Read A Gentleman Undone Online
Authors: Cecilia Grant
Don’t flatter yourself. She worked in a pleasure-house. She’ll have seen all sizes
. Whose intrusive voice was that? Ah. His own. That was certainly odd.
No matter. Things were looking promising. He could straighten out the odd bits later. He stood still a moment, to let her finish her perusal, and when her eyes came again to his face, he went to her. Shadow to moonlight, and they would play exquisitely as shadow and moonlight always did.
A sound … a bird? In this house in the middle of the night? No, that would be … he’d left a window open before he … for morning breezes and so he wouldn’t sleep too … No. No. To complete any of those thoughts would bring some dire result; he couldn’t quite lay his hands on it, but no, even that, to identify the dire result, might bring it about.
Urgency flared up in him as he took her face in his palms. A delicate rose-petal scent wafted from her, just as it had done whenever he got near enough in that dark hallway. Now he’d find out whether she tasted of roses too. He bent his head quickly, and brought his mouth to hers.
But she was gone. His hands sat suspended in the air where her face had been. Despair clenched his innards in its fist—he’d been so close—and suddenly he felt a touch on his coat sleeve.
She’d got behind him somehow. Slipped away like quicksilver, but no matter, because here she was turning him, backing him up against the velvet where she’d been, and then … and then … she stared at him with her falcon ferocity, and sank to her knees.
Yes. Oh, God, yes
. “Hurry.” His unaccountably clumsy fingers stumbled over his buttons. “It’s a dream, you see, and we have to finish before I …” But no, that had been a mistake, to say so out loud. Already the velvet was feeling like linen at his back, and the midnight darkness was beginning to lift. “Hurry, please.” Though
, he already knew, had no effect on her. “If you could at least get—” No, she was wavering just as Roanoke had done, even as he moved frantically from one button to the next. She leaned toward him, slowly, her lips parting, but he could hear traffic from the street below. Horses. Someone shouting. Confound his open window.
He finally got himself free of his breeches and felt a single faint, dissolving touch from her lips … and it wasn’t enough. He came awake, hard and ravenous and alone in his bed.
Will swept a hand across the mattress’s empty expanse. One of these mornings, surely, he’d wake to find a woman there. One morning he’d wake to a better comfort than his own right hand.
He touched himself nevertheless, eyes closing as his fingertips roamed over the sensitive skin. What he needed, once the time came, was a lusty, carefree sort of partner, with blitheness enough for the both of them. A lady who knew how to take things lightly, and who risked nothing by being with him.
What he didn’t need was someone else’s mistress, and a ruthless one at that. Bragging of her heartlessness. Taunting him with mention of erotic spectacles. Helping herself to his money at will.
His breath came quicker as he wrapped his whole hand. How unearthly she’d looked, kneeling before him. Her posture submissive, but her eyes the eyes of a creature who would eat you alive and spit out your bones. He’d shaped her that way, of course—it was his dream—and what did that say of him? More evidence he’d come home to England unsound.
No matter. His hand was sending quick spirals of pleasure from his loins to the top of his skull and he need not think at all now, unless it was to imagine her ruthlessness put to most gratifying use. And then to imagine the ruthlessness with which he would answer, laying her out right there on the library floor and showing her that what she’d heretofore believed to be pleasure was but a pallid facsimile.
, she would say in that liqueur of a voice. He could hear it. She’d render his name like some complex, bittersweet confection and she’d give up the most sumptuous, maddening moans ever heard by mortal ears as he drove her from one climax to the next.
He gasped, and arched up off the mattress, and spent himself in the sheets. Breath burned in his throat, his mouth, leaving behind a faint flavor of shame as he sank back down to his solitary bed. Lord. Without question he was wrong in the head. He might never be fit for a proper woman again. To say nothing of a proper lady. What did he mean, dreaming so of a demimondaine who’d made her contempt for him clear?
Too long a stretch of abstinence did this. His black moods had been so frequent, in those first months home, and so potent that to share any bit of himself with a
woman had seemed unthinkable. Even now, with those moods relaxing their grip, he felt … well, he had lingering debts, hadn’t he? Accounts to square; solemn trusts to keep; atonement, of a sort, to perform, before he could turn his thoughts to the pursuit of pleasure.
