Easing from beneath the naked woman, Andrew Augustus Corbett left the bed. He froze, muscles bunching, as she stirred beneath the red satin sheets… still asleep—Praise Jesus. A widow twice his age, she’d put him through his paces. He had ample experience with the voracious ladies of the ton and hadn’t been surprised by her appetite, but it had made him reconsider how he charged for his services.
As he tugged on trousers and boots, belting a dressing gown over his bare torso, he mused that he ought to be compensated for satisfaction given rather than time spent in a patron’s company. After all, he’d brought the lady in question to climax a half-dozen times: no small feat by anyone’s standards. Stamina was never a problem for him—by virtue of his hot-blooded nature and his expertise in his trade—but his expenditure of energy should count for something, shouldn’t it?
He glanced at the bed: in her sleep, the widow stretched toward the place he’d vacated like a cat seeking a sunny spot. Another satisfied customer. Yes, he’d definitely talk to Kitty Barnes, his employer and lover, about upping his fees. Like any commodity, pleasure lost worth when it was sold too cheaply. At eighteen, he’d been in the business long enough to know that he had to make the most of his prime years.
And if I want to make it past my prime, he thought darkly, I’d best secure us that extra blunt.
Kitty had made some disastrous decisions in the past year. Despite his advice, she’d expanded her business with reckless abandonment. When her string of brothels failed, one after another like a line of dominoes, she’d compounded her error by betting on even riskier investments. Now she was up to her ears in debt to Bartholomew Black, a cutthroat not known for his patience.
Last week, a dove had appeared on her doorstep, a note tied to its snapped neck:
Pay—or face the consequences.
His chest clenching, Andrew closed the door behind him, his booted feet striding down the empty corridor. At this early hour, guests and employees of the bawdy house were sleeping, and he welcomed the stillness. The momentary solitude in which he didn’t have to charm or cajole or be anything but what he was. A man with worries. A man who could no longer staunch his fears—for his lover, himself… and the girl in their care.
His gut knotted at the thought of Primrose. At four, the blonde tot was as bright as her namesake, her sweetness as unexpected as a flower springing up in the stew’s dirty streets. Wherever she went, her charm and sweet songs made strangers smile; hell, she’d even wound her way into his jaded heart. She was the little sister he’d never had, and he was determined to protect her innocence—in and of itself a bloody miracle, given her murky origins.
Three years ago, Kitty had brought home the infant girl, surprising Andrew—his older lover wasn’t what you’d call the maternal sort. Kitty’s brisk explanation had cleared up any confusion: some rich cove was paying her to take care of his by-blow. Personally, Andrew thought a man could do better for his daughter (even if she was a bastard) than placing her with an infamous bawd, but who was he to judge?
He knew nothing about fathers. Self-deprecation twisted his lips as he treaded up the steps to Kitty’s private suite. He’d neither met nor been acknowledged by his own putative sire; the only thing he had from the man was his middle name, which Kitty had fashioned into part of his nom de plume.
The world knew him as Augustus Longfellow. A better man might cringe at the crude moniker, but Andrew didn’t fool himself: he was no gentleman. Honor and pride were luxuries he couldn’t afford. He was a survivor, one who’d parlayed his every God-given asset—Longfellow wasn’t false advertising—to make his way up in the world.
As his departed mama had put it, If you have it, sell it.
But it would take his less obvious gift—the one between his ears—to keep his ragtag clan of three safe. Over the years, he’d stashed away some savings, gifts and the like from grateful customers. He’d kept the money a secret from Kitty for pragmatic reasons. Whilst his paramour had many talents, fiscal responsibility wasn’t one of them, and there was no use throwing good money after bad. He didn’t have enough to clear her debts, but if he invested wisely, he might be able to appease Black with regular payments.
Thus, he’d been keeping his eyes and ears open for the right opportunity…
Shattering glass pierced his reverie. For a moment, he froze, staring at the projectile that had smashed through the window. A bottle—fire spewing from its rag wick.
The words exploded from him as he sprinted to the window, yanking down a curtain, using it to beat down the flames spreading over the carpet and floorboards. He whacked at the fire as it strained hungrily toward the tinder all around. He fought off the conflagration—then heard more glass breaking, followed by terrible thumps, the whoosh of air being consumed.
