“Then you look to find more,” came his soft reply. “Or from somewhere I take the money—there is many men asking to buy a pretty girl as Nicoletta.”
“What?” Lily put a hand to her mouth to stifle a cry of agony. “How could you do that to your own child? You wouldn’t sell her like that—it would kill her—and me—oh, God, you haven’t already, have you?”
“Not yet. But I come close maybe, cara.” He held out his empty palm. “You pay the money now.”
“How long will this go on?” she whispered. “When is it going to be enough?”
He ignored the question and shoved his open hand toward her. “Now.”
Tears slid down her face. “I don’t have it.”
“I give you three days, Lily. You come to bring five thousand pound…or Nicoletta is gone forever.”
She lowered her head, listening to the sound of his retreating footsteps, the raucous noise of Covent Garden, the soft nicker of her horse. She shook with wild desperation—it took all her strength to keep it inside. Money. Her accounts had never been so depleted. This past month she hadn’t turned her usual profit at Craven’s. Well, her luck would have to change, and fast. She’d have to play deep. If she couldn’t win five thousand in three days…God, what would she do?
She could ask Derek for a loan…No. She’d made that mistake once before, a year and a half ago. She’d thought that with his stupendous fortune, he wouldn’t mind loaning her a thousand or two, especially at her promise to return it with interest. To her surprise, Derek had turned coldly cruel, and made her swear she’d never ask him for money again. It had taken weeks to get back in his good graces. Lily didn’t understand why he had been so angry. It wasn’t as if he were a miserly man—just the opposite. He was generous in countless ways—giving her presents, the use of his vast properties, allowing her to pilfer from his kitchens and liquor supply, helping her search for Nicole…but he’d never given her a farthing. Now she knew better than to ask.
She considered some of the rich old men she knew, men with whom she had gambled and flirted and maintained friendships with. Lord Harrington, she thought numbly, with his fat belly and cheerful red face and limp powdered wigs. Or Arthur Longman, a respected barrister. His face was rather unattractive—large nose, no chin, sagging cheeks—but his eyes were kind, and he was an honorable man. Both of them had hinted in gentlemanly ways about their attraction to her. She could accept one of them as a protector. There was no doubt she would be well treated and generously provided for. But it would change her life forever. Certain doors that were yet open to her would be closed for good. She would become an expensive whore—and that was only if she were lucky. If her experience with Giuseppe was anything to judge by, she might prove so unsatisfactory in bed that no one would want to keep her.
Lily went to the horse and rested her forehead on its warm, dusty neck. “I’m so tired,” she whispered. Tired and cynical. She had so little reason to hope for Nicole’s return. Her life had become nothing but endless grubbing for money. She should never have wasted so much time with this business about Penny, Zach, and Alex Raiford. It may have cost her Nicole. But if not for the distraction of the past week, she thought she might have lost her sanity.
A light rain began to fall, drops pattering on her hair. Lily closed her eyes and lifted her face, letting the water trail down her cheeks in cool rivulets. Suddenly she remembered Nicole at bath time, making the discovery that she could wet her tiny fists and shake them in the air and splash them in the tub.
“Look what you can do!” Lily had exclaimed with a laugh. “How dare you splash your mama, you clever little duck…water is for the bath, not the floor…”
Stubbornly Lily wiped away the raindrops and tears. She squared her shoulders. “It’s only money,” she muttered. “I’ve gotten it before. I’ll get it again somehow.”
The clock chimed nine times. Alex had been staring at it for nearly an hour. It was a sentimental figured bronze clock, adorned with porcelain roses and a shy shepherdess glancing over her shoulder at a nobleman proffering a bouquet of flowers. The rest of Lily’s bedroom was just as feminine—the pale sea green walls decorated with delicate white plasterwork, the windows hung with rose silk, the furniture upholstered with soft velvet. Now that he thought of it, the brief glimpse he’d caught of Lily’s house had been very different from this—dark, rich, and almost masculine. It was as if she had saved her private room for all the feminine indulgence she hadn’t allowed herself elsewhere.
As the last chime sounded, the bedroom door opened. The butler. Burton, she had called him.
“Good morning, sir,” Burton said impassively. “I trust you had a restful night?”
Alex glowered at him.