He threw off the covers and swung himself out of bed into the shock of cool air on his sweat-damp body. Yes, he knew he’d left that window open for a reason. No lying abed this morning; his sister was due here in a bit above an hour and then he’d be off on his latest trial of penitence. Now what had he done with his best waistcoat?
at her reticule and wound its strings more securely round her wrist. No cutpurse had accosted her on the long walk from Clarendon Square to Threadneedle Street, and certainly none was likely to do so now that she actually stood within the imposing walls of the bank. Still she held tight, rubbing silk back and forth over the bills on which she would begin to build her future.
One hundred in her purse. One hundred thirty waiting in the drawer at home. Only seventeen hundred seventy more to go.
Two thousand pounds, invested in the five percents, would bring her one hundred pounds per annum. One hundred pounds was income enough to buy a single lady a respectable life. Not a luxurious one—the house would be small, the candles would be tallow, and she must probably learn to like her tea without sugar—but everything would be in good repair, and she’d be able to spare perhaps ten pounds a year for a maidservant.
She glanced over to the bench where Jane sat, waiting patiently for her mistress to progress to the front of the line. She was a good girl, the maid was—industrious
and uncomplaining—and she deserved better than to be dragged across town on obscure errands.
But a respectable lady wouldn’t go abroad, and certainly wouldn’t go into a place of business, without a companion. And since Lydia was counterfeiting to be a respectable lady today, Jane must counterfeit to be the companion.
A clerk in a frock coat finished his dealings with a bespectacled man and finally it was her turn. Jane came obediently to join her, favoring one foot as she walked. Likely she’d raised a blister on the two miles from Somers Town. They’d be in for a difficult trek home.
Time enough to think of that later. She sat, arranging the skirts of her plainest, most respectable dark blue gown. Jane sat some seconds after—she’d paid careful attention when Lydia explained the rules by which a lady’s companion behaved—and then the clerk sat, too, folding his hands atop his desk. He smiled, a sheen of amused indulgence already polluting his countenance from the crown of his wig to the tip of his insufficient chin.
She cleared her throat and sat as straight as possible. “I’d like to purchase a certificate of annuity.” Had she said that correctly? “To invest in one of the annuity funds. The Navy annuity, to be specific.”
“We’re all eager to support the Navy, aren’t we?” The indulgence leaked into his voice, too, as he bowed his head in acknowledgment of her patriotic fervor. “But that’s just one of the annuities we offer, and one of the newest at that. Perhaps you’ve heard of the consolidated annuities? They’ve been a reliable investment since the last century. A good choice, I’ve found, for ladies who like a guaranteed income.”
Good Lord. He thought her a cork-brain. “As I understand it, an annuity by its very nature guarantees an income. And the Consols are paying only three percent
now. The Navy pays five.” She turned an imperious glare on Jane. “Isn’t that what you read to me out of the paper, Miss Collier? Five percent?”
Jane took the cue beautifully, nodding her bowed head while directing one apologetic glance toward the clerk.
“So I thought. I am decided on the Navy funds.”
The clerk tilted his head back, as though to estimate her from a broader angle. “Have you a man of business?”
Do you suppose I’d drag myself into this bank all alone if I had?
“My means are not so great as to require one.” No looking down. No looking away. And for God’s sake no wavering in her voice. “At present I wish to invest only one hundred pounds.”
She saw the little jump in his eyebrows before he leaned forward to possess himself of a dry pen, which he then tapped several times against his lower lip, with a meditative air. “That’s a small amount indeed for investing. Even the Navy annuity would net you only five pounds additional at the end of a year.”
“Your calculations agree with mine.”
Really, do you get many customers who can’t work out five percent of one hundred?
“It’s five pounds more than I’d have if I didn’t invest.”
His pen kept tapping. An odd look came into his eyes and his brow knit slightly, as though she and her hundred pounds were not only absurd but vaguely troubling to him.
Impudent coxcomb. She inched forward in her chair. “The hundred pounds are a beginning. I hope in time to be able to add to them.”
