Though there are lines he will not cross, Darius Lindsey has become the favored plaything of bored, titled society ladies. He contracts one final engagement with the pretty, sweet, Lady Vivian Longstreet, hoping that meeting his obligations to Vivian will free him from the financial constraints making his life hell. Darius finds instead that the bargain he thought would cost him the last of his self-respect instead resurrects both his honor and his heart.
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“If one knows precisely where to inquire, one hears you provide favors to a select few ladies in exchange for the next thing to coin.”
William Longstreet—the Fourth Viscount Longstreet, no less—delivered this observation without so much as a quaver to his voice. His veined hands were rock steady, and his tone cordial as he held his glass out to his host. “Just a touch more, perhaps? The wind is bitter, even for November.”
And Darius Lindsey, veteran of more unnerving moments, stiff beatings, and bad luck than any earl’s younger son ought to have endured, took his guest’s glass to the sideboard and filled it with another finger of cognac—a scant finger.
Lord Longstreet was known as a shrewd politician, capable of quietly negotiating compromises between embattled factions in the Lords. He’d sent around a note asking to make a call privately, after dark, and Darius had accepted out of curiosity.
A curiosity he was apparently going to regret at length.
Darius crossed his arms and leaned back against the sideboard. “You’re repeating rumor, my lord, and slanderous rumor at that. Just what did you come here to say?”
“Blunt.” Lord Longstreet’s faded brown eyes gleamed with humor. “Suppose you’ve learned to be, and that’s all to the good. Excellent libation, by the way, and I notice you aren’t keeping up, young man.” Longstreet raised his glass with gentlemanly bonhomie, while Darius wanted to smash his drink against the hearthstones—not that he had the coin for even such a small extravagance of temper.
“You needn’t confirm or deny these rumors,” Lord Longstreet went on, shifting a bit in a chair more sturdy and comfortable than elegant. “I have no intention of recalling the information or where I came by it once I leave you tonight.”
“Gracious of you, when you’re repeating the kind of insinuations that can get a man called out.”
“Involving as they do, the honor of several ladies,” Longstreet rejoined. “If one can call them that.”
Darius didn’t rise to the bait. Tonight was not a night when he was expected elsewhere in the wee hours—thank a merciful God—and in deference to his guest’s age, Darius had for once built up the fire to the point where his quarters were cozy. This also resulted in more illumination cast on threadbare carpet, scarred furniture, and a water stain high up on the outside wall.
“Ah, good.” Longstreet’s amusement was in evidence again. “You don’t rile, and you neither gossip nor disparage the women. This comports with your reputation as well.”
Darius set his drink aside while foreboding and distaste—for himself, his guest, and this topic—roiled in his gut. “While I am pleased to have your approval for mere gentlemanly reticence, I must ask again if you troubled making my acquaintance only to banter gossip. You are an important man, both politically and socially, while I am the proverbial impoverished second son, making my way as best I can. What errand brings you to my doorstep, my lord?”
Longstreet nodded, as if acknowledging that opening arguments were over. “Lady Longstreet—”
“No.” Darius paced off to the door, wanting to pitch the old man onto the stairs.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I will not be procured for your wife’s entertainment,” Darius said, “or for yours, or yours and hers. Finish your drink if you must, and I’ll show you out.”
“I would far rather you heard me out. Had I any other alternative, Lindsey, believe me I would be pursuing it.”
Darius turned his back to his guest and resisted the urge to slam his fist into the wall. “Despite what you’ve heard, my lord, there are limits…”
“You don’t swive them,” Longstreet said briskly, as if conceding an otherwise unimpressive mount had good quarters and a sane eye. “You won’t, in fact. Which is why you find me here, because any other man—any other young man with a need for coin and the ingenuity to go on as you have—would have taken what was offered and considered it his revenge on the feckless women throwing their money at him.”
Darius turned a granite stare on his guest, even knowing the man had the ear of the regent, for starters. “I find this conversation exceedingly tedious.”
Longstreet met that stare. “Lindsey, do sit down. Please. I am older than your braying ass of a father, and this is difficult enough without your wounded pride added to the general awkwardness.”
“Did she put you up to this?” Darius took the other chair—the one that rocked slightly, though it wasn’t supposed to—and didn’t touch his drink.
“She would never do such a thing. Vivian is a lady in every sense of the word.”
“Though you are procuring for her.” Darius said it flatly, as nastily as he could, for this scheme Lord Longstreet was about to propose, it purely, rottenly, stank. For all involved.
“I have my reasons, and Vivian understands them.”
For the first time, Longstreet’s patrician features showed a flicker of sentiment. Whatever the man’s motivations, there was nothing prurient about them, and his lordship was very determined on his goal.
“As best I recall, you have two sons, my lord. What need have you of a… gallant for your wife?”
Gallant. A euphemism that loomed larger than the stain behind his lordship’s head.
“Aldous died at Waterloo, and his older brother lost his life on the field of honor this fall.” Longstreet ran a hand through thinning sandy-gray hair, then stared at his drink.
“God, man, so am I,” Longstreet replied, shifting his gaze to stare at the cheery blaze Darius really could not afford. “We put it about that Algernon eloped to the Continent, but he lies in the family plot at Longchamps. Some creative tale will be woven when the other fellow’s family has recovered a bit, for each of the young fools managed to kill his opponent.”
Darius pushed aside pity—burying two sons merited pity—and focused on practicalities, something he was good at. “So you seek somebody not only to bed your lady, but also to get her with child? If so, then I am assuredly not your man.”
“That would be part of the bargain.” Longstreet’s voice did not betray a hint of shame about this proposition. “Hear my reasons before you make an old man face that bitter wind.”
A lady’s honor was to be compromised, but an old man was to be spared the nippy weather. This was what Darius’s life had come to.
“Make your words count, my lord. While I am sensible of the dilemma you face, surely there must be cousins or nephews somewhere who can solve the problem by inheritance and spare your lady this unseemly contrivance you contemplate.”
“There are none. If I die without legitimate male issue, then the entire estate reverts to the Crown.”
Spare me from titled old men and their petty conceits. “This has happened in many a family, and you will be dead, so what does it matter to you?”
Longstreet shifted again in his chair, though Darius suspected that was a seasoned parliamentarian’s delaying tactic.
“Were it simply a question of my needs, young man, you’d be absolutely right. However, upon close examination, I find the Crown could make a credible argument that there is virtually no personal estate. My wealth is significant, but the Crown’s lawyers will twist matters such that none of that wealth is personal, but rather, all attached to the title. The regent would get everything, and Vivian would be literally a charity case.”
“Your wife has no dower portion?”
“None worth the name. I am pained on her behalf to be so honest, but ours was not a romantic match. She needed marrying rather desperately, and I could not abide to see her taken advantage of by those who prey on women in such circumstances. I suppose I needed a bit of marrying too.”
Darius sipped his drink, angling for time to absorb his guest’s words. Usually, a woman desperately in need of marrying had conceived a child desperately in need of legitimacy. Lady Longstreet’s difficulty was the absence of children.
“I cannot agree to anything without knowing all the facts, Lord Longstreet.”
His lordship ran a boney finger around the rim of his glass. “Fair enough. Her stepfather would have sold her to any grasping cit with the coin,” the older man said wearily. “Vivian deserved better than that. She was my first wife’s devoted companion for the duration of Muriel’s illness. Vivian and I became friends, of a sort, and when Muriel died, there was Vivian’s stepfather, ready to snatch her back and auction her off.”
“And she wasn’t of age, that she couldn’t avoid such a fate?” Darius frowned, because this sounded all too much like his sister Leah’s circumstances, though the Earl of Wilton himself was the one intent on procuring for his older daughter.
“She was not quite twenty-one, so she was not of age in the sense you mean. Then too, Vivian lacks the… animal cunning to thwart her stepfather’s schemes. She’d kill a man outright, but never by stabbing him in the back. And as you well know, a woman’s lot in life leaves her little enough discretion regarding her choice of mate, particularly a woman raised in Polite Society.”
Apparently Lord Longstreet was familiar with Leah’s circumstances too, which notion brought no comfort. “So you’ve convinced Lady Longstreet to secure her future by disporting with me,” Darius concluded. “How flattering.”
Longstreet set his drink down with a thump, the first spark of temper he’d exhibited in a quarter hour of fencing. “You should be flattered, by God. Vivian chose you from a set of candidates I selected for her. There were precious few left on the list once I started discreet inquires, but you were the one she chose.”
“Am I to know why?”
“You can ask her,” Longstreet replied, showing the guile of a seasoned politician. “She’s a damsel in distress, Lindsey, and you have it in your power to provide her a lifetime of security and to preserve a fine old title from the maw of the regent’s bottomless appetite.”
Darius felt relief as insight struck. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You don’t favor Prinny’s politics or priorities, and you’re loathe to see centuries of Longstreet wealth poured onto his side of the scales.”
Lord Longstreet’s brow knit. “I wouldn’t like that outcome, no.”
“And even less would you like it known you’d schemed with your wife to avoid it by consorting with the likes of me.”