After Lily had left him, he had been alone with nothing but silent hours ahead. Until then he’d made a habit of filling every waking moment with distractions. Work, sporting, social amusements, drinking, women, countless ways he had devised to avoid being alone with his thoughts. Unwittingly Lily had forced him to face what he was most afraid of. In the quiet darkness, he hadn’t been able to stop the memories from swooping down on him like vultures, tearing at his heart.
At first it had all been a jumble—anger, passion, regret, grief. No one would ever know what he had gone through in those hours of confinement. No one would ever need to know. All that was important was that the jumble had somehow sorted itself out, and things had become clear in his mind. He would never see Caroline in another woman’s face again. She was part of his past, and he would leave her there. No more grief, no ghosts. And as for Lily…He devoted a good deal of thought to what he was going to do about her. Sometime during the early morning hours he’d drifted into a sleep of pure, dark velvet.
The butler came to the bedside bearing a small knife. “Shall I, sir?” Burton inquired, gesturing to his bound arms.
Alex gave him an incredulous look. “Oh, by all means,” he replied in a sarcastic show of politeness. Deftly the butler sawed at the finely woven rope. Alex grimaced as his right arm was released. He brought it to his chest, flexing the aching muscles with a quiet groan, and watched as Burton went around the bed to the other side.
Silently Alex had to admit that Burton was impressive. He had the most authentically butlerish appearance Alex had ever seen. He wore a beautifully trimmed beard, and a look of intelligence and authority. All this wrapped in a package of impeccable deference. It took aplomb to approach this situation with dignity, and yet Burton was untying him from the bed in the same stoic manner with which he might have poured tea or brushed a hat.
Burton’s brows twitched in what might have been dismay as he saw Alex’s blistered wrists. “My lord, I will bring a salve for your arms.”
“No,” Alex growled. “You’ve done quite enough.”
Painfully Alex drew himself to a sitting position, flexing his cramped limbs. “Where is she this morning?”
“If you’re referring to Miss Lawson, sir, I have no knowledge of her whereabouts. However, I have been instructed to remind you that Master Henry is at Mr. Craven’s establishment.”
“If anything’s happened to him, I’ll hold you every bit as responsible as Miss Lawson.”
Burton looked unruffled. “Yes, sir.”
Alex shook his head in amazement. “You’d help her with murder if she asked, wouldn’t you?”
“She hasn’t requested it, sir.”
“Yet,” Alex muttered. “But if she did?”
“As my employer, Miss Lawson is entitled to my absolute loyalty.” Burton regarded Alex politely. “Would you care for a paper, my lord? Coffee? Tea, perhaps. For breakfast we can provide—”
“To begin with, you can stop behaving as if this is a commonplace occurrence…or is it? Could it be the usual thing for you to offer breakfast to guests who’ve been tied hand and foot to Lily Lawson’s bed?”
Burton considered the question carefully, as if reluctant to betray Lily’s privacy. “You are the first, Lord Raiford,” he finally admitted.
“What a hell of an honor.” Alex put a hand to his sore head and probed gingerly. There was a tender bump a few inches above his ear. “I’ll take a headache powder. She owes me that, to start with.”
“And have my driver bring my carriage around—unless you and Miss Lawson have him bound to a stable rack or hitching post somewhere.”
“Burton—that’s your name, isn’t it? How long have you been working for Miss Lawson?”
“Since she returned to London, my lord.”
“Well, whatever your salary, I’ll double it if you’ll come work for me.”
“Thank you, Lord Raiford. However, I must respectfully decline.”
Alex stared at him curiously. “Why? God knows Lily must put you through hell. Knowing her, I suspect this isn’t the worst escapade she’s ever involved you in.”
“I’m afraid it isn’t, my lord.”
“Then why stay?”
“Miss Lawson is an…unusual woman.”
“Some call it eccentric,” Alex said dryly. “Tell me what she’s done to merit such loyalty.”
Burton’s impassive facade seemed to fade, just for a moment, and there was something almost like fondness in his eyes. “Miss Lawson has a compassionate heart, my lord, and a remarkable lack of prejudice. When she arrived in London two years ago, I was in a rather difficult situation, working for an employer who was often inebriated and abusive. Once, while intoxicated, he inflicted a wound on my side with a shaving razor. Another time he summoned me to his room and waved a loaded pistol in front of my face, threatening to shoot me.”