“Have you done business with us before?” His gaze darted from her eyes to her mouth to her tasteful gold necklace and the crease in his brow etched itself deeper. He scratched his nose with the end of his pen.
“No, I’ve never yet had the pleasure of—” The words broke off. She hitched a breath. It felt like a lungful of brackish water.
Something in his gesture, or some angling of his head, had unlocked a certain cupboard in her memory, and now the contents of that cupboard came thundering out.
She hadn’t done business with the bank before. But she had done business with him.
She dropped her eyes to her own hands, twisting her reticule strings tight enough to stop her blood. She’d looked at faces as little as possible in the brothel, and she’d willed herself to forget what faces she saw. Not, however, with complete success.
She cleared her throat, as though that had been the impediment to her speaking. “I haven’t had any dealings with your bank, no.” She forced her chin up.
His odd expression made sense now: he was trying to work out where he’d seen her before. And she saw the exact instant when he knew. His brows dashed together and his nostrils flared. His mouth curved slowly, all smirking prurience, and he set his eyes roving with thorough liberty over her person.
Then over Jane’s.
Lydia shot to her feet. She might have stayed and borne the insult, if it had been hers alone to bear. Lord knows she had practice with that.
But Jane was guilty of nothing more sordid than taking a position as housemaid to a gentleman’s mistress. She’d likely never even heard of Mrs. Parrish’s, and she didn’t need to be told of it now.
“I’ve no more time to waste on your pointless questions.” She edged in front of her maid to shield her from the man’s foul view. “I see you consider a lady’s hundred pounds too insignificant to merit your attention. I shall
seek some other home for my investment. Come along, Miss Collier.”
The clerk didn’t even rise. He only looked at her, and looked round her to Jane, with an expression that roiled all her insides. She turned away and left the bank as quickly as she could, or rather as quickly as her bewildered maid could follow with her one foot sore. Curse her selfishness. Two miles she’d dragged the girl and now two miles she must drag her back, all to no purpose. The hundred pounds wouldn’t earn her even five more.
up in a red-wheeled curricle, of all things, her straight, stern person at odds with the flashy equipage, her subdued dress quite put in the shade by the stylish green-velvet livery of the groom perched behind. “You may believe it was not my idea,” she said after Will climbed up beside her and took the ribbons, “but Mr. Mirkwood insisted. He said it was the only proper conveyance for a social call.”
“Did he drive this same rig while he was courting you?” The horses felt marvelous from this end of the reins; springy and responsive. And they were, of course, a perfectly matched pair, glossy black and just of a height.
“He didn’t court me, precisely. He couldn’t have done.” Martha stared straight ahead. “We formed an acquaintance during my early widowhood, and his conduct as a landowner earned my esteem. Then when Mr. Russell’s estate passed away from me, Mr. Mirkwood was so good as to offer for my hand.” Her cheeks had gone progressively pink as she spoke, ending in a full-fledged blush.
Things changed while a man was away. Life moved on without him, sometimes in unaccountable directions,
and the people to whom he returned were not quite the same ones he’d left. His unsentimental little sister had developed a taste for matrimony in his absence, and married not once but twice. The first husband must remain a bit of a cipher, having perished before the marriage was a year old. The second was only too much in evidence: a great lusty extravagant fellow who’d lost no time in getting a child on her and who inspired her to blush with disconcerting frequency.
“How does little Augusta get on?” He pulled lightly on the reins to let a walking-party cross in front of them. The team needed no more than a suggestion.
“Quite well. She’s robust.” That, of course, was something no Blackshear parent would ever take for granted, with as many of his siblings miscarried or lost in infancy as there were grown up. “Crawling all about, lately. Pulling herself up on furniture to stand. The usual accomplishments, I expect, of a baby ten months old. I don’t delude myself they’re of much interest to anyone besides the mother and father.”
“I assure you those things are of interest to uncles as well.” God. How exactly had this come about? Wasn’t it only yesterday they’d sat side by side in the schoolroom, seven and ten years old, she upright and attentive, he with every muscle poised against the moment Miss York would dismiss them and he could go tearing outside? “Does she say any words yet?”