He’d made a fool of himself.
Over a man.
Lord Minshom raised the bottle at his elbow, drank deeply, then carefully set it down again. He licked the brandy from his lips and tasted his own defeat and humiliation at the hands of that upstart, Lord Anthony Sokorvsky. A man who’d had the nerve to walk away from him—from him!
All of London was whispering about how his former sex slave had forsaken him for a woman. Minshom smiled bitterly in the direction of the fire and exhaled, feeling the tug of recently healed bone. At their last meeting, Sokorvsky had punched him so hard he’d ended up unconscious at the bottom of the stairs with two cracked ribs. Luckily, Robert had been there to drag him away before Sokorvsky and his nauseating lady love had descended the stairs to gloat over him.
Minshom picked up the bottle again and drank until there was nothing left. And it wasn’t as if he was ‘in love’ with Sokorvsky. He didn’t love anyone, didn’t believe he was capable of it anymore. All his sexual encounters were exercises in power, opportunities to show that he was still at his peak and able to subdue or seduce anyone he wanted.
Yet Sokorvsky had found the balls to walk away from him. And for the first time in his life, despite his threats, Minshom had given up the pursuit and allowed his former lover to follow his heart. He grimaced at his own saccharine choice of words. Was he slipping? Was he losing his touch?
He turned his head toward the door of the oak-paneled study, blinked at the blurred outline of his valet and occasional secretary, Robert Brown.
Robert came farther into the room. His dark red hair glinted in the meager candlelight, the only spot of color against his pale skin and somber black attire.
“Would you like to retire for the night, sir?”
Minshom held out the brandy bottle. “Get me another one of these.”
Unlike most of his staff, Robert held his ground and didn’t even duck.
“I’ll get you more brandy if you take it up to bed with you, how’s that?”
“Go to hell.”
“I’m already there, sir; I’ve lived with you for far too long. You’ll have to think of something else to threaten me with.”
Minshom raised an eyebrow and threw the bottle toward the marble fireplace where it shattered into a million glittering fragments and almost put the fire out. “Get me my brandy, damn you.”
Robert sighed. “I’ll go and get someone to clean that up, sir. I wouldn’t want you cutting yourself.”
Robert hesitated, his brown eyes fixed on Minshom’s. He was in his early thirties, had come to Minshom Abbey as a stable boy and had stayed with his master ever since.
“Come here and kneel down.” Minshom pointed to the rug in front of him.
“Are you sure you don’t want to go upstairs? Anyone could come in.”
“And see you sucking my cock? I’m sure they’ve all seen that before.”
Robert looked resigned, but he did as he was told and came to kneel in front of Minshom. He eyed Minshom’s groin.
“After the amount you’ve had to drink, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get a rise out of you, sir.”
“You’d better try hard then, hadn’t you?”
Robert sighed again and undid the buttons of Minshom’s placket, pushed aside his underclothes to reveal his half-erect cock. Minshom reached forward to slide his hand into Robert’s thick pelt of auburn hair.
“Make it fast and hard, make me come.”
He closed his eyes as Robert’s warm mouth closed over his shaft and began to suck and pump his flesh. He hadn’t been back to the pleasure house since his injury. The discovery that Sokorvsky’s woman was Madame Helene’s daughter hadn’t helped either. Would he ever go back there? Was it time to move on?
He could almost hear his father saying it, the way his lip would curl, the sting of the beating he would no doubt get for his impudence in begging for the punishment to end. He dug his fingers deeper into Robert’s hair, heard his valet draw in a hurried breath and suck faster. Perhaps he hadn’t completely lost his ability to make men sexually serve him after all. But then he and Robert had always been simpatico.
A slight commotion in the hallway below registered through his drunken arousal. He wasn’t expecting guests and had told his damned butler to deny anyone who inquired. He had no desire to see the glee in his so-called friends’ eyes as they recounted yet more gossip about Sokorvsky and his new love. To be fair, he’d liked Marguerite Lockwood, had felt an unexpected stir of interest in his loins despite his refusal to fuck women. She’d reminded him of someone…
The disturbance was getting louder, rising up the stairs, coming closer. The agitated sound of his butler’s voice and the clearer high tones of a woman. What in damnation was going on? Robert stopped sucking and tried to raise his head. Minshom shoved him back down again.
“I didn’t tell you to stop.”
He didn’t bother to turn his head as the door flew open and his butler started apologizing.
“I’m sorry, sir, she refused to leave and…”
And sure enough, his vision was filled with an apparition from the darkest recesses of his personal hell.
“Good evening, Robert, good evening, Minshom.”
Minshom kept one restraining hand on Robert’s head. He used the other to wave the butler away and waited until the door shut behind him before addressing his visitor.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I didn’t give you permission to do that.”
She raised her eyebrows and took off her bonnet, holding it at her side by its wide blue ribbons. Her long brown hair was neatly parted in the center and drawn back into two coiled braids over her ears. At first glance, she still looked far too young to be anyone’s wife, let alone his.
“I don’t believe I need your permission to visit my own house.”
“It’s my house. Don’t you remember? When you married me, everything you brought with you became mine.”