“Shrewd.” Longstreet blew out a breath. “You must see that as much as you desire my discretion, I need yours. I’ve worked for nigh fifty years for the good of the realm, Lindsey, and between the lunatic Americans, the equally mad King, and the greedy, mad Corsican, it hasn’t been an easy fifty years. If words gets out I sent my wife off to some impoverished younger son, like a mare to the breeding shed, then nobody will recall the votes I won, the bills I drafted, the riots I prevented. I will simply be a greedy, unpatriotic old fool.”
Darius reluctantly, and silently, admitted that Lord Longstreet’s reasoning made a peculiar sort of sense. “You don’t mind the old fool part, but the unpatriotic hurts abominably. Again, my lord, I do sympathize, or I would if the nation’s fate interested me half as much as my own, but I cannot help you.”
“You haven’t heard the entirety of my proposal, young man.” Longstreet held out his glass for a refresher, buying himself a few more minutes. Darius understood the ploy and allowed it only because of the pile of unpaid bills silently mocking him from the corner of his desk.
And the other pile in the drawer, aging not half so well as William Longstreet had.
“I’m listening,” Darius said, foregoing any further drink for himself. “For the present.”
Longstreet shoved to his feet in a succession of creaky moves: scoot, brace, push, totter, balance, then pace. “First, you and Vivian must spend enough time together that there is a reasonable likelihood of a child. Second, I’d like you sufficiently invested in the child’s life that you will not, for any amount of money, divulge the facts of his or her paternity.”
“If I may,” Darius interrupted. “The chances are even any child born would be female, in which case your impoverished viscountess is left to support not only herself, but a girl child, which can be an expensive proposition.”
Longstreet’s gaze turned crafty as he propped himself against the mantel. “That would be the usual case, except my title is very old, and only in my great-grandfather’s day was it elevated from a barony to a viscountcy. Nobody has looked at the letters patent in a century, save myself, and while the viscountcy carries a male entail, the barony can be preserved through the female line.”
“It’s that old. When the Black Death came through, there was pressure on the monarchy to liberalize its patents, as tremendous wealth was reverting when family after family lost its male line. Mine is one of the few surviving more liberally drafted letters, and thus the barony—and the estate wealth—will be preserved regardless of the gender of the child.”
This scheme was madness—thoroughly researched, carefully considered, potentially lucrative madness. “The barony will survive if there is a child. If I agree to your terms.”
“Stop putting that bottle up, young man. Having heard this much, I think there are terms you’ll agree to, do we apply ourselves to their negotiation in good faith.”
“Good faith? You’re attempting to cheat the Crown, procure the intimate services of a worthless bounder for your lady wife, perpetrate a fraud on your patrimony, and you speak of good faith?”
“You’re young.” Lord Longstreet resumed his seat in another succession of creaks and totters, this time popping a knee joint as well. “You can afford your ideals. Imagine what might befall your family were your father were to lost the Wilton title, his lands, his wealth—how might your sisters go on if not in some version of the oldest and least respected profession?”
Darius leveled a look at him such that Lord Longstreet flushed and glanced away.
“So you beat your sisters to it,” he surmised. “Your father isn’t just a braying ass, Lindsey, he’s a disgrace to his kind.”
“And yet it’s his line you’ll be grafting onto your own—if I agree.”
It took two hours, the rest of the cognac, and very likely some of the toughest negotiating Lord Longstreet had seen in half a century, but in the end, Darius agreed.
“William will not be joining us.”
In addition to lustrous dark hair done up in a prim coronet, Lady Vivian Longstreet had a low voice, a contralto, laced with controlled tension.
“I beg your pardon?” Darius succeeded in keeping the irritation from his tone, but only just. This civilized dinner a trois had been one of Lord Longstreet’s terms, and Darius had grudgingly acceded to the older man’s desire to see his wife politely introduced to her… what? Darius couldn’t bring himself to apply the word “lover.” Stud was too vulgar, if accurate, though worse terms came to mind.
“William is under the weather,” Lady Longstreet said. “May I take your coat? The servants have been dismissed for the evening, and yes, I truly mean he’s feeling poorly. William is capable of diplomatic illnesses, but I’m sure if he told you he would be here, he meant to keep his word. It’s just…”
“Yes?” Darius turned slightly, so she could lift his coat from his shoulders, her touch conveying hesitance, even timidity, as she did.
She smiled slightly and hoisted his coat to a hook in the alcove. “I don’t mean to babble. William is much involved in the Lords, and it tires him. I assured him we’d manage, but if you’d rather reschedule this encounter, we can.”
Begin as you intend to go on.
“We’ll manage.” Darius offered his arm, noting with disinterest—professional disinterest—that Lady Longstreet was quite pretty. He’d put her age at around five-and-twenty, the same as his sister Leah. Her smile was polite, and her countenance was serene.
That serenity brought lovely features into submission—a perfectly straight nose, slanting dark eyes, full lips, and classic cheekbones—when a more animated expression might have rendered the same face arresting.
She was hiding her beauty, maybe even from herself.
He laid his hand over hers where it rested on his sleeve. “My business with Lord Longstreet has been concluded, my lady, leaving only my dealings with you before you can be shut of me.”
“And you’ll be relieved when that’s the case?” She was barely, barely tolerating his touch for all her calm expression.
Could he be intimate with a woman who disdained to touch even his sleeve? “Now how will I answer that?” He glanced down at her as they made their progress through the house, not sure if he was irritated with her or for her. “If I say yes, I’ll be relieved to complete my obligations with you, you’ll be insulted. If I say no, you’ll think I relish a bargain I, in truth, regret.”
She turned velvety brown eyes to him, her expression curious. “Why?”
Lady Longstreet was brave—martyrs were supposed to be brave—and despite the circumstances, she truly was a lady. The realization made Darius pause, and not happily. He was most comfortable when the women he consorted with intimately shared with him a kind of mutual resentment and scorn. They used him, he used them, and each could look down on the other’s neediness and pretend the other party was the more venal, the more vulnerable. Lady Longstreet would not fit the same mold.
Perhaps she wasn’t of any mold.
He resumed the thread of their discussion. “Why what?”
“Why do you regret this bargain? I regret that it can’t be William’s child I bear, but it will still be the child William gave me, in a sense. I can live with that.”
“You’re very sensible,” Darius said as they entered a small dining room. The hearth at one end was blazing, bringing blessed relief from the unheated corridor. The table had been set à la française, with the various dishes covered and waiting over warming lights.
“William is the sensible one,” Lady Longstreet said. “Practical to a fault, his wife used to say.”
“You’re his wife.”
“I meant his first wife,” Lady Longstreet corrected herself without a flicker of irritation. “The woman he was married to for thirty-some years, the woman who bore him two sons. Shall we be seated?”
The table was positioned near the hearth, their two places set at right angles to each other so it couldn’t be said there was a head or a foot to the table. William’s absence allowed that, and Darius had to wonder how honest the older man was with his composed young wife.
Darius seated her and gestured to the wine breathing in the center of the table. “Shall I pour?” The question seemed absurd, and yet, with such a woman, what else was there to do but continue the pretense of civility?
“I hope you like it.” Lady Longstreet’s smile was gracious. “We often entertain diplomats, and there is universal accord that a hostess gift must be either wine from one’s own country or sweets. The sweets are invariably consumed while the company is present, though we’ve acquired an interesting cellar.”
Darius peered at the label. “German?”
“We’re working our way across the Continent,” his hostess replied. “Tell me, have you traveled much?”
The meal was… odd, because Darius, of late spent little time with women whom he wasn’t obligated to deal with. His sisters, of whom there were two, he loved, but they still put demands on him. And the other women… They put demands on him as well, demands he was compensated for meeting but would as soon forget.
Dinner with Vivian Longstreet had nothing of overt obligation about it, but rather, was a pleasant encounter with a woman whose mannerliness was such that she could draw him out in conversation, ply him with excellent food and good wine, and make him forget for a time why it was their lives were briefly entangling.
Her ladyship eyed the remains of the fruit and cheese nearly an hour later. “I wasn’t sure quite what we were supposed to do with each other this evening, but William insisted that ours is a civilized bargain for civilized ends, and we should begin it on a civil note.”
“I’m not sure I’d agree with him.” Darius sliced her off another bite of cheese and put it on her plate. He’d never realized how intimate sharing a meal could be and wasn’t sure he liked the revelation. She’d be sharing a damned month of meals with him if they kept their bargain.
“You agreed to this.” Lady Longstreet’s hand waved over the table. “Hasn’t there been benefit to you in sharing this meal?”
He’d eaten every bite offered to him, though he sensed she wasn’t alluding to that. “Some. I’m not as hungry, and I’ve made the acquaintance of three very respectable German wines.” To his own ears, he sounded a tad… churlish, though not petulant.
“One vintage was Rhenish. Aren’t you also a little less uncomfortable with what lies ahead of us, Mr. Lindsey?”
“Are you?” Her answer mattered, when it should not. The bills stacking up apace on Darius’s escritoire had to be what mattered most.
She lifted the slice of cheese, eyed it, and set it back on her plate. “I see what you mean, about giving answers that can be either flattering or honest. I’ve said I will do this for William—he posited this eventuality as a condition of his proposal, though at the time both of his sons yet lived. I will honor my word to him, but it is… odd.”