Heart thudding, he spun around: the corridor—littered with flaming bottles.
Everything was ablaze.
“Kitty!” he shouted. “Fire!”
The door at the end of the hall flew open, revealing a night rail-clad Kitty.
“Dear God.” The inferno raged in her wild gaze. “It’s Black, he’s after us—”
“Sound the alarm, get everyone out!” Andrew was on the run, battling flames to reach the stairway at the other end of the hall. “I’ll fetch Primrose and meet you outside!”
He raced up the spiraling steps to the garret room. At the top, he twisted the doorknob, cursing when it was locked, even though he’d been the one who’d lectured Primrose to keep it that way.
He pounded his fist against wood. “Primrose, wake up! There’s a fire!”
No reply. He backed up, readying to break down the door when it squealed open. Primrose blinked drowsily up at him, her toes peeping beneath her nightgown. “Andrew?”
“Come with me. Now,” he said urgently.
Without a word, she lifted her arms, and he scooped her up, heading back the way he’d come. Smoke thickened the air, stung his eyes. He came to a halt as waves of heat blasted into him: flames engulfed the floors, walls, ceiling. He jumped back as a beam collapsed in a shower of embers. No way to make it to the last flight of stairs. Against his chest, Primrose’s small body wracked with gasping coughs, her arms tightening around his neck.
Cursing, he retraced his steps back up to the garret room. Slammed the door to shut out the choking smoke. Sprinting to the chamber’s only window, he threw it open and pushed Primrose’s head through.
“Breathe, little chick,” he said, his voice gritty from the smoke.
As she drew in great gulps of air, shouts and the clang of a fire bell came from the front of the building. Andrew took rapid stock of his options. Here, at the back of the house, there was only one way out: a twenty-five-foot drop to the empty alleyway. To climb down, he would need a rope…
He went over to the bed, yanking off the bedsheet. He tore it in half, twisting and knotting the pieces together. He tested the makeshift cord: strong but not long enough. Adding the curtain panels to extend the length, he secured the rope to the bedframe, tossing it out the window. The end dangled some fifteen feet above the cobblestones. Still not long enough—but a damned better option than being burned alive.
He crouched in front of Primrose. “I need you to do something for me.”
“All right.” Her trusting reply came readily, despite the fear in her wide jade eyes.
He placed a hand atop her sunny curls. “We’re going to climb down that rope together, but I’ll need both of my hands. That means you must hold onto me very tightly. You’re not to let go under any circumstances, understand?”
“Then up you go.” He turned around, and she clambered onto his back, her arms circling his neck and her legs clamping his waist. He grabbed the makeshift rope and exited through the open window onto the narrow ledge of the roof. When the cord held after another testing tug, he readied to make the descent—and heard her frightened whimper.
“Trust me, sunshine,” he said.
Her arms tightened around him; her curls brushed his neck as she nodded.
With a silent prayer, he stepped off the edge.
They swung in a dizzying arc before his boots hit the wall of the building. Bracing with his feet, he lowered them down the rope, fist over fist. He made the mistake of looking down: the cobblestones swam in his vision, miles away from where they hung, suspended, one false move away from certain death. Primrose’s heart hammered against his back, and her face, buried against his neck, was slick with tears.
“Don’t look, sweetheart,” he panted. “We’re almost there.”
Trembling, she burrowed closer. His muscles bulged, straining as he climbed down foot by foot. He didn’t have a plan for when they ran out of rope. He’d have to do a free fall for the last fifteen feet, to somehow cushion Primrose’s body with his own—
“I’ll be there in a minute!”
His head whirled in the direction of Kitty’s voice, the clip-clop of hooves. Relief blasted through him at the sight of the wagon barreling down the alley, and he had a crazed desire to laugh. How could he have underestimated Kitty? If he could count on one thing, it was that she always landed on her feet—which meant, in this instance, that he and Primrose would too.
Strength renewed, he continued the hand-over-hand journey to the end of the rope, beneath which Kitty had now aligned the straw-filled cart, closing the gap to less than ten feet.
“Hold on,” he told Primrose.
