The girl flushed and curtsied, and looked back at Lottie. "Will you be living in London?" she asked. "Will you have me there for a visit? I so long to-"
"Ellie," Mrs. Howard said meaningfully. "Go to your room now. That is quite enough nonsense."
"Yes, Mama." The girl threw her arms around Lottie for one last hug. She whispered something in her older sister's ear, a question that Lottie answered with a comforting murmur and a nod. Guessing that it had been another request to be invited for a visit, Nick suppressed a smile. It seemed that Lottie was not the only willful daughter in the Howard family.
With a shy glance at Nick, Ellie left the room and heaved a sigh as she walked away from the parlor.
Heartened by her sister's obvious delight in seeing her again, Lottie sent Mrs. Howard a glance of entreaty. "Mama, there are so many things I must tell you-"
"I am afraid there is no point in further discussion," her mother said with brittle dignity. "You have made your choice, and so have your father and I. Our connection with Lord Radnor is too entrenched to break. We will fulfill our obligations to him, Charlotte-even if you are unwilling."
Lottie stared at her in confusion. "How would you accomplish that, Mama?"
"That is no longer your concern."
"But I don't see-" Lottie began, and Nick interrupted, his gaze fastened on Mrs. Howard. For years he had successfully negotiated with hardened criminals, overworked magistrates, the guilty, the innocent, and everyone in-between. He would be damned if he couldn't come to some sort of compromise with his own mother-in-law.
"Mrs. Howard, I understand that I am not your first choice as a husband for Lottie." He gave her the wry, charming smile that worked well with most women. "The devil knows that I wouldn't be anyone's preference. But as things stand, I will prove a far more generous benefactor than Radnor." He glanced deliberately at their dilapidated surroundings and returned his gaze to hers. "There is no reason you shouldn't make improvements to the house and refurbish it to your satisfaction. I will also pay for the children's education and see to it that Ellie has a proper coming-out. If you like, you can travel abroad and spend the summer months at the coast. Tell me whatever you want and you shall have it."
The woman's expression was frankly disbelieving. "And why would you do all that?"
"For my wife's pleasure," he replied without hesitation.
Lottie turned to him with a round-eyed gaze of wonder. Casually he fingered the collar of her bodice, thinking that it was a small price to pay for what she gave him.
Unfortunately the intimate gesture seemed to harden Mrs. Howard against him. "We want nothing from you, Mr. Gentry."
"I understand that you're in debt to Radnor," Nick persisted, feeling there was no way to address the issue other than with bluntness. "I will take care of that. I've already offered to repay him for Lottie's years at school, and I will assume your other financial obligations as well."
"You can't afford to keep such promises," Mrs. Howard said. "And even if you could, the answer would still be no. I bid you take your leave, Mr. Gentry, as I will not discuss the matter any more."
Nick gave her a searching stare, detecting desperation...uneasiness...guilt. His every instinct warned him that she was hiding something. "I will call on you again," he said gently, "when Mr. Howard is at home."
"His answer will be no different than mine."
Nick did not indicate that he had heard the refusal. "Good day, Mrs. Howard. We take our leave with every wish for your health and happiness."
Lottie's fingers clenched tightly through Nick's coat sleeve as she fought to master her emotions. "Good-bye, Mama," she said huskily and walked out with him.
Nick handed her carefully into the carriage and glanced back at the empty garden plot. All the windows of the house were vacant, except for one on the upper floor, where Ellie's round face appeared. She waved forlornly and rested her chin on her hands as the carriage door closed.
The vehicle pulled away with a jolt before the horses settled into their rhythm. Lottie leaned her head back against the velvet upholstery, her eyes closed, her mouth trembling. The glitter of unshed tears appeared beneath her rich gold lashes. "Foolishly I had hoped for a warmer reception," she said, trying for an ironic tone and failing completely as a half sob escaped her throat.
Nick sat there unnerved and damnably helpless, his body tensing all over. The sight of his wife crying filled him with alarm. To his relief, she managed to gain control over her emotions, and she pressed the heels of her gloved hands to her eyes.
"They couldn't afford to turn down my offer," Nick said, "unless they were still receiving money from Radnor."
Lottie shook her head in confusion. "But it makes no sense that he would continue to support my family now that I've married you."
