 
in
full view of the staff. The foyer was as staid and unremarkable as her
companion. “Under circumstances such as these, is anything really too
improper?”

“Well…” Mr. Howard paused as though
considering it from a philosophical perspective. Then he added, “Yes. They do
not mind the dog and the rabbit. But I am quite sure that ladies are not
allowed on the premises.”

Dogs and rabbits, but no women.
Oh, dear God. It was worse than she’d
thought. She must find Vincent and rescue him from this place,
immediately. 

She rallied her nerve and gave her lightest,
most flirtatious laugh. “Then there shouldn’t be a difficulty.
For I am no lady.”

“I can certainly vouch for that. Release our
poor Mr. Howard, Caro, and explain your presence here.” She did not have to
look up to identify the man who had joined them, for the voice was almost as
familiar as her own. Blackthorne was lounging in the doorway, his dark look at
odds with his smile.

 

He had known she was near, from the moment
she’d crossed the threshold. It was wishful thinking to claim he smelled her
perfume all the way from the reading room. But the memory of her scent returned
with the first word spoken by that melodious voice, as did the taste of her
lips, and the feel of her hip resting against his as they’d lain together on
the day they’d parted.

The day she’d evicted him, he reminded
himself bitterly. All the same, he stood and walked towards the sound, unable
to stop
himself
. She was talking rot and clinging to
Aubrey Howard, who looked thoroughly baffled to be holding anything other than
a rabbit in the crook of his arm. The poor man was out of his depth with women
of any kind, much less a beauty like Caro. The ridiculous pairing was the only
thing that kept Blackthorne’s temper in check. Even after the humiliation of
their parting, he could not stop thinking she was his.

She had seen him, now. For a moment, he was
sure that she was as affected by his presence as he was by hers. She made no answer
to his first words, so he spoke again. “I assume you are looking for me.”

She tipped her head to the side, considering.
“Why is that?”

“You have connived to gain entrance to a
gentlemen’s club. Why else would you be here, but to track me down?”

“A gentleman’s club,” she repeated, as though
she did not know exactly what scandal she was creating.

“Do not tell me that you are up for
membership,” he said with a mocking laugh. “You have come to find me.”
T
o apologize.
He waited.

She paused, and then covered her bosom with a
gloved hand, and laughed.
At him.
He could feel
his temper rising, as she spoke. “You mistake me, my Lord. I came to a
gentleman’s club for the most obvious reason. I seek a gentleman. I am at
liberty now, you know.”

A crowd was gathering in the doorway to the
lounge, eager to see the reason for the commotion. So she looked through him as
though he were not even there, and addressed the membership. “Since my most
recent one proved unsatisfactory, I seek a protector. If any man is interested,
speak now.”

“One word, from any of you, and it is grass
for breakfast.” He tossed the words over his shoulder, then turned back to
stare at his lover.

“Did I hear a noise?” She touched her ear,
and then shook her head. “It is only the wind. And who here is afraid of that?”

“I mean it.” He repeated to the men behind
him.
“Pistols at dawn.
Or swords.
It makes no difference. I will not stand idly by, and see myself…”

He stopped. He had been about to say
cuckolded. That could not be the right term for this situation. She had cast
him off. Other women had done so, certainly. But that had not hurt like this.
Before he had met Caroline Sydney, his heart had still been his own.

His beloved paramour gave a half hearted
shrug at the lack of response.
“Cowards, all of you.
Very well, then, I shall go to White’s and see if there is anyone there…”

“You will not.”

If she heard him, she gave no indication of
it, merely turned and headed for the door.

He could feel the hair on the back of his
neck rising, which was most certainly her object. She was dressed as proper as
any girl on Bond Street in a simple spring gown and
spencer
buttoned to the neck. But the color was apricot, the same dusky pink gold as
her bare skin. While others might see it as innocent, to him it was a
deliberate provocation. He might have resisted red satin. But attired thus she
reminded him of a virgin sacrifice, and a naked one at that. Her perfume would
be the same delicate floral she had always worn, but with a note of musk
beneath it that drove him wild. He stepped in front of her, blocking her way.

She made to go around him.

He blocked her again, and again she evaded.

