Her own eyes crinkled. “It’s the truth, God knows,” she said with a gusty sigh. “You’re a sight prettier than most of the men I’ve had to deal with, and you know how to show your appreciation, and not just with coin. You’re generous, and kind, and a girl learns to value that in a man.”
He felt a small tug of amusement. There were few in this world who would consider him either generous or kind, and the fact that it was a whore who saw that in him normally would have been pause for reflection. Right then reflection was the furthest thing from his mind.
“I’m flattered. Now if you wouldn’t mind…”
She grinned at him saucily. “My pleasure, my lord,” she said, and sank to her knees in front of him, reaching for the fastening to his breeches.
He closed his eyes, letting his head drop back in preparation for the supreme pleasure La Violette was more than capable of delivering, when the door to the salon slammed open, Violet let out a little shriek of dismay, and he turned his head to observe a virago standing in the entry.
Fortunately he was still properly covered, and he took a small step back, while the woman on her knees in front of him didn’t move, clearly thunder-struck.
“Get up, Violet!” the newcomer said in stern tones. “You have no need to perform such demeaning acts anymore. Haven’t you learned that yet?”
“But your ladyship,” Violet wailed. “I like it!”
For a moment the woman was startled into silence, giving Benedick a moment to survey her. He didn’t believe she was a lady for one moment—Violet was prone to calling everyone “your lordship” or “your ladyship” in hopes of creating goodwill that would lead to financial generosity. This woman was past her first youth, though still young, wearing a bonnet that hid most of her hair and a great deal of her face. She was dressed in clothes of excellent quality but little style, and her voice was that of the upper classes or someone who’d had an excellent governess. She could almost carry it off.
Finally, she spoke. “Get up,” she said again. “I don’t know what kind of threats this man made, but you’ve nothing to be afraid of. He can’t hurt you—I won’t let him.”
Benedick decided it was time for him to interfere. “If you’d stop to listen to the girl, you’d realize that she’s here on her own volition.”
The woman turned toward him, and he could see blazing blue eyes beneath the brim of her hat. “She simply picked a likely door and walked in to offer her services, did she?”
“I sent her a note requesting her presence, but it was up to her whether she wished to accept my invitation.”
“Hardly an invitation.” She dropped a crumpled piece of paper on the floor with a contemptuous gesture. “It read more like a royal command than an invitation.”
“You read other people’s private correspondence?” He didn’t like this irksome woman one bit. “Perhaps you prefer I address my future requests to you.”
“To me?” she said, startled.
“You certainly don’t look like any abbess I’ve ever known, nor do you dress your girls particularly well, but times have changed since I was last in the city and I’m willing to be accommodating.”
The woman ground her teeth, but she ignored him, her eyes focusing on the woman still kneeling in front of him. “Violet, do you wish to stay here or come back to the house? You cannot do both.”
Violet looked up into Benedick’s eyes, a woeful expression on her face, and she slowly rose to her feet. “I’m sorry, my lord,” she said. And without another word she scuttled out of the room. The procuress didn’t move, looking at him with cool dislike. “Do not interfere with my girls again,” she said in a dangerous voice.
“Your accent is really quite extraordinary,” he said lazily. “One would almost assume you were a lady and not the keeper of a house of ill repute. I presume you don’t allow your girls to make visits—so be it. I will take my custom elsewhere. In the meantime, however, I wondered if you might be good enough to finish what Violet has started.” He reached for the fastening of his breeches, just to see what she might do.
She was gone in a flash, her simple gown flying out behind her, and he laughed as he sank into a chair. Annoying as she was, her ridiculous outrage was fascinating, much more so than Violet’s cheerful enthusiasm, even if she probably didn’t possess the same skills. Nevertheless, he could only assume she’d learned her trade well. If she didn’t bar him from the door he would have to see if she might be persuaded to dispense her own favors. Her anger with him had burned fiery hot, and it was most…enticing.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Richmond appeared, a worried expression on his face. “I’m sorry, my lord. Young Murphy opened the door and he didn’t know how to stop her. Is there any way I can be of assistance?”
“Not unless you can tell me the name and direction of the woman who just left this house,” he said, not expecting success.