“Not as odd as we think.” Her smile was fleeting, impish, and entirely unexpected. Not her gracious-hostess smile, it was devilish, full of mischief.
“What does that mean?”
“Lord Longstreet is fairly certain he himself was a cuckoo in his papa’s nest, by design. He calls himself a judicious outcross.”
Darius grimaced to think what his own father might have made of such a notion. “By design?”
“The Longstreet line has not been blessed with a great lot of male progeny.” Lady Longstreet popped the cheese in her mouth. “It helps me to know other ladies in the family have been called upon to serve as I have.”
Darius watched her chew. “And the late Lady Longstreet would not object to this scheme?”
The present Lady Longstreet blinked. “I was Lady Muriel Longstreet’s companion in her final years, and yes, she would approve. One is to hedge one’s husband’s bets, or so she said. I think forty years ago marriage was a more pragmatic undertaking. She and William loved each other, and they were most assuredly best friends by the time Lady Muriel died.”
“If you say so, but I cannot imagine…”
“Neither can I.” Lady Longstreet’s tone was a little forlorn. “And in a just a few week’s time, I won’t have to imagine it, because I will be on your doorstep, bag and baggage. Oh, dear.”
He smiled, mostly because the double meaning was embarrassing her. “I’ll be the baggage, if you’d rather.”
“We’ll get through this, won’t we, Mr. Lindsey?” Now her tone was hopeful, and in her brown eyes, he saw she wasn’t at all as poised and certain as she’d have him believe. Maybe it was the German wine or the realization that they were indeed to be intimate when next they met, or the quiet all around them, but as he held her gaze, Lady Longstreet’s trepidation peeked out at him.
She was anxious as hell, bloody scared to death.
“We’ll manage,” he said. “It is ever a failing of mine to take things too seriously, and in this case, you mustn’t allow it of me.”
She nodded solemnly. “Nor you of me. I think you have the right of it.”
Darius held out his hand to her, palm up. She glanced down at his bare fingers in consternation then tentatively put her own hand over his. He brought her knuckles to his lips, planted a kiss there, then drew her to her feet.
“We’ve put off the more delicate subjects,” he said as he led her over to the fire. There was a tea service waiting there, a kettle on a swing over the hearth, and two cozy chairs catching some of the fire’s heat.
She took a seat, all grace and composure, though his observation had made her eyes widen. “Isn’t a month long enough to sort through those?”
He considered what he wanted to ask her—regarding her intimate preferences, toys, games, fantasies—and then realized her elderly husband was likely asleep on the next floor up, and really, the discussion could wait.
“We can talk more later. If there is a later. You need to know I won’t hold you to this bargain.”
“What does that mean?” She motioned him into a seat and prepared the tea, her grace as soothing as the warmth of the hearth. “I’m to be your guest in Kent for a few weeks, but you’d take William’s coin and deceive the man?” She wrinkled her nose. “I won’t lie to my husband just for your gain, Mr. Lindsey. If I’m that unappealing, you need only…”
He leaned forward, placed a single finger to her lips, and shook his head.
“You appeal.” He could say that sincerely, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “You’d appeal to any man with red blood in his veins, but I’m suggesting a lady can change her mind.”
“Change her… Oh.” She looked intrigued then resigned. “Not this lady.” She added cream and sugar to his tea and passed it to him. “I’ve given my word, and if you change your mind, I’ll simply have William contact the next possibility on the list.”
“Who might that be?”
The name had him raising his eyebrows, because the man was a fortune-hunting bounder with no decorum when in his cups, which was nightly. “And if he won’t serve?”
“Is this necessary?”
“Then we’re prepared to ask another, and another, because William is intent on his plans, and there is no force of nature equal to William Longstreet when he is determined on his goals.”
Or Lady Longstreet, her tone implied, when she was determined on William’s goals.
“Then I will see you in Kent around the tenth of December.” Which was soon. Very soon. “I’m not sure if you should be insulted or reassured, but at least part of me will be looking forward to it.”
She sipped her tea delicately. “Part of you?”
“A man doesn’t seek to earn his coin in such a fashion, Lady Longstreet.” Darius rose rather than belabor what ought to be obvious. “Were I to say all of me looked forward to seeing you at my farm in Kent, then I’d be admitting I’ve not even a scintilla of gentlemanly honor left, wouldn’t I?”
She kept her seat, for which he accorded her tactical points. “Perhaps you would, but we weren’t going to be overly serious about this, were we? And in that regard, don’t you think you could call me Vivian?”
He reached down and traced his finger over the curve of her jaw, a slow, lingering touch he’d been imagining since he’d taken her hand in his at the table. Her skin was as soft as it looked, as smooth and pleasing to the touch as her soft daffodil scent was to the nose or her perfectly configured features were to the eye. And her hair would be…
“Vivian suits you,” he said. “Vivid, alive, vital. I will see you in a few weeks, but you have my direction should you change your mind.”
“I won’t change my mind,” she said, setting her tea aside and getting to her feet. “I will lose my nerve and fret and dread and argue with William, but I won’t change my mind.”
“Taking it seriously already, Vivian?”
She went still at the sound of her name, and he could see in her expression genuine misgiving threatened her calm. A damsel in distress, indeed.
“A kiss for luck,” he suggested, bending his head to brush his lips across hers. He’d surprised her—and himself—when their entire evening had been politely correct, without flirtation or overtures of any kind. And he hadn’t meant this as an overture but rather as a reassurance. He was just a man, she was just a woman, and it would be… just sex.
Except it wasn’t just a kiss. She went up on her toes and slipped a hand through his hair, around the back of his head. She wasn’t as tall as she seemed, he realized when she tucked herself closer and brought her mouth back to his. She used the same slow, brushing approach he’d just shown her, but she lingered as their mouths joined, then sighed a little into his mouth.
Her body sighed too, sinking against him enough that he could feel her curves and planes and softness. He resisted the urge to hold her, to do more than let her press her mouth to his as if she couldn’t puzzle out what came next.
When she stayed just there, poised between ending the kiss and seeking more from it, he took the initiative from her and turned his face slightly away, so he could inhale the fragrance of her hair even as his arms came around her.
“It’s so odd,” she said, leaning into him. “I’m cheating on William, you’re poaching on another man’s preserves, but we’re… not.”
He tried to focus on her words, not on the soft, trusting abundance of her resting in his embrace. She sounded as bewildered as he felt, for her words were true.He was crassly bought and paid for, a stud to service a highbred filly, a cicisbeo in the most vulgar, unflattering sense. A dancing bear of a sort, exploiting his own lusty nature for the simple expedient of coin.
But that kiss… it had been neither expedient nor crass nor vulgar.
He withdrew from her embrace, bowed punctiliously, and met her gaze, putting as much distance into his gaze as he could.
“Until I see you in Kent.” He left her standing there in her cozy little dining parlor, her index finger brushing at her lips, her eyes troubled.
She clearly sensed possibilities too, and in his gut, Darius knew he should bow out of the agreement. What should have been tawdry, or at best flirtatious, had been lovely, and no amount of sophisticated humor, good luck, or pragmatism was going to get them through this without somebody getting badly hurt.
Vivian let her guest see himself out—a rudeness she sensed he’d forgive—and retrieved her half-finished glass of wine from the table.
The meal had gone as well as it might have, right up until she’d given in to a building curiosity about what intimacies with Mr. Lindsey would feel like.
Oh, she knew the mechanics. Her older sister, Angela, had made sure of that before Vivian was even of an age to marry, for it was imperative that a girl keep the blunt realities in mind when choosing a husband.
But of the actual getting through the business… Angela had said her wedding night with Jared had been sweet and comfortable. Vivian had seen Mr. Darius Lindsey several times in the park in recent weeks and watched him closely on each occasion—spied on him, really.
Tall, intense, dark, lean, even striking, was how she’d describe him, but he was in need of coin, and he’d be discreet. For those reasons, he’d been her choice for this scheme of William’s. The other candidates…
There had been only two others, men raised as spares—William’s requirement—who resembled the youthful William in some particulars, who could be counted on for discretion and honorable behavior toward the child, if any resulted. For her conscience, Vivian had wanted plain, unremarkable candidates. For his vanity, William had insisted on good-looking young men. He claimed no child of his name was going to be burdened with merely average looks, and Vivian—as she usually did—acceded to her husband’s wishes.
Mr. Lindsey would keep his handsome mouth shut; of that, Vivian was as certain as she could be, and he’d put William’s coin to good use. But having seen Darius Lindsey across ballrooms and parks and streets, having assessed him at some length, she was now concerned she’d just bid too high on a horse she might like watching in the auction pen but never be able to control confidently under saddle.
Darius Lindsey wouldn’t merely behave honorably toward a child, he’d be fiercely protective. Vivian knew his sister Leah, knew the lengths Lindsey had gone to in his sister’s interests, and knew what a hash of scandal and misery Lindsey had dealt with—still dealt with—on behalf of a mere sister.
For a child, he’d fight to the death, and for that reason—for that reason only—he’d been Vivian’s choice.