"Do they have any other source of income?"
"I can't think of one. Perhaps my uncle may be able to give them a little. Not enough to keep them indefinitely, however."
"Hmmm." Considering various possibilities, Nick leaned back into the corner of his seat, his gaze fixed on the scenery that jostled past the window.
"Nick...did you really tell Lord Radnor that you would repay my school tuition for all those years?"
Strangely, Lottie did not ask why, only occupied herself with arranging her skirts and tugging her sleeves down to cover her wrists. Removing her gloves, she folded them and set them beside her on the carriage seat. Nick watched her through half-closed eyes. When she could find nothing left to adjust or straighten, she brought herself to look at him. "What now?" she asked, as if preparing for a new round of difficulties.
Nick considered the question, feeling a tug in the center of his chest as he saw the resolution in her expression. She had endured the past few days with an equanimity that was extraordinary for a girl her age. No doubt any other young woman would have been reduced to a sobbing heap by now. He wanted to remove the strained look from her eyes and for once see her carefree and relaxed.
"Well, Mrs. Gentry," he said, moving to the space beside her, "for the next day or two, I propose that we have some fun."
"Fun," she repeated, as if the word were unfamiliar. "Forgive me, but my capacity for enjoyment is rather diminished at present."
Nick smiled and settled his hand on the outline of her thigh. "You're in the most exciting city in the world," he murmured, "in the company of a virile young husband and his ill-gotten gains." He kissed her ear, making her shiver. "Believe me, Lottie, there is a great deal of fun to be had."
Lottie would not have thought that anything could shake her from her despondency after the cold reception from her mother. However, Nick engaged her so thoroughly during the next few days that she found it difficult to think about anything but him.
That night Nick took her to a theatrical tavern where music and comical acts were staged to draw in customers. Located in Covent Garden, the Vestris-named after a once-popular Italian opera dancer-was a meeting ground for theatrical folk, slumming nobles, and all manner of colorful characters. The place was dirty and reeking of wine and smoke, the floor so sticky that Lottie was in danger of walking right out of her shoes. She crossed the threshold with reluctance, as young women of quality were never seen in such places unless in the company of their husbands-and even then it was highly questionable. Nick was immediately hailed by the occupants of the tavern, many of them appearing to be complete ruffians. After a brief interval of backslapping and an exchange of friendly insults, Nick took Lottie to a table. They were served a dinner of beefsteak and potatoes, a bottle of port, and two mugs of something called "heavy wet."
Although Lottie had never eaten in public before and felt absurdly self-conscious, she gamely attacked a beefsteak that could easily have served a family of four. "What is this?" she asked, gingerly taking her mug and peering into the foaming brown depths.
"Ale," Nick replied, resting his arm along the back of her chair. "Try some."
Obediently she took a sip of the thick grain-flavored beverage, and her entire face wrinkled in distaste. Laughing at her expression, Nick told a nearby barmaid to fetch her some gin punch. More patrons crowded into the building, mugs were clanked heavily on the battered wooden tables, and barmaids moved busily among the crowd with large pitchers.
At the front of the tavern, a comic musical ditty was being performed by a slender woman wearing men's clothing and a portly gentleman with a luxuriant moustache who was dressed as a country maid, with a huge false bosom that swayed from side to side as he moved. As the "lad" chased the "maid" around the tavern, singing a soulful love song that praised her beauty, the place erupted in bellows of laughter. The sheer silliness of the performance was impossible to resist. Tucked against her husband's side, with a cup of astringent gin punch in her hands, Lottie tried without success to stifle a fit of giggles.
More performances followed...bawdy songs and dances, comic verse, even a display of acrobatic tumbling and juggling. The hour grew late, the corners of the tavern became shadowy, and in the relaxed atmosphere, more than a few couples began to indulge in some indiscreet fondling and kissing. Lottie knew that she should have been shocked, but the gin punch had made her sleepy and thickheaded. She discovered that she was sitting on Nick's lap, her legs tucked between his, and that the only reason she was able to sit upright was the fact that his arms were around her.
"Oh, dear," she said, staring into her nearly empty cup. "Did I drink all of that?"
Nick took the cup from her and set it on the table. "I'm afraid so."
"Only you could undo my years of training at Maidstone's in one evening," she said, making him grin.