Richmond’s disapproval was evident. “I believe your lordship is well acquainted with Miss Violet Highstreet.”
“Indeed, I am, Richmond. But who is the woman who came charging in here to interrupt us? I’m surprised you didn’t stop her.”
If anything Richmond looked even stiffer. “You are referring to Lady Carstairs, I believe.”
Benedick let out a snort of laughter. “Believe me, Richmond, the woman who stormed in here was a far cry from a lady. She was an abbess.”
“Much as I regret to disagree with you, my lord, that was Melisande, Lady Carstairs, relict of Sir Thomas Carstairs, who operates a haven for fallen women in her home in King Street. I rather believe Carstairs House is referred to as ‘the Dovecote’ for obvious reasons, and the lady herself is called ‘Charity’ Carstairs in reference to her good works.”
Benedick looked at him in mingled horror and disbelief. “I believe you’re making a joke, Richmond.”
“I assure you, my lord, I have absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever.”
Bloody hell, he thought, sinking into a chair. He could thank his darling baby brother for this one, damn him. Brandon would have known perfectly well that Violet had been attempting to retire from the business, and that sending for her would open up all sorts of difficulties. Odd—it wasn’t like Brandon to play such a malicious trick on him.
“Would you be wanting anything else, my lord? Perhaps you’d like to send one of the footmen out with a note for a different establishment?”
“Stop looking at me like that, Richmond. I don’t care if you’ve known me since I was an infant—it’s not your place.”
“Of course not, my lord.”
And now he’d hurt the old man. His day was going from bad to worse. “Never mind, Richmond. I find I’m no longer in the mood. Tell Cook I’ll be eating at my club tonight.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Yes, my lord?”
“It’s good to see you again.”
The old man unbent, just slightly. “And you, my lord.”
By ten o’clock that evening he’d discovered all that he would ever want to know about Melisande Carstairs, from her marriage to the ailing Sir Thomas Carstairs, a son of a bitch if ever there was one, to her widowhood and her unceasing good work that most people found tedious. She had come from decent if not impressive stock—an old Yorkshire family whose money had long ago disappeared. She’d made her bow more than a decade ago, putting her around thirty, married the aging and choleric Sir Thomas and devoted herself to his last, unpleasant years. She’d returned to London a wealthy widow and instead of doing the sensible thing, throwing herself into the frivolity long denied her and embarking on a series of affaires, she’d simply continued her self-sacrificing ways, eschewing parties and public gatherings to concentrate on good works.
She’d started her current crusade almost by accident, his old friend Harry Merton had told him over two bottles of claret. A soiled dove had been hit by her carriage, and ever since that momentous occasion she’d been collecting them like so many china figurines, and taken to installing them in her town house and teaching them a respectable trade, for God’s sake. Of course she was totally ruined socially, given her associating with whores, but that didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest. The only time she ever came close to mingling with her own class was at the opera or the theater—even a saint couldn’t abjure everything, and Lady Carstairs appeared to love music. Even if she didn’t care much for men.
“But then,” Harry had added, “old Sir Thomas was enough to put even the most enthusiastic female off men for the rest of her life.” He’d drained his wine-glass and signaled for a third bottle to be brought to them. “Imagine running afoul of her on your first day back. It could almost be a sign.”
Harry was a good fellow but not possessed of a great deal of brain, and he was superstitious to a fault. “Simply a sign I’ve been absent too long.” Benedick was too far gone to summon up the choler he should have.
“Didn’t have much choice in the matter, did you? You do have the damnedest luck when it comes to women.”
“It’s not women I’m worrying about,” he said, accepting more wine from the steward. “It’s Brandon.”
“What’s that scamp gotten up to now?” Lord Petersham roused himself from the wine-laced reverie he’d drifted into. “Always liked your little brother, Rohan. More heart than sense, but a pluck lad, game to the backbone. Dreadful what that war did to him.”
“Dreadful what war does to any man,” Benedick said, pure heresy in these days of expanding empire. “But Brandon was always impulsive, rushing into things without thinking them through first.” In fact, that was how Brandon had been so grievously wounded. His battalion had been under attack, and he’d gone in to pull the bodies of comrades from the fray, and nearly been killed doing so.
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