She had chosen him as a father to her child, and if that meant she had to endure him briefly as an intimate partner—the word lover seemed too sentimental by half—then endure him she would. But it wouldn’t be sweet or comfortable. Not with him.
“You’ve seen our guest out?” William looked up from his reading to see Vivian standing in the doorway. She’d dressed modestly for the evening, which he’d expect of her. Vivian Longstreet was that rara avis, a good girl. Muriel had been right about that. Mo had asked William to look after Vivian, but as his second marriage had matured, William suspected Muriel had put Vivian up to looking after him, too.
How he missed his Muriel, and how she’d delight in the way matters were unwinding at the close of William’s useful years. He’d often told Muriel she should have been a man, and Muriel had thought it a fine compliment.
“Mr. Lindsey was a charming if somewhat reserved dinner companion.” Vivian closed the door to William’s sitting room. “How are you feeling?”
“I am all curiosity.” William patted the place beside him on the sofa, but Vivian pulled up a hassock and angled it around to face him. “You have that look about you, Vivian, as if you’ve been thinking something to death.”
“How ill are you, William? Should I be worried?”
The question was insightful, and he should have anticipated it. “I’m not ill in the sense you mean. I am sick to death of Hubert Dantry’s stupid parliamentary bills, and weary of life, but I’m not contagious. What does it mean, that Mr. Lindsey was reserved? If he offered you any unpleasantness whatsoever, Vivian, I’ll have a talk with him he won’t forget.”
“He was as pleasant as a serious man can be.” Vivian looked preoccupied rather than offended. “And you’ve talked with him quite enough, thank you.”
“Now he’s serious and reserved both.” William grimaced, thinking of the tedium of schemes that came unraveled. “Did he offend, Vivian? Make you doubt your choice?”
“Doubt my choice, yes. I’ll be doubting my choice when your son takes his own bride, William Longstreet. I know if I let you, you’ll list any number of cronies and familiars who raised children conceived by similar schemes, but I can’t like it.”
William set his letters aside. “I know you don’t like it, and it isn’t my preferred choice either, but you’ve met the man. Is his person offensive?”
“He’s taller than I thought. Bigger.”
“Believe it or not, child, back in the day, I was an impressive specimen, though perhaps not quite as tall as Lindsey. He tends to his toilette adequately?”
“He’s clean, and he uses some exotic scent.”
“Oil of fragrant cananga,” Lord Longstreet said. “I find it pleasant, incongruously so, given his saturnine personality. You know, Vivian, you needn’t spend much time with him when you’re down in Kent. Bring your books and journals, have the Gazette sent down, ride out when the weather allows. You can limit your dealings with him to fifteen minutes at the end of the day.”
“William…” Her tone was as repressive as it got with him, so he paused to consider her. Young people today were both overtaken with sentiment and constrained by propriety. It was an odd world, and William, for one, was glad he wouldn’t be spending much more time in it.
“Vivian.” His tone suggested marshaled patience, as he’d intended it to. “You are young. He’s comely and willing. For God’s sake, enjoy him.”
“It doesn’t seem right. You’re asking a lot of me, William, but do you realize what you’re asking of him?”
She would raise this. “I’m asking him to have his pleasures of my pretty wife for several weeks and be paid handsomely for it,” William said a trifle impatiently. “This isn’t a grand tragedy, Vivian, it’s a little holiday in the country that will solve many problems for people who are neither better nor worse than most of St. Peter’s clientele, provided you catch.”
“There is that detail.” She rose, pausing to tuck his lap robe more snugly around him. “And that much, at least, we can leave in the hands of the Almighty, in whom we are regularly exhorted to trust. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
“Sweet dreams, my dear.” William smiled absently as she left and returned his attention to the letters Muriel had written him when he’d first gone off to Vienna without her. Within minutes, he had mentally turned back the clock thirty years, when the world was a less complicated, more exciting place, and wives understood that loyalty was a far more meaningful asset in a spouse than simple-minded fidelity.
“Join me in a nightcap?” Trent Lindsey held up the decanter so the brandy caught the firelight.
Darius nodded, shrugging out of his greatcoat. “I’m surprised you’re still awake.”
“Laney’s cutting a new tooth.” Trent yawned then poured them each two fingers.
“I thought she already did that.” Darius accepted his drink and sank onto the sofa facing the fire. Everybody, it seemed, could afford adequate heat except him.
Trent settled in beside him. “She has been doing that since just before we buried her mother. I’m told she’s particularly good at it.”
“It has been a year since Paula died, hasn’t it?” Darius lifted his glass an inch in a personal salute to a long, hard year all around.
“Just this week. Suppose we can take down the black, though I’m dreading it.”
“You dread putting off mourning?”
“I do.” Trent thunked the stockinged version of two large male feet onto the low table. “I do not want to remarry, Dare. Not ever, but these children need a mother.”
“You’re managing,” Darius said, but in truth, Trent looked like hell. He was as tall as Darius and even more robust, typically, but since his wife’s death, Trent had been slowly wearing away, losing muscle and life, and, Darius feared, the will to go on.
“I’m managing.” Trent yawned again. “You must be deranged to be out sporting around on a night like this.”
“I had a dinner engagement.” Darius sipped his drink, finding it inferior to what he himself stocked, which was puzzling. “How much do you know of Lord William Longstreet?”
“Viscount Longstreet is one of the senior members of the Lords.” Trent crossed his feet, getting comfortable with the recitation. “He has at least ten years on our sire, maybe closer to twenty, and he’s universally respected.”
“What about the wife?”
“Second wife,” Trent said, suggesting the heir to the Wilton earldom still bothered to keep himself informed of these things. “He married his first wife’s companion, but rather than be considered a pathetic old billy goat, he was regarded as a white knight. The girl’s family was unable to provide much of a send-off for her, and the daughters of earls marry where they must.”
“Daughters of earls?” Vivian was a lady then, had been from the moment of her birth. The notion… rankled.
“The title was…” Trent frowned, sipped his drink, then shook his head. “I can’t recall, but the fellow died, the title and means went to some cousin, and the countess remarried one of those grasping younger sons who enjoys flaunting his titled wife. He had plans for the daughters, and actually matched the first one up with some… a printer, I think, or publisher. I forget which.”
Darius set his drink aside rather than consume inferior spirits simply for their ability to dull his senses. “Teething makes a man forgetful. And the other daughter?”
“She upped and went into service when she was eighteen.” Trent closed his eyes. “That’s how Lord Longstreet met her. Damned lot of work, you ask me, taking on a wife young enough to be one’s granddaughter.”
“She’d be done teething.”
“Not if she were my granddaughter.” Trent settled a little more heavily against Darius’s side. “So why were you keeping such august company, Dare? You thinking of running for a seat?”
“Assuredly not. It’s all I can do to manage my one little farm and keep up with Leah’s social schedule. I have no coin to campaign on.”
“I’m out of mourning now,” Trent said sleepily. “I can help with squiring Leah about and so forth.”
“You’ll need new evening finery. You must have lost two stone, Trent.”
“Teething.” Trent nodded, not opening his eyes. “What are you doing for the holidays, little brother? Will you join us here?”
A pang lanced Darius’s chest. He adored Trent’s children, though he ought not to be permitted around them.
“I’ll bide in Kent. I can use the peace and quiet, and you’ve reminded me you’ll be free to escort Leah about should she need it for a few weeks.”
Trent opened his eyes and frowned. “Why doesn’t Wilton take his own daughter about?”
“You’d wish him on Leah? The only time she gets out from under his eye is when she has an invitation to some ball or musicale.”
“She’s received, then?”
“She’s received. Not exactly welcomed.”
“Society has a damned long memory,” Trent groused. “The poor thing has been back from Italy for several years now.”
“But a duel was allegedly fought in her honor, and the only thing that allows her admittance at all is our father’s title. She’s also too old and too self-effacing to threaten anybody’s darling daughter.”
“Makes one want to fight a duel in truth and blow the ears off Polite Society.”
“You’re teething,” Darius said charitably. “We’ll make allowance for that remark.”
“See that you do.” Trent was soon snoring gently on Darius’s shoulder, a comforting, warm weight on a cold, confusing night. Darius rose without disturbing his brother, covered him up with an afghan, and departed for his final stop of the night. This one would take some time, unfortunately, but it provided the coin he needed to go on. So… despite the cold, the dark, and the bitter resistance in his soul, he let himself into the back gate of Blanche Cowell’s townhouse, used his key, and silently slipped up to her room. As he divested himself of his coat, hat, gloves, and scarf, he heard her stirring behind her bed curtains.
“You are late.”
“Be glad I fit you into my schedule, Blanche.” He sat to remove his boots and stockings, unbuttoned his waistcoat, and went on with the routine of undressing in a woman’s bedroom while she watched.
“Stop.” Blanche emerged from the bed, a flannel night robe belted tightly around her waist, her red hair cascading about her in disarray. “Light more candles first.”
He obeyed. He was paid to obey—up to a point. Blanche delighted in defining that point as unpleasantly as she could.
“Shirt next.” Blanche walked around him, considering the merchandise as she did. “Breeches, last.”