When she clutched him tighter, he let go of the rope. He twisted in the air, shielding her small body with his. His back hit the cart, the breath knocking out of him.
Primrose scrambled off of him and peered into his face.
“Andrew?” she said fretfully.
“I’m fine,” he managed.
She burst into tears.
Gingerly, he sat up and patted her rumpled curls. “There, my brave chick. No use crying after the fact, is there?”
“I w-wasn’t brave. I was scared,” she sobbed. “You s-saved me.”
Survival had rid him of any capacity for self-delusion. He knew what he was, and it wasn’t a hero, not by a longshot. Yet her words wended through him like dawn’s first rays through the rookery’s dark streets.
“Shut up, you stupid girl! Or I’ll give you something to truly cry about.”
Kitty’s threat drew his eyes to the driver’s bench. His lover’s russet tresses were loose around her cloaked figure, her beautiful features hard with rage. Primrose instantly quieted, biting her lip, her breaths fitful as she tried to obey.
Andrew’s gaze clashed with Kitty’s.
She said defensively, “There’s no time for bawling. Black’s not done with us yet.”
Bloody hell, she’s right.
He tucked straw over Primrose, murmuring, “Close your eyes and try to sleep, all right?”
When she nodded, he vaulted into the seat next to Kitty.
He took up the reins. “Where to?”
“Somewhere far,” Kitty said, her features feral. “Somewhere beyond the devil’s reach.”
Looking left and right, Miss Primrose Kent (Rosie to intimates) ascended the stairs of the Hartefords’ elegant townhouse. The Winter Masquerade—her Aunt Helena’s annual January ball—was a crush, a fact that had helped Rosie to escape undetected. As she continued her stealthy mission, she held no illusions about herself, good or bad.
In terms of redeeming qualities, she was possessed of beauty and charm, which had fueled her popularity since her come-out four years ago. Since then, she’d been flocked by gentlemen, her dance card overflowing with names. And if the British Museum were to assemble an exhibit of Meaningless Courtship Artifacts, she could single-handedly furnish the entire collection.
She’d been given sonnets, compliments, and trinkets of every kind.
The one thing she’d not received? An honest proposal.
Which led to her faults. She was frivolous, scheming, and a flirt—and that was just scratching the surface. The list of her shortcomings was too exhausting to contemplate at the present juncture.
Reaching the top of the stairs, she peered furtively around the corner: the first floor corridor was empty, thank goodness. Although she wore a swan costume, the upper part of her face hidden by a feathered white demi-mask, the servants were bound to recognize her. After all, as the only niece of Lady Helena, the Marchioness of Harteford, Rosie had been given free rein of these halls all her life. Or, more accurately, since she’d been reunited with her family at the age of eight.
The earliest years of her childhood existed behind a curtain of fog—one that she wasn’t certain she wanted to look behind, even if she could. Whenever her mind bumped up against that nebulous time, her hands would grow clammy, her pulse skittering. Moreover, her maid Odette (French and a true find) had told her that dwelling upon unpleasant things resulted in wrinkles on the brow and around the eyes, and that was the last thing Rosie needed.
She told herself it didn’t matter that she couldn’t remember her life before age five. Her mama, Marianne, had furnished her with the essential and disreputable details. Rosie was the product of her mother’s youthful indiscretion with Aunt Helena’s brother, Thomas, heir to the Earl of Northgate. Thomas had died in a riding accident, leaving Mama, unwed and in a delicate condition, with no choice but to wed Baron Draven, an evil man. After Mama had given birth, her new husband had taken Rosie from her… and here the facts grew hazy.
The first four years of Rosie’s life took the form of shapeless, nameless shadows. Whenever she’d questioned Mama about it, the other evaded the subject or grew terrifyingly quiet, as if the mere mention of the topic elicited pain. All Mama would say was that, after a long search, she’d found Rosie with Sir Gerald Coyner, a childless gentleman who’d wanted a daughter of his own.
Rosie remembered Sir Coyner, of course: he’d been her guardian from age five to the time that she’d been reunited with Mama. She didn’t like to think of Gerry—that was what he’d liked her to call him—because her memories were… confusing. On the one hand, she recalled that he’d been a doting, if oft absent, figure in her life. When he was around, he’d showered her with gifts, given her anything she’d set her heart upon.
