Page 2

Author: Anne Stuart


“Decent of you,” Brandon replied. “I intend to.”


2


Six o’clock in the evening was not the most conventional time for sexual congress, but Benedick, Viscount Rohan, didn’t give a damn. Living in Somerset had required a certain amount of sexual circumspection on his part, and ever since his latest mistress had departed in a wounded huff, some six months before, he’d been depressingly celibate. He intended to take care of that matter immediately, and Violet Highstreet and her talented mouth would prove more than up to the task. Of all Mrs. Cadbury’s highflyers she was the one who specialized in that particular variation, one of many he was extremely fond of. She would take the edge off him, so to speak, and he would then enjoy himself more traditionally or perhaps head over to his club to discover who exactly was in town. At the moment, however, all he could think of was La Violette’s carmined lips enclosed about him.


If Emma Cadbury had closed her doors, he would have to find a new source of enthusiastic—and healthy—companions. The women of London fell into a number of categories, starting with the virtuous wives and widows, which were of no interest to him, followed by the virgins, who were only worth marrying and turning into virtuous wives and widows and nothing more.


Then there were the far from virtuous widows and married women who only wanted pleasure without accountability, his favorite breed of bed partner. Followed by courtesans and mistresses, highflyers living under the protection of a distant, beautiful abbess like Mrs. Cadbury, women whose establishments could range from crystal chandeliers to the best champagne. Or they could descend to the more depressing, staid households with a grim harridan overseeing the proceedings.


Then, of course, there were the many varieties of streetwalkers, all of whom he tended to avoid, rather than risk disease. But even among his limited categories he could find infinite choice, and he had every intention of sampling the spectrum.


Starting with Violet Highstreet. He was as randy as a teenage boy, and she’d have very little to do before embarking on the sweet journey to completion.


He sank down into one of the leather chairs in his study, his long legs stretched out in front of him, and awaited her arrival.


Lady Melisande Carstairs, widow of Sir Thomas Carstairs, better known as “Charity” Carstairs to her much-disgusted social acquaintances, looked up from the tiny Louis Quinze desk with its gilt and ormolu trim, a frown crossing her face. She’d made a huge blot of ink on the letter she was writing, and it stained her fingers, which was nothing new. Since she was always petitioning the House of Lords or the House of Commons for one thing or another, and generally being ignored, her ink-stained hands were de rigueur. Wasn’t that why they made gloves?


Something was wrong. She could have sworn she heard footsteps coming down the stairs, and yet no one had popped her head inside the door to talk or see what Melisande was doing. The inhabitants of Carstairs House, more familiarly referred to as the Dovecote, numbered twenty, and every one of them was a Ruined Woman, a Soiled Dove, one of the Poor Unfortunates. Every one of them had broken free of the shackles of their degrading profession and were busy training in any number of useful fields, such as housemaid, seamstress, cook, and there were even a few she had higher ambitions for, including that of amanuensis, governess or lady’s companion.


Working as a seamstress or a hatmaker wouldn’t necessarily provide better wages than servicing men in the alleyways, but Melisande already had funding for several cooperatives that would hire the girls, give them decent meals and a clean roof over their heads, and, with luck, prepare them for marriage.


Emma Cadbury, her second in command and capable of almost anything she turned her hand to, might eventually go on to become a governess. Perhaps to a prosperous shopkeeper’s family—someone who had worked his way up in the world and wanted a genteel female to teach his awkward daughters to ape the ways of the upper class and wouldn’t be too nice about her history. Though Melisande would be devastated to see her go. Emma, at thirty-two, was close to her own age, and yet so many worlds of wisdom separated the two of them. She counted on Emma for the more unpleasant facts of life, for the practicality she sometimes lacked. Melisande would have brought any soiled dove into her house, but Emma cautioned her against some, and she listened. She could scarcely jeopardize her work by trying to retrieve a soul already happily lost.


Such as Violet Highstreet, who was still a question mark. When Emma had closed her establishment the exquisitely beautiful Violet had come along with her, happily willing to take the easiest route. She was far from the brightest of lights, and she was entirely devoid of ambition or interest in finding an alternative way to make a living.