Her bedroom wasn’t cold, thank God, because Blanche Cowell—Lady Blanche Cowell—wasn’t about to be uncomfortable while seeking her pleasures. Darius stood naked while she perused her human toy; then her eyes landed on his semierect cock.
“You pretend indifference, Darius, but I can see you’re only half succeeding.” She smiled a little while she said it, and Darius’s heart sank. He hated it when she smiled, but to show anything besides indifference would violate both common sense and the rules of their game.
“I am not at all indifferent to your coin.” He scratched his chest and yawned—his niece was teething; he was entitled to some fatigue. “If you intend I earn it tonight by simply letting you gawk, then gawk away.”
“You are so arrogant.” Blanche advanced on him, and only as she came into the light did he see she had a riding crop in her right hand. It was a short, heavy-handled jumping bat, and the sight of it gave him relief. Blanche’s dithering over their choice of activities was more tedium than he could bear at this hour.
In his mind, he had names for her various diversions. Tonight they would play Naughty Pony, one of her less demanding inventions.
“On your hands and knees, Darius.” She caressed his thighs with the crop then flicked the lash over his most vulnerable parts. He permitted it long enough to make the point that she was not intimidating him, then dropped to his knees before the fire.
“You were late,” she repeated, drawing the tip of the crop down his spine. “And that’s bad.”
She started whaling on his buttocks, telling him what a disappointment he was to her, how she’d make him pay, and all the while, he brought to mind the images that would encourage arousal. The skill of separating his physical and mental realities was one he’d learned early and well, and one result was he could conjure an erection almost without noticing it. Blanche wanted to believe she was sexually stimulating them both with her antics, and thus Darius accommodated her.
It was a salable skill, and every pony needed at least one trick if he wasn’t to end up going to the dogs at the end of the knacker’s rope.
“You’re restless tonight,” Lady Leah Lindsey commented as Darius shifted on the carriage seat beside her.
Restless was one way to describe his condition after last night’s outing. “Sometimes it’s hard to be comfortable in one’s own skin,” Darius replied.
Leah studied him with a sister’s casual curiosity. “And yet, you seem to do this so effortlessly. The teasing repartee, the dancing and flirting. I don’t know what I’d do without you, Dare.”
Neither did he, particularly when he considered Leah was still living under their father’s roof. “You’d manage, and you’d bring Trent out of hiding perhaps.”
“He’s put off mourning at least.”
“And he says he’ll be squiring you about more.” Which would be a considerable relief, not that Darius begrudged his sister an escort.
When they arrived at their destination, Darius watched Leah swan off to the ladies’ retiring room while he scanned the assemblage for those who would treat Leah with less than perfect courtesy. The company was bland enough that he could relax, until a voice at his elbow had him clenching his jaw.
“Mr. Lindsey.” Lucy Templeton, Lady Milne, smiled a brittle, knowing smile. She was in some ways much more trouble than Blanche. “Won’t you sit with me?”
“That won’t be possible.” Darius’s smile didn’t reach his eyes, not when Lucy was breaking one of his most steadfast rules by approaching him in decent company. “I’m here with Leah.”
Lucy’s eyes scanned the crowd while she sipped her punch. She was arrayed in gold tonight, and while the color did not flatter her blond hair, the symbolism was appropriate.
“Your sister will be behind the ferns, as usual. One does wonder what happened all those years ago with the Frommer boy. Lady Leah is the least noticeable woman ever to claim she’s looking for a husband.”
“She’s not looking, and you’ll excuse me.”
“Until tonight,” Lucy said, quietly. She knew better than to risk more, but even that much was pushing Darius to the limits of his patience.
And she knew that too, and no doubt enjoyed his disquiet thoroughly.
“Not tonight,” Darius replied just as quietly. “Perhaps tomorrow night. I have responsibilities to my family that preclude accommodating your plans.”
She didn’t like that one bit. Darius saw her displeasure in the thinning of her lips, the narrowing of her eyes. “Do you think you can tell me what to do, Darius?”
“I honestly wouldn’t bother.” Darius’s smile should have been visible at twenty paces. “It’s the behavior of your pin money I’m interested in. Until we meet again.”
He strolled off, feeling daggers in his back from Lucy’s expression. She was getting bolder, less willing to abide by the terms they’d struck months ago. In her way, Blanche was the more biddable of the two—she was merely miserable and taking out on Darius the temper she ought to be turning on her somewhat dense, negligent husband.
Lucy, though, had a true mean streak. Something in the woman wasn’t quite right, wasn’t… sane.
And dealing with her, with his grieving brother, with his nasty excuse for a father, and his forlorn and vulnerable sister, was beginning to drive something inside Darius past reason as well. This mix of woes and worries had been his primary motivation for accepting Lord Longstreet’s scheme—there was coin involved, a great deal of it. Enough to free Darius from the Lucys and Blanches of his life, to provide a small dowry for Leah, to look after Darius’s responsibilities in Kent.
Relief of that magnitude was worth thirty days of dropping his breeches for Vivian Longstreet. Darius had dickered and bargained and feinted and sparred with the lady’s husband at such length because he’d been convinced Lord Longstreet’s plan was his last shot at righting the things off balance in his life.
Before he did something he wouldn’t live to regret.
Tomorrow, Vivian would travel to Kent, there to bide with Darius Lindsey until after the New Year. If anybody asked, William would say she was at Longchamps, and at the end of her month in Kent, to Longchamps she would go.
But as her town coach took her home from a visit to Angela’s busy, noisy townhouse, those thirty days loomed like a prison sentence. In retrospect, she could see she hadn’t used her dinner with Mr. Lindsey very well. She should have been setting out terms—hers—not the dry, legal details William had no doubt focused on, but the pragmatic realities.
She didn’t want Lindsey intruding willy-nilly at any point in her day. She wanted him confined to certain hours or certain parts of the house. In truth, she didn’t want to take meals with him, but to refuse would be insulting.
She didn’t want him entertaining her as if she were a guest, expecting her to ride out with him, risk meeting his neighbors, or God forbid, attend services.
She didn’t want him in her bed, in fact. They’d have to limit themselves to his chambers or maybe a guest room.
And she most assuredly didn’t want him kissing her again. Kissing was by no means necessary to the mechanics of conception.
And she didn’t expect to have to… entice him…
“Blast.” The coach came to halt in the Longstreet mews, and Vivian’s heart sank further when she saw a groom walking a handsome bay gelding with four white socks. The day needed only a visit from Thurgood Ainsworthy, perpetual stepfather at large.
“Speak of the devil,” Vivian muttered as her butler took her wrap. “Has he been served tea?”
“He virtually ordered it, my lady.” Dilquin’s tone was disapproving. “The knocker has been down since his lordship left yesterday, but that one… Shall we bring a tray?”
“No. Ainsworthy will linger as long as he can over a mere pot of tea. If you could interrupt in about fifteen minutes, I’d appreciate it.”
Dilquin’s lined face suffused with relief, and his gaze went to the eight-day clock in the hall. “Of course, my lady. Fifteen minutes, precisely.”
Vivian spared him a smile then squared her shoulders and prepared to meet her stepfather. It was easy to see—still—why her mother had fallen for the man. Even now, Thurgood was handsome—tallish, though not so tall as Darius Lindsey, say—with soulful brown eyes and blond hair going to wheat gold. He had a superficial charm he put to good advantage when consoling a new widow, and he was clever.
Too clever to underestimate.
“Daughter.” He took Vivian’s hands and drew her close enough that he could kiss her forehead. By sheer force of will, Vivian endured it without flinching. “You look tired, my dear. Should I be concerned?”
Vivian had to discipline herself not to bristle visibly at his avuncular tone.
“I got William off to Longchamps yesterday, and I’ll finish up closing the house today, then follow him myself tomorrow. Moving households is always tiring. Shall we sit?”
He took the chair William usually favored, closest to the fire, and watched while Vivian poured.
“You shouldn’t have to fuss over him like this,” Thurgood said. “He’s a grown man, and since when does the wife close up the house and follow? The ladies are supposed to travel at leisure while the head of the household tends to the more demanding matters.”
“William and I are content with our arrangements.” And if Thurgood were the model, the head of the household never tended to the more demanding matters. “How is Ariadne?”
“Your stepmama sends her love, though I couldn’t encourage her to be out in this miserable cold. I had to see for myself you were doing well since William has left your side.”
“I’ll see him the day after tomorrow.” Vivian told the lie easily. “How is young Ellsworth?”
“Your stepbrother would send his love as well, did he know I was calling upon you.” Such a look of regret. “But he’s a lad, and what passes for cogitation at his age doesn’t bear mention. There is something I wanted to discuss with you, though, something I’ve been meaning to bring up for quite a while.William is always hovering, though, and a man can hardly find a moment of privacy with his daughter.”
The words, I’m not your daughter, remained firmly clamped behind Vivian’s teeth. Ariadne wasn’t her stepmother, she was merely Thurgood’s fourth or fifth wife, and Ellsworth the Waddling, Whining Wonder Child was no relation to her at all. But better to let Thurgood have his say and be done with it—for now.
Vivian sipped her tea and presented a placid exterior. “I’m all ears, Steppapa.”
