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Authors: Jane Feather


BOOK: Venus
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Gingerly, Polly lifted a corner of the quilted coverlet, inserting herself between it and the feather mattress. She lay motionless, holding herself away from the large male body beside her as she tried to decide what to do next. Neglectfully, her planning had not taken her any further than this moment. Perhaps she should not do anything, simply wait and see what happened when her bedfellow awoke. Besides, it was wonderfully soft and warm in this enclosing darkness. Her body seemed to be sinking, heavy as lead, into the welcoming arms of oblivion.

Nicholas became aware of something warm pressing into the small of his back. The sensation seemed to twine so inexplicably with the rich sensuousness of his dream that when he moved his hand to identify the object, and found the bare, silken curve of Polly’s hip, he was not unduly surprised. Until reality exploded.

“Lord of hell!” He yanked aside the bed curtain so that the pale light of the risen moon could offer some illumination. The golden eyelashes swept upward. Shock leapt from the deep hazel pools as Polly stared in utter bemusement into the sleepy, furious face hanging over hers. Then she remembered where she was and why. It clearly behooved her to do something. Instinctively she reached a hand up to touch his lips, her own mouth curving in a warm smile of invitation….

Also by Jane Feather








The Diamond Slipper

The Silver Rose

The Emerald Swan

The Hostage Bride

A Valentine Wedding

The Accidental Bride

The Least Likely Bride

The Widow’s Kiss

Almost Innocent

To Kiss a Spy

Kissed by Shadows

The Bachelor List

The Bride Hunt

The Wedding Game

Chapter 1

icholas, Lord Kincaid, was in a morose mood—a state of mind not alleviated by his present surroundings. The Dog tavern was situated in a narrow, fetid alley off Botolph Lane and seemed to be frequented solely by oarsmen, scullers, and wherrymen—foulmouthed and deep in drink for the most part.

It was a Wednesday night, in the year of our Lord 1664, and beyond the door the late December fog swirled around the London streets, hung like a miasma over the River Thames running sluggishly a few yards down Botolph Lane. Kincaid could not blame the watermen for neglecting their work on such a night; customers needing passage along the river would be few and far between, and even the most knowledgeable ferryman would be afeard of losing his way in the impenetrable gloom. It was presumably that same murk that had prevented De Winter from making this secure if inhospitable rendezvous.

The sea coal fire in the hearth belched greasy, noxious smoke, and Nicholas coughed in disgust. This smoke that poured from chimneys throughout the city added its own heavy canopy to nature’s fog; but when there was a dearth of wood, and fire was a necessity, the townsfolk burnt what was available and affordable.

The smoke haze cleared, and his lordship’s watering eyes suddenly focused in incredulous astonishment. A vision had materialized in the dim, dirty, low-ceilinged room. He peered into his tankard of mulled white wine. He’d been drinking liberally enough in an effort to ward off both bodily chills and spiritual depression, but surely not sufficient to create devastating phantoms out of this thin, murky air.

He looked up again. The specter had a definitely corporeal form. It moved toward him, a laden tray balanced easily on a flat palm held high above the throng. Hair like honey, he thought—rich, dark honey flowing over faultless shoulders, straying across the creamy swell of her bosom rising unconfined from the tawdry scrap of lace at the neck of her gown. Exquisite breasts, their beauty not a whit diminished by the garish dress she wore—a costume that was deliberately designed to flaunt every one of her manifold attractions. A grubby petticoat showed beneath the hem of her scarlet skirt, hitched up to reveal the curve of knee and calf, the promise of thigh. The rough clogs could not hide the slenderness of her ankle, the narrow length of her foot.

Nicholas allowed his mesmerized gaze to drift upward again, to take in the wondrous line of her neck, the curve of her upraised arm, finally to rest in stupefaction upon her countenance. A perfect oval, ivory caressed with rose, a wide brow and straight, slim nose, arched eyebrows over glowing hazel eyes whose slight slant was somehow matched by the uptilted corners of a beautifully drawn mouth, the full lower lip promising a depth of sensuality that sent shivers down his spine.

Lord of hell!
was such a jewel doing in this malodorous hole amongst louts and river rats? Even as he opened his mouth to articulate the thought, the vision smiled—a come-hither smile that rendered him momentarily breathless. Her arm brushed his sleeve as she passed his table, threading her way through the crowd toward the long plank table in the middle of the room. The noisy group of drinkers greeted her arrival with loud ribaldry and straying hands as she bent to
place the tray on the table before handing out the foaming wooden tankards.

Nicholas watched the display with a grimace of distaste. The girl was only receiving the usual treatment meted out to tavern wenches; normally he would hardly have noticed; she was dressed to invite it, after all. But the sight of dirty, raw-boned hands groping beneath her petticoats, pawing at that matchless bosom, turned his stomach. And across the small distance that separated them, he could sense the girl’s unmistakable revulsion.