On the other, she couldn’t forget that terrifying night. The night when Gerry had almost killed Mama in order to keep Rosie for himself. If it hadn’t been for the heroics of Rosie’s adoptive papa Ambrose Kent—back then, he’d been a Thames River Policeman assisting Mama in her search for Rosie—all might have been lost. Papa had saved Mama and defeated Gerry, who’d died by his own knife.
Rosie fought off the shivers. Taking a breath, she composed herself with the help of a trick, one she’d used for as long as she could remember. She pictured one of the dolls in her collection: it didn’t matter which one, they all had serene porcelain faces and pristine dresses. As the image of that perfect, impervious countenance expanded in her mind’s eye, a girlish voice whispered soothingly, Be pretty and charming, and nothing can hurt you.
Her breathing calmed. The strategy was childish, she knew, but it worked and had helped her to carry on through the ghastliness of recent months with her chin up, a smile fixed in place. Yet, after four failed Seasons, she had to face up to the undeniable truth: with her infamous origins, there was no hope of her making a respectable match. Even the support of her influential aunt and well-connected family couldn’t nullify the fact that Rosie was a bastard.
Fool that she’d been, she’d once mistaken popularity for acceptance, and she’d learned the hard way that the two were not the same. All along, the ton had been toying with her the way a cat does a mouse before enjoying it for supper. The years of male admiration had come to naught: those so-called gentlemen had only wanted one thing from her, and it wasn’t marriage.
Mortification welled as she thought of the flirtations—and, yes, a few stolen kisses—that she’d believed would win her a proper husband and coveted place in Society. In reality, all that had come of her dalliances had been more ugly gossip and scandal. Now she was a hussy and a by-blow. As if that weren’t bad enough, her disgrace had been publicized by a gossip rag.
Last month, a vile publication called The Prattler had featured a poem entitled The Plucked Rose:
With hair as bright as sunlight,
And eyes so fair and bucolic,
Who’d have thought a miss like that,
Would in dark gardens frolic
With Lords H., M., N., and S.,
And, lest one forgets, Misters R. and P.?
Will this improper alphabet reach an end,
Or stretch into perpetuity?
Wordsworth it was not, but that didn’t seem to matter. The poem caused a minor sensation: even though no names were named, everyone knew who it was about. Outraged, Papa had gone to The Prattler’s office to demand a retraction, only to find that the press had abruptly closed down (good riddance). Nonetheless, the damage had been done: her reputation now hung by a gossamer thread.
Never mind the past. You can still fix this, she told herself fiercely.
Desperation cemented her resolve. George Henry Theale, the sixth and newest Earl of Daltry, was the solution to her problems. Tonight, she had to convince him to propose.
Arriving at the appointed meeting place, she cast a swift glance around before slipping inside the room and closing the door behind her. The space was intimate, the light of a candelabrum gleaming off the Broadwood piano that took center stage. There was a grander music room downstairs, but Aunt Helena’s husband had had this private atelier installed for his lady’s pleasure. Rosie had spent many a happy hour here, listening to her aunt play and singing to the other’s accompaniment.
At the thought of desecrating this place with an assignation, shame and guilt bubbled up. But she’d had no other choice. It hadn’t been easy evading her chaperones, and this was the most convenient place to have a few private moments with the Earl of Daltry. Speaking of which… where was the blasted man?
She’d had a footman deliver a note to Daltry a quarter-hour ago, inviting him to meet her here. She’d been confident the earl would come. Not only had he paid marked attention to her in recent weeks, but he was in the market for a wife. In his early fifties, he’d recently and unexpectedly come into a distinguished earldom. Rich, titled, and never married, he was now faced with the duty of getting an heir.
Which made him perfect for Rosie’s purposes. He needed a young wife; she needed a title with enough clout to restore her reputation. Given that it was January and the height of winter, London had a dearth of both, which meant that she and Daltry were the solutions to one another’s problems. She had to clinch this deal whilst she had the advantage; when the Season started, fresh marriage-minded misses would flood Town, giving Daltry far too many options.