“William is a good man,” Thurgood began, the soul of earnest concern, “but he’s going to shuffle off this mortal coil, Vivian, and you must think of what awaits you then. His parliamentary cronies and titled confreres aren’t your friends, and they’ll do nothing to look after you when William’s gone. You need to assure me now you’ll not try to manage on your own through those unhappy days. Your mother would turn over in her grave were you to live anywhere but with Ariadne and me, letting us protect and guide you in the time to come.”
I must not toss my tea into the face of my guest. “That’s kind of you, and generous, but I couldn’t possibly make that sort of decision without consulting William, and then too, Angela and Jared might be able to use my help with the children.”
Thurgood’s face lit with a credible rendition of indignation. “You must not consider it! That Jared Ventnor would have you as some kind of unpaid nanny for Angela’s pack of brats, and you an earl’s daughter.”
“That pack of brats has an earl’s daughter for a mother.”
“But you could do so much better,” Thurgood insisted. “Angela hadn’t your looks or your poise or your grasp of political affairs. For you, we could aim much higher.”
Just as Vivian’s patience was threatening to snap, Dilquin’s discreet rap sounded on the door.
“Beg pardon, your ladyship, but Mrs. Weir is insistent that you come to the kitchen to supervise the sorting of the linens and spices. Cook claims Longchamps’s inventory is lacking, but the matter requires your attention if she and Mrs. Weir aren’t to come to blows.”
“I’ll be right there.” Vivian rose, while her stepfather tried to hold his ground by staying seated—a subtle betrayal of his upbringing and his true agenda.
“Give me your word, Vivian, that you’ll let me be your haven when grief comes calling. You and I have grieved together before, and you know I’ll have only your best interests at heart.”
His thespian talents should have made him a fortune. “As I said, Thurgood, I can’t make such a decision without consulting my very much alive and well husband. It’s good of you to call, but I must leave you for my domestic responsibilities.”
He affected his Wounded Look, which meant his You’ll-Regret-This speech was not far behind, and his frustrated rage not far behind that. Vivian ducked out, directing that Thurgood’s hat and coat be brought to him.
There was no squabble in the kitchen, of course, just as Thurgood hadn’t grieved the loss of Vivian’s mother for more than a few weeks before he’d been busy courting Ariadne’s predecessor up in Cumbria and trying to pawn Vivian off on some wealthy, desperate old lecher with no sons and fewer wits. Thank God, Muriel had offered employment, and thank God, William had a protective streak.
Which he seemed to have misplaced, or at least allowed to take an eccentric twist. Vivian reflected on that conundrum all the way down to Kent the next morning, wondering if William hadn’t concocted this scheme not for the continued glory of the House of Longstreet, but for her, to prevent her from becoming that poor relation at the mercy of Angie’s nursery or Thurgood’s next moneymaking project.
All too soon, she was being handed out of the coach by the object of her musings. Mr. Lindsey seemed larger than ever, but perhaps not quite as serious.
“My lady.” He bowed over her hand. “Welcome to Averett Hill. I hope your journey was uneventful?”
“Considering the roads are frozen and we could have snapped an axle at least a half dozen times, yes, it was uneventful.”
“Let’s get you out of this cold.” Mr. Lindsey drew her toward a tidy Tudor manor. “I have food and drink waiting, unless you’d like to see your rooms first?”
Vivian opted for the truth—several truths. “Something hot to drink sounds good. I sent William to Longchamps in the traveling coach, which means he got the hot bricks while I got the lap robes.”
“We can send you back to him in the relative comfort of my traveling coach,” her host replied.
She halted in her tracks. “Not if it’s recognizable, we won’t.”
His expression remained… genial. “There’s no coat of arms. I wouldn’t have made the offer of it if there were.”
Vivian had the grace to know she’d been abrupt. “My apologies, I’m just…”
He waited, while she cast around for a way to not make an awkward situation even worse.
She met his gaze and knew she was blushing. “I’m at sea here, Mr. Lindsey. Are we going to enjoy a spot of tea and then repair above stairs, there to…?”
“We can,” he said, amusement lighting his dark eyes, “or we can get out of this cold, and while we get you that something hot to drink, discuss how you’d like to go on.” He offered her his arm, and Vivian realized he was standing around in the bitter cold without a proper winter coat on. His fingers were ink-stained, and his dark hair riffling in the breeze.
She took his arm, unable to quell the thought that poor William would have been wrapped up to his wrinkled brow in such weather, while on Mr. Lindsey, the cold hardly seemed to make any impression at all.
Darius led his guest to the sturdy, unprepossessing manor house he called home, a little surprised Vivian hadn't cried off. She was nervous, maybe still scared—as he was—and her discomfort sparked some sympathy for her.
A little sympathy, though she was even prettier by day than she had been in the candlelight of her husband's town house. Or maybe she was prettier when her natural curiosity had her looking all around at new surroundings, rather than listening for the sound of her husband's tread on the floor above.
A long month awaited, for Darius and his guest.
"May I make you a toddy?" Darius asked when they reached his study.
"You burn wood." She approached the hearth, sniffing the air as she pulled off her gloves and extended her hands toward the fire. "I don't know what's worse, the stench of London in winter, or in summer. A toddy would be lovely, especially if you'll join me."
"Be happy to." Darius started pouring and mixing at the sideboard, having made sure the fixings were to hand. "How did you leave Lord Longstreet?"
When Darius interrupted his concocting to approach her, she shrank back against the fire screen, then turned her head to the side.
He frowned down at her, feeling a blend of amusement and exasperation. "I am not in the habit of pouncing on unwilling women." He untied the frogs of her cloak, which she'd claimed to have kept on in deference to the cold. When he stepped back he heard her exhale, and knew a moment's consternation. With Lucy, Blanche and their ilk, a man had to be the one to pull away, to long for a little more finesse and consideration.
"Do you prefer nutmeg, cloves, or cinnamon?" He laid her cloak over a chair and spoke to her over his shoulder.
"A little of all three?" He heard her rubbing her hands together near the fire.
"My own preference." Darius poured his recipe into a pot, and hung it on the potswing to heat. Beside him, Vivian was staring at the fire as if she could divine the future in its depths.
He laid the backs of his fingers against his guest's cheek. "You are chilled. Shall I order you a bath?"
She flinched at his touch, then shook her head. "Mr. Lindsey." She took in a breath and still didn't face him. "I don't think I can do this."
"This?" He used a wooden spoon to stir the butter into the toddies, seeing no reason to give up his place right beside her before the fire.
"Spend this month with you, conceive a child. Doesn't a woman have to be relaxed to conceive? My sister said…" She broke off and wrapped her arms around her middle, tightly, as if holding in words, emotions, everything.
Darius eyed her posture. "I am not undone by a woman's tears. If you'd like to cry, I come fully equipped with monogrammed linen and a set of broad shoulders."
"I don't w-want to cry," Vivian replied miserably. "Your toddies will boil off."
He swung them off the fire, put the spoon in the pot, and turned her by her shoulders to face him.
"I seldom want to cry either." He urged her against him. "The tears come anyway."
She wasn't very good at being comforted. Darius concluded this when she remained stiff against him for a long moment. Or perhaps she wasn't used to being held, which he could understand better than she'd think.
"Maybe it's your menses bothering you," he suggested resting his chin on her crown. "You started when, today?"
"Yesterday," she muttered against his collarbone, and Darius felt her relax a little. "I hate that you know that."
"It's worth paying attention to, if you want a baby." He let his hand trail in a slow caress over the bones of her back, pleased when she didn't bristle further. "And it's nothing to be ashamed of. I have two sisters, and they take great glee in informing a fellow when they're crampy, and blue, and feeling unlovely."
She stepped back, taking his proffered handkerchief. "It's hard to think of you with sisters, cousins, aunts."
"You'd rather I come with a sniveling leer, pinching the maids, and telling bawdy jokes?"
"I don't know what I'd rather," she admitted, sinking down onto the raised hearth. "I'd rather William gave up on this whole ridiculous scheme."
"I thought all women wanted children." Darius sat beside her—which caused her another little startlement—and poured their toddies.
"I do want a baby." She closed her eyes briefly. "When one takes vows, one assumes they mean the children resulting will be those of the husband and wife."
"That's implied, but not spelled out," Darius said, wondering how sheltered from the doings of titled society she'd been. "There's that obeying part though, and it's very explicit. I think that's what you're having trouble with." Darius tasted the spoon. "I would too. Try your toddy, it might brighten your outlook."
"You're being charming," she accused, but sipped her drink. "Oh, my… winter just became a more bearable proposition."
A hint of mischief graced her smile, which yielded Darius relief from the cold far greater than any toddy offered.
"I'll write down my secret recipe for you." Darius poured his drink and stirred the spices in briskly to encourage the soothing—expensive—aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. "I came by it in Italy, got it off an old priest who said he got it from a gypsy witch."
"You lived in Italy?"
They sat there, side by side on the hearth, and gradually, Lady Longstreet thawed. She smiled as Darius recounted being unable to keep up drink for drink with the local clergy, and some of his own more brilliant mix-ups with the Italian language. A maid brought in a tray of sandwiches, and those disappeared, and still they talked, until Darius' guest had finished her second toddy.