“The girl needs a husband,” Emma had announced one evening over tea. The girls had all been tucked away in their dormitories and Emma and Melisande were discussing the myriad decisions that had to be made for their charges. “She’s never worked a day in her life and I doubt she’d know how to. She’s good for one thing and one thing only, and the man who wins her will be a very happy one, possibly happy enough to ignore her past and her far from intellectual leanings. Her talents are remarkable.”


“Talents?” Melisande had echoed, confused. “Exactly what is so special about her occupation?”


Emma made a little face. “She’s good with her mouth. The best in London.”


“You mean she knows how to kiss? Or something else, like singing?”


Emma had laughed. “My poor innocent! Something else not at all like singing. She gives a man pleasure with her mouth.”


“How?” Melisande asked, mystified. And Emma had explained.


From then on she could never look at Violet without feeling slightly disturbed. In the beginning the thought made her queasy, but that had disappeared long ago and left her with an odd sort of curiosity that was both shameful and unmistakable. Not that she’d ever do such a thing. She had no intention of kissing a man’s mouth, much less his…


She was blushing again. She pushed back from the desk, unable to concentrate, wandering over to look out onto the London street outside Carstairs House. She’d inherited it from her husband, who would probably be rolling over in his grave if he knew to what use she’d put it. But in truth she’d ended up with too much money and too much time, and there was a world of pain and suffering out there, and she could have brought in a half dozen more if she found the space. Not that their neighbors were particularly happy about her project. But she was no more interested in her neighbors’ opinions than she was in her husband’s postfuneral concerns.


Right now the only thing that interested her was who had been sneaking down the stairs at a time when most of the women were having dinner and working on their reading and writing skills.


The door to her study was flung open, and Betsey stood there, positively bursting with news. The youngest of the inhabitants of the household that society, and even Melisande, referred to as the Dovecote, she was twelve years old, and she’d spent most of her life in the brothel where her mother worked, until the past two years, when she’d somehow managed to survive on the streets simply due to her impressive wits. No one had touched her, but the necessity of selling herself had been coming closer when Melisande found her, and everyone in the house looked on the child as a pet. With her bright red hair and bewitching grin she was a far cry from the women who filled Carstairs House, but she was irrepressible.


“Remember to knock, Betsey,” Melisande said in a tranquil voice, trying to ignore the worry that churned in her stomach. At least it wasn’t the youngest sneaking out when no one was looking. Betsey was born to mischief and as headstrong as Melisande herself, a lucky thing, or she never would have survived on the streets for so long.


“Begging your pardon, miss…er…your ladyship,” Betsey said cheerfully. “But there’s a note.” She was holding a thick piece of vellum in her hand, and even from across the room Melisande could see the thick scrawl of handwriting. A man’s, of course.


“For me?”


“No, miss. It was sent to Violet. I can’t read well enough yet to tell what it says, but she took one look and just about ran for the door. No one knows where she’s gone.”


Violet. Of course it was Violet. Melisande crossed the room to take the note from the child’s hand. She should have told her to bring it to her, but she was too worried to waste time on a lesson. “Normally we wouldn’t read other people’s mail,” she said, scanning the words with a worried air. “But this is an emergency.”


“Coo,” said Betsey, impressed.


And emergency it was. Violet had been bidden to attend Viscount Rohan at his town house on Bury Street, immediately. This was no request; it was a royal summons. Melisande cursed beneath her breath, further impressing Betsey. “Get me my bonnet and pelisse, Betsey,” she instructed, crumpling the note in one hand. “I’m going out.”


3


La Violette was as beautiful as always, Benedick thought as he strolled into the smaller salon on the first floor. While he fully intended to put every single room in this house to use for sexual purposes he wasn’t yet ready to breach the sanctity of his library. Perhaps that would be the final bastion to fall. This was a house where he had never shagged anyone. He’d always had a tendency to conduct his affaires away from home, probably because of some stray remnant of courtesy for his disastrous second marriage. He had every intention of remedying that situation forthwith.


She was waiting for him, and while his brain took in her oddly subdued clothing, his cock knew nothing but her mouth, which curved in a bright smile of promises to come. He knew his own grim mouth curved in response as he shut the doors and advanced on her.


“Your lordship,” she said in that breathy voice that was actually quite irritating. Fortunately he didn’t have to listen to much of it. “I’ve missed you.”


He put his hand beneath her chin, tilting that lovely face upward. “If I believed that, my sweet Violet, I would be very much a fool. You and I have always been honest with each other. What’s this sudden sentimentality?”

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