The door opened, a swell of sound invading the room. Despite her resolution, Rosie’s heart thumped beneath her feather-trimmed bodice as the dark outline of a man appeared, the door sealing shut behind him. He stood outside the circle of the candelabrum’s light, and she couldn’t ascertain his identity.
She cleared her throat. “Is that you, Lord Daltry?” Although she’d intended to sound worldly, her voice came out as more of a squeak.
“I’m not Daltry.”
Her insides quivered at the deep masculine tone. Its faint rasp snagged in the far reaches of memory. Did she know this man? As he stepped out of the shadows, she didn’t recognize him. If it hadn’t been for the dimness, there was no way she would have mistaken him for the earl.
The stranger was far taller, for one thing, and his shoulders broader. Somewhere in his thirties, he was a male in his prime. He wore his thick, tawny hair a bit longer than the fashion; it brushed his collar at the back, giving him a leonine air. The rest of him exuded predatory grace as well. He wore no costume, and, like a lion’s skin, his stark evening wear emphasized the virile power of what lay beneath. A black demi-mask hid the upper half of his face.
She couldn’t discern the precise color of his dark and heavy-lidded eyes. His gaze seduced not with effort but with a lazy, just-out-of-bed sensuality. The lower half of his face was chiseled, his jaw strong and firm, an intriguing contrast to the fullness of his lips…
Why in heaven’s name are you thinking about his lips? Or how recently he vacated a bed?
She shook off her daze. Even in his masked state, this male was undeniably striking—and definitely not a lord. Having memorized Debrett’s Peerage and being an avid title watcher, she would have recognized him.
Botheration. She needed to be alone in a room with an attractive, untitled rake as much as she needed a run in her new silk stockings. She had to get rid of him.
“Who are you, sir?” she demanded.
“That would be impossible as we are not acquainted.”
Something flitted through his eyes. It was gone in the next instant, chased away by a sardonic gleam. “Nonetheless, I have your interests at heart, Miss Kent.”
She frowned. “How do you know who I am?”
“Your brightness is difficult to conceal.”
Oh, please. One more meaningless compliment to add to the heap. Stifling the urge to roll her eyes, she focused on getting him out of here before the earl arrived.
“Be that as it may, we cannot be alone,” she said pointedly. “I am without a chaperone.”
“That didn’t stop you from arranging a meeting with Daltry, did it?”
Good God, how did he know?
When in doubt, brazen it out, her inner voice whispered.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said in lofty tones.
“And I’m quite certain that you do.” Amusement deepened his voice. “Much as I hate to disappoint you, Miss Kent, the earl is not coming. I intercepted your note, you see.”
Indignation made her forget her feigned innocence. “How dare you interfere with my affairs!”
“I wouldn’t normally, but you left me no choice. It is one thing to flirt with disaster, Miss Kent, and another altogether to jump into bed with it.”
She didn’t know what offended her more: his arrogant meddling or plain-spoken wit. She squared her shoulders and went with the latter. “You oughtn’t to mention a bed in a lady’s presence!”
“Then act like a lady, and I won’t have to.”
In the next instant, he was prowling toward her, and she took an instinctive step back. But he passed her, going instead to the Broadwood. He ran a long finger over the ivory keys; beneath his controlled touch, the keys trembled but didn’t make a sound.
It struck her that he seemed to know a lot about her, but she didn’t know a single thing about him. Which put her at a serious and dangerous disadvantage. If he circulated the fact that she’d set up a rendezvous with Daltry, she’d be utterly ruined. Her reputation was already a house of cards. The slightest waft of scandal and—poof. There would go her future.
Panic squeezed her lungs. She had to gain the upper hand and quickly.
Be pretty and charming and nothing can hurt you.
Summoning a conciliatory smile, she went over to the side of the instrument. “I thank you for your concern, sir,” she said in dulcet tones, “and I’m sorry we got off on the wrong foot. I was, um, taken aback by your presence.”
“Because you were expecting someone else.”
“Because you claim to be a friend and yet I don’t know your identity,” she averred.
“My identity is irrelevant. I am here to talk about you. More precisely, about your behavior.”
An ember of anger smoldering beneath her breastbone, she kept her tone light, even managed a dimple as she inquired, “What about my behavior, sir?”