She peered up at him. "So you've put me at my ease—or your toddies have. Now do we get to the pouncing part?"
"By no means." Darius took her empty glass from her and set it on the sideboard along with any notions he might have entertained involving pouncing in the immediate term. "You are indisposed, and will be for several more days. There will be no pouncing, unless it's Waggles bothering the mice."
"A younger relation lives with me here," Darius said, gauging her reaction. "His cat is named Waggles, don't ask me why."
"Is he your son?" She rose, and moved away, starting on an inspection tour of the room. That she would conclude a man available for prurient purposes might have a by-blow shouldn't have been a surprise, and it wasn't—she thought exactly what Darius intended people to think.
Though it was a disappointment.
"He's a relation," Darius said, watching her perambulations. "He's dear to me, though, and I'll tolerate no insult to him."
"I know." Lady Longstreet nodded, even as she picked up a jade-handled letter opener and held it point-first toward her sternum. "It's why I chose you."
"Why is that?" He ambled over and took the letter opener from her hand.
"You will protect this child, if it comes to that," she said, meeting his gaze.
"How could you know such a thing?" He didn't like her reason. He'd rather she picked him because he was a handsome toy, reliably discreet, naughty by reputation, not this other nonsense.
"I'm of an age with your sister Lady Leah. I attended her come out ball. Lord Amherst led her out for her first set, but you danced the supper waltz with her."
"That had to be… eight years ago, at least. Why would you recall such a detail?"
"Because you and your brother weren't dancing with her from duty. You were genuinely proud of her, and you hovered all evening and monitored her dance card, and how much champagne she drank and so forth."
He recalled Leah's come out very clearly—she'd been so happy, how could he not? "I am no longer that man. I'm sorry if you think I am."
"We all change. I am no longer that girl, either."
"One hopes not." Darius considered her, casually denouncing youth while beaming inexperience in every direction. "How would you like to proceed with me this month?"
"I'd like…"—she subsided onto the couch—"to put a sack over my head, stuff cotton-wool in my ears, and hum some good old Handel while you do the going on. You can let me know when I've conceived."
"Interesting approach." Darius couldn't help a slight smile. "One surmises you'd be more comfortable in darkness then."
"You're going to get mortifyingly personal now, aren't you?"
"A little personal. Not pouncingly personal."
"When does that start?" She wrinkled up her nose, as if they were discussing liming the jakes. Nasty business, but necessary.
"It can start now." Darius settled in beside her uninvited. "Except given your indisposition, that might be untidy. It's up to you."
"I didn't know one could…" She let the observation trail off and turned her face away, though he could see the blush creep up the side of her neck.
"Copulation now isn't likely to result in conception," Darius said, wondering just how much of their bargain William had shared. "That can be part of its appeal."
"How do you know these things?" She studied her hands where they lay in her lap. They were lady's hands, fine-boned, clean, soft, the nails tidily manicured and free of paint.
"I'm naughty," Darius said, for once finding it useful, not merely expedient. "Women who disport with me are usually bent on not conceiving, as any childbirth is dangerous and most are at least inconvenient."
"Are there many women disporting with you?"
Some women knew how to wallop a man broadside with no warning—and Darius had the sense Vivian hadn't even meant to.
"Right now, there's only the one, and she's has forbidden me to pounce."
"I have." She nodded, relief evident in the way her shoulders gave. "How do we manage for the next few days?"
"As we please." Darius took one of those hands in his and laced his fingers with hers. "As I see it, I'm a stranger to you, and you to me. While I might be used to dealing intimately with strangers, you are not. I think you'd be better served were we to use the time to become acquainted."
She frowned at their joined hands. "You make it sound logical, while I'm not sure this getting acquainted business is wise. We're going to have to get thoroughly unacquainted in thirty days, and stay that way."
"I know, Vivian." He patted her knuckles with his free hand. "You need have no fear I'll appear at your balcony spouting poetry. We have a month, and then, nothing."
"Right. Nothing, except—possibly—a baby."
William Longstreet regarded his son over the chess board, knowing the man was only pretending to consider his next move. Able wasn't an intellectual giant, but he tried to observe the civilities and he had common sense, for which a father could be grateful.
William stifled a delicate yawn. "My concentration is not what I'd wish it to be. Perhaps I'm still fatigued from traveling."
"It's too damned cold for a man of your dignified years to be shut up in that drafty old coach for hours." Able straightened away from the board. With his lanky frame, brown eyes and sandy hair, he could have been William forty years past, at least physically. "How about a nightcap?"
William glanced at the clock, wondering idly if Vivian were at that moment bouncing on the sheets with the handsome Mr. Lindsey. William did not envy young Lindsey the effort, which was a sad testament to the effects of great age.
"A drink is in order," William said. "So tell me, Able, how fares my son?"
"I'm well." Able poured them each a couple fingers of brandy. "The estate had a better harvest this year than last, and as bad as this winter is, it hasn't yet equaled the past two for sheer miserable cold."
"Have you given any thought to running for the local seat?"
Able smiled thinly and resumed his place across the chessboard. "We've had that argument, your lordship. It's generous of you to offer, but I'm not cut of the same parliamentary cloth as you are."
"I wasn't either, the first few years." William held his drink without taking a sip. Not until Muriel had gotten hold of him had he really started to enjoy his parliamentary work. "But the Lords is going to have to cede some power to Commons. It's inevitable, and the longer they put it off, the worse the struggle will be."
"You're no doubt right." Able usually agreed with his father. "I'm surprised Vivian didn't join you here for the holidays this year."
"She'll be down in a few weeks." William glanced at the clock again. "Her sister Angela is expecting a fourth child and Vivian is a doting aunt. Then too, every couple needs a little breathing room if polite appearances are to be maintained."
"Portia would have my head were I to suggest such a thing." Able's smile was more fatigued than humorous. His drink had disappeared in very short order.
"She seems in good health." One could not say Portia Springer was in good spirits, ever. The woman had a decidedly pinched view of life despite the embonpoint quality of her frame.
"She's sturdy, my Portia. How long can you stay?"
The question wasn't really appropriate, since William owned the home and was technically the host, though Able lived at Longchamps a great deal more than William ever had. Still, the inquiry wasn't mean, but more likely one Portia required an answer to, and hadn't had the nerve to put to William directly over dinner.
"I'm not sure." William eyed his drink. "Depends some on Vivian's preferences, since she doesn't particularly like Town life."
"She doesn't?" Able seemed surprised by this. "All that entertaining, all those titles gathered around at her dinner parties, she doesn't enjoy that?"
"Rather dreads it." How was it his wife and his son were no better acquainted? "She's a good sport though, and now that she's figured out most who vote their seat are more interested in the Catholic question than in gobbling her up, she's gotten much better at it." She'd never be quite the hostess Muriel was, but that comparison was hardly fair.
Able crossed back to the sideboard to refill his drink. "You'd think she'd be here, though, with you, instead of lingering in Town."
Able shrugged. "She's young and larking around Town without your supervision, but then, she's not my wife."
"She is mine." William sipped his drink placidly, enjoying the heat more than flavor. "I've never had reason to doubt her, Able. Not once, not in the use of her pin money, not in her consumption of spirits, not in her choice of social companions. Vivian is a lady."
"Of course, she is."
William saw the comparison with Portia hit its mark. He didn't envy Able his wife, nobody would.
"You can douse most of the candles," William said, settling in a little more comfortably in his wingchair. "I'll keep my nightcap company here for a bit in solitude."
"If that's your preference." Able dutifully blew out the candelabrum on the table. "I'll bid you goodnight, your lordship."
William lifted a hand. "Thank you for the game. Able. I promise I'll be in better form tomorrow night."
Able left, no doubt to be interrogated by his wife, while William had to admit he truly missed Vivian. She would have a lap robe tucked around him, her chess was interesting and sometimes brilliant, her conversation laced with humor, and her form easy to look upon.
Lindsey, to his credit, hadn't even asked about her appearance, though he'd asked a damned lot of other questions—when were her menses due, had she ever miscarried, what had her sister's deliveries been like, what about her mother's? They were the questions of a surprisingly shrewd man, but also the questions of a man who cared about his womenfolk.
With any luck, that number would someday include Vivian. On that cheering thought, Lord Longstreet let himself doze off, because he hadn't lied: He was utterly worn out.
Vivian looked up from her book—a volume of Byron, whom William declared a disgrace on countless levels—when a single knock landed on her door.
"You still awake?" Darius Lindsey strolled into her room, stopping a few feet from the bed. "Now, now, none of that. You look at me like I'm the invading French army. I brought you a nightcap."
"Did you ever consider buying your colors?" Vivian asked, only a little alarmed when he sat on the end of her bed, and lounged back against the bed post. She accepted the little drink he passed her, but didn't sip it just yet.
"I did not." He scooted to scratch a shoulder blade on the bed post, an informality if ever there was one. "My father was not kindly disposed toward my sister Leah. If you're of an age, you probably know that much, so I considered it my responsibility to stick close to her rather than defend king and country. Then too, until my nephew Ford was born, I was the Wilton spare, and obligated to keep body and soul together as a result. Don't forget your drink."