His gaze lowered to her mouth, and he traced the edge of her jaw with his fingertip. "Are you completely corrupted now? No? Then let's go home, and I'll finish the job."
Feeling unsteady and very warm, Lottie giggled as he guided her through the tavern. "The floor is uneven," she told him, leaning hard against his side.
"It's not the floor, sweetheart, it's your feet."
Pondering that, Lottie glanced from his amused face to her own feet. "They do feel as if they've been put on the wrong legs."
Nick shook his head, his blue eyes gleaming with laughter. "You have no tolerance for gin, do you? Here, let me carry you."
"No, I don't wish to be a spectacle," she protested as he lifted her against his chest and carried her out to the street. Catching sight of them, a waiting footman hurried to the end of the street, where their carriage waited in a long row.
"You'll be more of a spectacle if you fall on your face," Nick replied.
"I'm not that far gone," Lottie protested. However, his arms were so solid and his shoulder so inviting that she snuggled against him with a sigh. The slightly musky scent of his skin mingled with the crisp smell of starch from his necktie, a blend so alluring that she inched closer to inhale deeply.
Nick stopped by the side of the street. His head turned, his shaven cheek brushing hers and making her skin tingle. "What are you doing?"
"Your smell..." she said dreamily. "It's wonderful. I noticed it the first time we met, when you nearly knocked me off the wall."
A laugh stirred in his throat. "I saved you from falling, you mean."
Intrigued by the scratchy texture of his skin, Lottie pressed her lips beneath his jaw. She felt him swallow hard, the movement rippling against her mouth. It was the first time she had ever made an advance to him, and the small gesture was surprisingly effective. He stood there holding her tightly, his chest rising and falling in increasingly labored breaths. Intrigued by the notion that she could arouse him so easily, Lottie tugged at the knot of his necktie and kissed the side of his throat.
She drew the tip of her fingernail over the hair-roughened skin, scraping delicately.
"Lottie..." he tried again. Whatever he had intended to say was forgotten as she kissed his ear and took the lobe between her teeth in a soft bite.
The carriage stopped before them, and the footman busied himself with setting out the removable step. Schooling his features into a blank mask, Nick thrust Lottie inside the carriage and climbed in after her.
As soon as the door closed, he hauled her into his lap and tugged roughly at the front of her gown. She reached up to play with his hair, tangling her fingers in the thick sable locks. Unlacing the top of her corset, he eased one breast out and fastened his mouth over the soft nipple. The teasing suction caused her to arch against him with a whimper of pleasure. His hands delved frantically beneath her skirts, slipping past masses of broadcloth and linen to find the damp slit of her drawers. His hand was too large to slip inside the undergarment, and he ripped it with an ease that made her gasp. Her thighs spread in helpless welcome, and her vision blurred as one long finger eased inside her. Cradled in his lap, with his hand working gently between her legs, she felt her inner muscles begin to tighten rhythmically.
A groan escaped him, and he pulled her h*ps over his, fumbling roughly with the front of his trousers. "You're so wet...I can't wait, Lottie, let me...sit in my lap, and put your legs...oh, God, yes, right there..."
She straddled him willingly, sucking in her breath as he penetrated her, his hands urging her h*ps down until he had buried himself to the hilt. He was deliciously hard and thick inside her, holding still while the motion of the carriage jostled their bodies together. Surreptitiously Lottie rubbed the aching peak of her sex against him, feeling waves of heat rising from the place they were joined. One of his hands passed gently over her upper back.
Lottie gasped as a vigorous jolt of the carriage wheels impelled him farther inside her. "We don't have long," she managed to say against his throat. "The tavern is very close to home."
Nick responded with a tortured groan. "The next time I'll make the driver take us around the whole of London...twice." He slid his thumb to the top of her wet sex and flicked it with soft, rapid strokes, building her pleasure rapidly until she curled against him with a sob, overwhelmed by explosive sensation. Hitching his h*ps upward in desperate thrusts, he growled and buried his face in the curve of her neck, his passion reaching a blinding culmination.
They both breathed in long gasps, while their na*ed flesh was locked together beneath the layers of disheveled clothing. "It's never enough," Nick said gruffly, his hand cupping over her soft buttocks, holding her firmly against him. "It feels too good to stop."
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