“Hell.” Alex regarded him with surprise. “Why didn’t you find employment elsewhere? A butler of your caliber—”
“I am half Irish, my lord,” Burton said quietly. “Most employers require that their highly placed servants belong to the Church of England, which I do not. That and my Irish heritage—though not readily apparent—deem me unacceptable to butler most decent English families. Therefore I was trapped in a most intolerable situation. Upon hearing of my dilemna, Miss Lawson offered to employ me at a higher salary than the one I was earning, although she knew I would have worked for much less.”
“Perhaps you begin to, my lord.” Burton hesitated and continued in a low tone, as if against his better judgment. “Miss Lawson decided I needed to be rescued. Once she takes such an idea into her head there is no way to stop her. She has ‘rescued’ many people, though no one seems to realize that she is the one most in need of—” Suddenly he stopped and cleared his throat. “I have discoursed quite enough, my lord. Forgive me. Perhaps you’ll reconsider the idea of coff—”
“What were you going to say? That Lily’s in need of rescuing? From what? From whom?”
Burton looked at him blankly, as if he were speaking a foreign language. “Shall I bring this morning’s edition of the Times along with your headache powder, my lord?”
Henry perched at the long table in the cavernous kitchen, watching in fascination as Monsieur Labarge and the army of apron-clad servants worked on a bewildering array of projects. Fragrant sauces and mysterious concoctions bubbled in pots on the cast-iron stove. An entire wall was covered with a staggering collection of shining pots, pans, and molds, an assortment Labarge referred to as his batterie de cuisine.
The chef strode about the room in the manner of a military commander, gesturing with knives, spoons, whatever utensil happened to be in his hand. His towering white hat tilted at alarming angles in response to his vigorous movements. He barked at the second chef, who was making a sauce far too heavy for a dish of fish wrapped in pastry, and at assistant bakers who had allowed the rolls to brown a shade too dark. The fine, upturned ends of his mustache quivered in wrath as he saw that one of the vegetable maids was cutting the carrots too fine. In sudden, bewildering changes of mood, Labarge would shove tempting dishes in front of Henry and beam approvingly as Henry gobbled up the savory feast. “Ah, le jeune gentilhomme, mange, mange…our young gentleman must try some of this…and this…c’est bien, oui?”
“Very good,” Henry said enthusiastically, around a mouthful of pastry dotted with fruit and lemon cream. “May I have some more of those brown things with the sauce?”
With fatherly pride, the chef brought him a second plate of tiny veal strips sautéed with brandy butter, onions, and mushroom sauce. “The first recipe I learned as a boy, helping mon pére prepare supper for le comte,” he reminisced.
“This is even better than the meals we have at Raiford Park,” Henry said.
Monsieur Labarge responded with many uncomplimentary remarks about English food, calling it flavorless garbage that he would not even feed to a dog. This, on the other hand, was French cuisine, as superior to English food as cake was to stale bread. Wisely, Henry nodded in agreement and kept eating.
Just as Henry was forced to set his fork down because his stomach was uncomfortably full, Worthy came to the kitchen entrance. “Master Henry,” he said gravely, “your brother has arrived. He has made some, er, vigorous statements of concern for you. I think it best if you show yourself at once. Come with me, if you please.”
“Oh.” Henry’s cornflower blue eyes turned round with dismay. He covered his mouth with his palm, suppressing a burp, and sighed as he looked around the kitchen. The staff regarded him sympathetically. “It will be a long time before I’ll be able to come back,” Henry said sadly. “Years.”
Monsieur Labarge looked distressed, his thin mustache twitching as he thought rapidly. “Lord Raiford, he has the grand temper, non? Perhaps we shall first offer him poularde à la Periguex…or saumon Monpellier…” The chef paused and considered other delicacies he could prepare, confident that his culinary masterpieces would placate the most savage humor.
“No,” Henry said ruefully, knowing that even Labarge’s offering of truffled chicken or salmon in herb sauce wouldn’t soothe Alex. “I don’t think that would work. But thank you, monsieur. This was worth any punishment. I’d spend a month in Newgate for one of those sponge cakes with the coffee cream—or that green soufflé thing.”
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