She dutifully sipped, but couldn't think of a thing to say to the handsome man regarding her from the foot of her bed.
"What are you reading?"
She eyed the book. "Byron. William would snort with derision."
"Byron himself does a good job of deriding just about everything. Shall I read to you?" He picked up the book where it lay face down on the counterpane and ran his finger down the page. When he started in reading, Vivian realized the poetry was better for being rendered in the voice of a young man, one jaded, but not quite bitter, and just as unimpressed with polite society as the poet was.
"You read well," she offered between verses.
"Better than you finish a nightcap," he said with a slight smile. Vivian took another sip. It was potent stuff, burning a trail down her throat to her innards.
She eyed the little glass dubiously. "What is this?"
"Cognac." He set the book aside. "I favor it in winter. I had another purpose for coming up here."
"You're going to pounce?" She had to ask. He was without cravat or coat—in dishabille by polite standards—and by candlelight, at his ease on her bed he looked even larger than he had at dinner.
Also… handsomer, plague take him.
"No pouncing for me, delightful as the prospect might be. I haven't been given permission."
"You don't have to do this, you know." She set the drink aside, only to have him move up the bed and take a sip of it himself—from the same place on the rim she'd just put her lips to.
"Be so… considerate. I'll manage. Earlier, downstairs, it was just a weak moment. If our good queen could bear fifteen children to a man she'd never met before her wedding day, I'll manage."
"I'm not offering a kingdom in return," Darius said. "Not in the traditional sense."
"What does that mean?"
"I can offer you pleasure, Vivian, or I can be as perfunctory and undemanding as you wish."
"This is an increasingly uncomfortable discussion." Vivian tucked the covers more tightly around her. "Not one I am prepared to have."
"Consider this a discussion of how you want to be pounced upon. You need to decide whether pleasure and duty are mutually exclusive, Vivian. If they are, I'll come to you only when the candles are out, and you're under the covers. We need not see each other, in fact, for the duration of this month."
"And if pleasure and duty can coincide?" She knew she'd taken the bait, as he'd intended, but the question was exactly what had been bothering her. Where had her resolve to not socialize with him gone, and why had it seemed so important?
"If duty and pleasure are to coincide, then you have to trust me at least a little to make this a seduction, a pleasure for us both."
"Which would you prefer?"
His eyebrows rose, and that caught her attention, suggesting he wasn't used to being asked his preferences. She stored that realization away for later, and lengthy, consideration
"My first reaction is to say it makes no difference to me," he said. "I am being paid good coin to achieve a specific end, but I'd rather do that in the manner least upsetting to you. If I had to be honest though…"
The look in his eyes changed, became slumberous in that instant before he lowered dark lashes and veiled his soul from her scrutiny.
"You are lovely, Vivian, and deserving of pleasure."
He wasn't telling her everything. A man who romped with society women as he did was capable of discretion, of keeping his own counsel. Silence crept up between them and expanded as Vivian considered him. He took another sip of her drink, then raised his gaze to hers.
"I propose a little experiment," he said, putting her book on the night table. "To help you make up your mind."
The look in his eyes was naughty and entrancing. "What kind of experiment?"
"A good night kiss. I won't touch you with anything other than my mouth, and you decide whether you like it or not."
She scooted back against her pillows. "Kissing it very personal."
"Just my mouth, Vivian. You simply turn your head and wish me goodnight if you don't like it. Kissing is not pouncing, not by any stretch. I kiss Waggles."
Surely she could keep up with the standard set by a one fat, lazy tom cat?
"Here's my dilemma." She folded the edge of the counterpane into a precise one inch hem. "I don't want you to laugh."
"To laugh?" She could tell he was laughing already. "I just confessed to kissing a cat, and you think I'll laugh at you? I thought we weren't going to take any of this business too seriously."
"You weren't," she corrected him. "You know what you're about."
"Vivian, all I'm proposing is a kiss," he began, but she stopped him with an upraised hand needing to get this part of the conversation behind them.
"William isn't a ….demanding husband."
"I see." The smile spreading across his face was at once beatific and diabolical.
"What do you think you see, Mr. Lindsey?"
"I'm sitting on your bed after dark sharing a drink with you. Don't you think you could call me Darius?"
"I don't want to."
"You're not torn up with conflicted loyalty," he accused, pleased as punch. "You're afraid of yourself, afraid you'll enjoy yourself just as old William so generously intended you to."
"Afraid…" She narrowed her eyes at his hubris. "You're likely afraid I won't, and then where will your swaggering, pawing image of yourself be?"
"Good shot, Vivian." He nodded, still grinning. "But best pucker up, as I'm still here."
In contrast to the great good humor of his words, his kiss was serious. He just leaned in, and laid his lips over hers, giving her a moment to startle, and breathe, and then settle in. When she'd managed all that, he moved his mouth softly over hers, pulling her lower lip between his teeth, and sucking gently, then turning his head an inch and tracing his tongue along her lips.
She startled again and thought she heard him chuckle, so she retaliated by using her tongue the way he'd used his to… taste his lips. That earned her his sigh into her mouth, fruity and sweet from their nightcap. And then she felt herself being pressed back against the pillows, until she was lying on her back, and Darius Lindsey was balanced over her, braced on his hands.
And it was her turn to sigh, more slowly, more of a bodily sigh or relaxation, because in this kiss, he would take care of her.
"Better," he murmured, shifting to cruise his lips over her features. He nuzzled, and nibbled, and grazed and tasted, her jaw, her forehead, her chin, and then back to her mouth, until she was happily melting into the bedclothes, ready to concede that duty and pleasure could disguise each other thoroughly.
And then the real kissing began, as his tongue stole past her lips, into her mouth, and began to insinuate beautiful, naughty, wonderful, previously unimaginable things. She tried to follow his lead, until she realized her hands were tangled in his thick, dark hair, pulling him down to her, and her body was…
"Merciful heavens." She turned away by force of will, but kept her hand wrapped around the back of his head, inviting him to rest his forehead on her collarbone.
"That is a little taste of option A," Darius said, sitting up.
Why was any effort all involved in letting him go? "And option B?"
He leaned in again, and when she'd inhaled in anticipation of another rousing, lingering, soul stealing kiss, he put a brotherly peck on her forehead.
"Good night, Vivian." He rose, took her glass from the night table, and turned to leave.
"That's it?" She struggled up to her elbows. "Good night, Vivian?"
"Good night, Lady Longstreet?"
"Get out." She tossed her book at him. "Just go, and I hope you sleep miserably."
He stopped at the door to blow her a kiss, still smirking, and Vivian realized she was smiling too. Awful man—how was she supposed to sleep after that?
Which, she reflected, was likely his point.
Darius took himself to his bedroom, resisting the urge to stand outside the door and listen for the sounds of Vivian Longstreet going to bed. She'd be methodical, banking the coals, replacing the fireplace screen, snuffing each candle, and in all likelihood, locking her door. Her place in her book would be carefully marked with a bookmark—no dog-earred pages for her naughty Lord Byron—and she'd kneel beside the bed to say her prayers, no matter how drafty the floor, no matter how her knees might ache.
William Longstreet had taken a perfectly lovely young woman to wife, and made her elderly, as well as deaf, dumb and blind to her own appeal.
Darius had been more honest than she'd known, when he'd said she deserved pleasure. She deserved heaps and hoards of it, years of it, but instead she'd gotten duty. As he readied himself for bed, he had to wrestle with a question: Vivian deserved a romp, a frolic, a few weeks decadently rife with flirtation and sexual gratification. He was in a position to give her that, but as she'd said, then what? A virtual spinster, she'd be ill equipped to deal with the attachments that formed when two people were physically intimate.
Except, he could teach her that too. He could teach her to flirt and carry on and enjoy herself, and part with a sigh and wave, before moving on to the next enjoyment. Clearly, Lord Longstreet had urged her in that direction, but Vivian had been too timid to dip her toe in the waters of dalliance.
Or maybe, she had been too wise.
By habit, he checked on John before turning in, finding the child fast asleep in his bed, the tom cat blinking slowly as Darius closed the door to the boy's room.
He could fathom pleasuring Vivian, could imagine it all too easily, but far more difficult was the idea she was eager to bear his child. He'd seen that in her eyes—she wanted a child, and to his surprise, he wanted that for her as well.
And this, he reasoned as he climbed between cold sheets, was why he didn't allow other women the intimacy of coitus with him. It made a simple situation complicated, and had him wishing all manner of impossible things when he really should be too tired to give a damn.
Vivian Longstreet should be a means to put a new roof on his stable, a duty, a convenient source of revenue, and here he was, offering to escort her past reason into the land of sexual pleasure and harmless dalliance. Offering her a choice had been rash, and upon reflection, he wished he could recall his words and sneak into her bed of a night, pretending by day her body had been shared with some other man. That would be smarter—better, at least for him.
But by breakfast, Darius had come to a decision: If she allowed it, he was going to pleasure Vivian Longstreet out of her clever, nimble ladylike mind.
End of Excerpt
This is book one of the Lonely Lords series.
Read an excerpt from book two, Nicholas