This time, he seized her arm and pushed her
backwards, through the nearest open door, slamming it behind them. It was too
small to call an anteroom, really more of a closet to store top coats and
mufflers during the winter. Now that the weather was clement, there was nothing
but a single, abandoned Garrick on a peg at the back. He pushed her back into
it and muttered, “Why did you really come here? Do you mean to embarrass me
again? Or have you lost your mind?”

She laughed sharply. “I, lost my mind? I am
simply attempting to do business in a difficult market. If you continue
offering such threats, my Lord, you will frighten away my potential customers.”

“Customers?”
Was that all he had been to her? Then he
felt all the more foolish for blurting out his feelings on the very day she had
sent him away. “You are not some common whore, my dear.”

“Then I am an uncommon one,” she announced.
“The activities are the same, although the workplace is better. I flatter
myself to think that I perform them with a skill that makes me worthy of
additional compensation.”

His knees went weak, remembering the skills
she described. If he were not careful, he would have her demonstrating them
here, scant feet from half the wags in London. Then, no idle threats would keep
them away from her. “It is unfair of you to speak thusly of an offer of
protection. It is more of a symbiotic relationship. Each party gains from it.”

“That is true of any form of trade,” she
said, as though schooled in business. “One gains wares, the other, money.”

“That was not how it was between us,” he
insisted, marveling at how soft it sounded, how desperate. “You enjoyed what we
did as much as I.”

“Did it make it easier to tell yourself
that?” she asked.

“But you did.” If she had objected to any of
it, he would have stopped. When had he ever needed to? She had been compliant
in all things. After she’d said yes to his first dishonorable offer, what
choice was left to her? Now, he was faulting her for the situation he’d
created.

Today, it did not seem to bother her. She ran
a hand down his coat, fingers under his lapel. Even though she did not touch
skin, the possessiveness of the gesture made him hard and weak at the same
time. He clasped her hand along with the cloth and squeezed it and he felt her
legs widen, ready to accommodate him should he hoist her skirts.

It was almost impossible to resist. He wanted
her as much as he had the first night he had seen her in Bath. Then, she had
been a fresh faced virgin in a white muslin gown. He had desired her with an
intensity that had defied logic. Because of her, he had alternated playing the
spurned lover and the jealous fool until he no longer knew his own mind.

 But now, she was the woman who knew his
body like no one ever would, and her hand was moving between his legs, undoing
the front of his trousers and reaching for him. Her strokes were slow and sure,
and for a moment he lost track of his anger with her, feeling nothing but her
fingers, spreading the moisture on the head of his shaft.

“You might not understand this,” she said, in
a voice that was almost a purr. “As a member of the peerage, you think work
beneath you. But it is not such a bad thing, when one enjoys one’s job.” She
slid down his body, to her knees, and her tongue circled where her fingers had
been. “And you have been very good to me.”

“Yes.” It was a lie, and he knew it. He had
given her a house and jewels. But she deserved so much more. His fingers
clutched the fabric of the coat on the peg. The weight of the wool was the only
thing holding him upright as she worked slowly over him. He was fully in her
mouth now, lips and tongue covering him in slow strokes as her hands moved up
to squeeze his
arse
. He was going to explode, right
here, in the cloakroom of a men’s club.

She knew he was close. She paused, releasing him
and blowing long, cold breaths on the hot, tight skin. “A man who is so
generous should be willing to give me the one thing I truly want.”

Marriage.
It had to be. He’d thought about it often
enough, over the last year, only to discard it. Society would never forgive
her, now that she had accepted something less from him. If he made her his
countess, she could not be hidden away and kept safe from the negative opinion
of the
ton.
How could he forgive himself, if their wedding exposed her
to more ridicule?

But he would need an heir. For that, he must
marry. He had known, for some time now, that it would be impossible for him to
marry anyone but her. 

“Anything,” he said stroking her hair. “The
world is yours, should you desire it.” It was a relief that this was finally to
be settled between them. He was back in her favor again. And back in her mouth,
building to climax.

She paused again, and her hand returned to
finish him as she spoke. “Then there will be no more of this nonsense about my
taking another lover. You must realize that all good things come to an end. And
I fear,
Blackthorne, that
we have reached ours.”

BOOK: To Recapture a Rake: A Hephaestus Club Novella
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