Polly fought the usual battle for control, forcing herself to keep still under the pinches and pats, to master the urge to kick and spit and claw as her skin crept with disgust. She must smile and toss her head coquettishly and answer lewdness with its kind, or Josh would swing his studded belt with customary vigor. She could feel the gentleman’s eyes on her; somehow that added another dimension to the normal misery, as if a witness to this degrading business could possibly make it worse, she thought bitterly.

“Polly! Get over ’ere, you idle trollop!” The tavern keeper’s bellow seemed to shiver the rafters, blasting through the cheery, liquor-fed cacophony of raised voices and laughter. It gave the girl an opportunity to make her escape. She grabbed up the now empty tray and turned to push her way back to the ale-stained counter at the rear of the room. The gentleman was still looking at her with unnerving intensity. Polly tossed her head and smiled at him again, just in case Josh had his eyes on her and might accuse her of neglecting the chance to coax an extra coin or two out of a clearly well-to-do customer.

Josh drained his tankard of porter, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His little bloodshot eyes bore a look of satisfaction. He hadn’t missed the gentleman’s fascination with the wench. It was a look he’d seen on many a young gentleman’s face when their eyes fell upon her. Josh could understand it well enough. Lust stirred his own loins with painful urgency whenever he thought of her, thought of her sleeping in the little cupboard under the stairs, her smock
caught up … Odd’s breath! If Prue wasn’t such a sour-faced prig, he’d have had the girl long before now! It wasn’t as if she was
blood kin.

This remembered frustration brought a vicious twist to his mouth, an obscene glint in his eye as Polly came up to him. If he couldn’t enjoy those charms for himself, he’d make damn sure they were put to good use. “Get to your aunt in the kitchen and tell her to prepare another tankard of the mulled white wine,” he directed. “Prepare it
, understand!” Polly did understand and felt the familiar dread creep up her spine at the thought of the loathsome task ahead of her. “You give it to the gentleman and make sure ’e drinks it afore ye take ’im abovestairs. He’ll ’ave a fat purse, I’ll be bound, to say nothing of them stones on his fingers.” The obscene leer intensified. “Just you make the right promises, girl, and get ’im on the bed.”

“Not again, Josh,” Polly heard herself plead, although she knew it was unwise. “’Tis the second time this sennight.”

The back of his hand flashed, catching her across the side of the head. She bit back a cry, rubbing her ringing ear as she stumbled ’round the counter and into the kitchen, where an amazon of a woman with fleshy forearms and gnarled, liver-spotted hands was presiding over bubbling cauldrons. The hot, damp atmosphere was filled with heady fumes, coils of steam wreathing to coat the smoke-blackened beams on the low ceiling. The woman looked shrewdly at the girl, detecting the film of tears in the hazel eyes.

“You angered yer uncle again?”

“He’s not my uncle,” Polly spat, taking a tankard from a hook in the wall.

“You watch yourself, my girl. If it wasn’t for ’im, ye’d ’ave no bed and no food in your belly,” Prue declared. “Looked after you, ’e ’as, just as if you was one of his own kin. Instead of a Newgate brat,” she added in an undertone.

Polly heard it nevertheless, but she had heard it so many times in her seventeen years that it had lost the power to hurt, if, indeed, it had ever had any. “Josh wants a special,”
she said listlessly. “In mulled white wine.” She handed Prue the tankard.

Her aunt nodded. “The gentleman in the corner, I suppose. Thought ’e was waitin’ for someone at first, but if he’s on ’is own, ’tis safe enough.” She dipped a ladle into one of the aromatic cauldrons and filled the tankard, then began to add spices from an array of little ceramic pots. Polly watched. One of those jars held a powder that was far from innocuous, and as her aunt, in stained apron and grimy cap, mixed and stirred the malevolent draft, to Polly’s suddenly fanciful eyes, the bubbling, steamy room came to resemble a witch’s kitchen.

Moisture beaded her forehead, and she bent her head to wipe her face with her own far-from-clean apron. There had to be a world beyond these walls; there had to be a way to achieve the ambition that danced, glittering with promise, before her mind’s eye during the long reaches of the night. One day she would act upon a very different stage, play a very different role from the one assigned to her in this sordid, circumscribed existence, where the exigencies of poverty were the only determinants, and the hangman’s noose the only feared outcome. All she needed was a patron, some rich gentleman who could be persuaded of her talent and would introduce her to the people who managed the theatres. The trouble was that gentlemen with fat purses and possible influence in high places did not often frequent the Dog tavern, and when they did, as with the present prospective victim, Josh had another fate in store for them, one that effectively precluded their offering any assistance to Polly.

She took the tankard from her aunt and returned to the taproom. She was now required to persuade the gentleman into the bedchamber abovestairs, where, thanks to Prue’s potion, he would be rendered unconscious to await the thieving ministrations of Josh and his cronies. What happened to him after that was no concern of hers. Her task completed, she would be packed off to seek her pallet beneath the stairs, closing her ears to the thumps and creaks,
the muttered imprecations, the scuffings and shufflings in the passage.

BOOK: Venus
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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