His gaze met hers, and she had to quell a shiver at the shrewdness glinting in those dark depths. How could she have thought this man indolent in any way? He was a predator lying in wait.
“Let’s start with the fact that you’ve been carrying on like a brazen flirt. Lords Thompson, Halper, Sandon, Millock, Templeby… the list goes on.” His casual enumeration of her sins chipped at her composure and set her teeth on edge. “While I understand that your intention is to marry well,” he went on, “you are not helping your cause by acting like a hussy. In sum, your behavior is not befitting of a lady—or worthy of you, Miss Kent.”
No one had ever spoken to her in this fashion before—at least not to her face. The gall of the bounder! Heat pushed behind her eyes, and she pushed back.
“You have no right to address me in this manner,” she said, her voice quavering.
“Believe me, I take no pleasure in doing so.” His calmness added fuel to her fire. “But I take even less pleasure at the notion of harm befalling you, and it certainly will if you continue down your present path. Men like Daltry will not bring you happiness. You sell yourself too cheaply, Miss Kent, and you and I both know the ton has no desire for cut-rate goods.”
Cut-rate goods. Blood roared in her ears. The ember in her chest became a conflagration, hot shame and fury melting away her composure.
“Better?” she said scathingly. “A man like you, I suppose? A gentleman who intrudes upon a lady without as much as an introduction and commences to lecture her on her behavior?”
For an instant, he regarded her, his expression unfathomable. Then his mouth took on a cynical bent. “I’m no gentleman, Miss Kent, nor do I claim to be one. And that is precisely my point.”
“Other than insulting me, I wasn’t aware you had one!”
“I regret that the truth offends. My point is merely that one ought to understand what one is and act accordingly.” He rounded the corner of the piano, and she refused to back down when he stopped a foot away, towering over her. “I may not be a gentleman, but you are a lady.”
“You don’t know me,” she said in a low voice.
I’m a bastard. At the core, I’m a wicked girl who’ll do whatever it takes to get what she wants…
“I know that you come from a good family. Tell me, do you want to bring shame on their heads—worry to their hearts?”
His words tightened the screws of guilt. She knew that her behavior would disquiet her family, and they’d just gone through an ordeal with Mama’s difficult birth. Fear surged through Rosie: why was it that this man could see through her, into the dark and shameful places that she wanted no one to see?
His brows raised. “Do you really want to act like a spoilt child?”
She reacted; her hand lifted, and she watched with horror as it flew toward his face. He caught it easily and then her other hand, too, when it went to join the other. In the next heartbeat, he had her trapped, his body caging hers against the curve of the piano, her arms immobile at her sides.
“Let me go, or I’ll scream,” she hissed.
“You won’t. You can’t risk getting caught with a man like me.”
Damn his eyes. “You’re a bastard!” she said in a furious whisper.
“I am,” he acknowledged. “Now do we have an understanding, Miss Kent? Promise me you’ll leave off Daltry. He’s a libertine, and you deserve far better.”
“Botheration, why do you care what I do?” she cried.
She renewed her struggles; he stepped forward at the same time. They collided, and she froze at the full-on contact with unyielding male power. She’d never been this close to any man—and definitely not one with such virile proportions. Each breath pushed her bosom against his hard chest, each heartbeat made her more aware of his muscular thigh wedged between hers. A strange heat unfurled in her belly, and her vision blurred… until he plucked away the feather drooping into her right eye.
“I just do, little chick,” he said huskily.
Something stirred in the deepest recesses of her mind…
“Wh-what did you call me?” she stammered.
His eyes shuttered; he stepped back.
“’Twas nothing.” His words were clipped. “Now do I have your word that you’ll steer clear of Daltry and his ilk and behave in a fashion that is worthy of you?”
His high-handedness snapped the gossamer connection, the uncanny awareness fading like a dream. Freed from his hold, she jerked away from the piano, dashing for the door and throwing it open.
Pivoting in the doorway, she saw that he hadn’t chased after her. He remained where he was: an elegant masked stranger whose gaze seemed to see all too clearly through her.
“I’ll do as I please.” She lifted her chin. “And neither you nor anyone can stop me.”
Having issued that bold decree, she fled on limbs that shook.
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