“How could I forget? You’ve always been very good at making me feel like a possession.”
He met her clear hazel eyes and smiled. “And yet, here you are. Where you are not wanted.”
She sighed. “Can we stop this? I need to talk to you.”
He glanced down at Robert. “I’m busy. Make an appointment with my secretary and get out of my house.”
She regarded him for another long moment and then turned on her heel. “Fine, I’m going to bed. I’ll see you in the morning when you are sober.”
He closed his eyes as the door closed behind her, waited for the front door to slam as well and heard nothing. Dammit, where was the woman going? He sat forward and hissed as his now-flaccid cock caught on Robert’s teeth.
He glared down at his valet who was busy wiping his hand over his mouth.
“Was that her ladyship, sir?”
“Did you finally send for her?”
“Of course not!”
Minshom shoved his seat back and stood up, waited for the room to readjust itself to his unbalanced drunken gaze. Where the hell had Jane gone? Surely she hadn’t had the audacity to stay and bed down here for the night? He’d made it quite clear he wanted her off his property. Minshom started for the door, almost tripping over Robert in his haste.
The marble stairway was dark, and Minshom paused to listen. A door closed upstairs and he set off again, following the faint trail of lavender soap Jane always left behind her. He was aware of Robert tracking him, but at least he had the sense not to speak.
Minshom passed the door into his own suite and kept going down the hall. A faint light gleamed under the door of the room next to his. He entered without knocking and found his wife kneeling in front of the fireplace encouraging a wisp of smoke to ignite the kindling.
“I told you to get out.”
She rose slowly to her feet and faced him, her expression as mulish as he suspected his was.
“I am not going anywhere.”
“Despite your age, you haven’t put on that much weight.” He allowed his lascivious gaze to flow over her, let her see it, resent it, waited for her to blush. “I wager I could still pick you up and toss you out myself.”
“I’m sure you could, if you wanted to cause yet more scandal.”
“You think I’m afraid of scandal?” He smiled. “My whole life is a scandal.”
“I know. I might live in the countryside, but I do read the London newspapers and the gossip columns.” She unbuttoned her drab pelisse and laid it over the back of a chair, meeting his gaze unflinchingly. “And I don’t think you have done anything to be particularly proud of.”
“And you think I care about your opinion?”
“Probably not, but there it is, all the same.”
He moved toward the chair, picked up her discarded coat and held it out to her. “Put this back on. I wouldn’t want you to catch a chill on your journey back to Minshom Abbey.”
She ignored him and continued to unpack her small valise, taking out a long white nightgown and her hairbrush. He stared at the back of her head and realized that Robert had slipped into the room behind him. Jane was right. Did he really want more scandal? He was already out of favor with the ton. Throwing his wife out into the street would certainly make matters worse.
But then, if he was already convicted, why not add to his infamy? He took a step toward Jane, hesitated as she started to take down her long dark hair. God, he remembered watching her do this a thousand times, the anticipation building in his loins as she readied herself for bed, for him…
“Stop doing that.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, her hands still busy in her hair.
“I can hardly sleep with all these pins sticking in me, can I?”
He throttled down his frustration and the unexpected surge of interest from his cock, knew he couldn’t bear to watch her disrobe. He’d forgotten how clever she could be. Was this battle worth fighting while he was drunk and still incapacitated from his cracked ribs? In truth, he was in no state to follow through on his threats. Perhaps he should follow Wellington’s example, make a strategic retreat and face her on the morrow.
“Are you sure I can’t convince you to leave?”
“No.” She walked toward him, and he tensed until she presented him with her back. “Can you undo my buttons and loosen my laces, please, Blaize?”
He recoiled from her as if she were a raddled old whore. When was the last time someone had called him by his given name? Dammit, he couldn’t remember, never allowed anyone to get that close to him anymore, even Robert.
“I’m no serving maid. Do it yourself.”
“But I can’t reach.”
“I don’t care.” He set his jaw and snapped his fingers at Robert. “Come here and help my wife, not that she deserves it.”
He walked around to face her, received the benefit of the warm smile she meant for Robert, and headed for the door.
“I’ll bid you good night, then.”
She opened her eyes wide. “You’re leaving?”
“What did you expect? Did you imagine I’d be so delighted to see you that I’d drag you straight into bed and fuck you?”
Her expression stilled. “No, hardly that. Good night, then.”
He inclined his head a glacial inch and walked out, heard her start to chat to Robert and Robert’s warm laughter in return. They’d always gotten along well and he’d been selfishly glad of it in the early years of his marriage. It was only a few feet back to his bedchamber, but it felt like a mile. He glanced back at Jane’s door and scowled. Robert had better be quick about unlacing her, or he would feel the edge of his master’s temper. How dare she turn up and act as if she had a right to be here?
He flung open his door, steadied himself against the frame and stared at his large four-poster bed. But, devil take it, she did have a right. She was, after all, his legally wedded wife.
“Are you all right, my lady?”
As her stays and gown were loosened, Jane gripped the front of her bodice to stop it falling down and turned to Robert.
“Yes, thank you for your help.”
His smile was warm, his slight Welsh accent as soft as butter. Despite her knowing he was Blaize’s lover, they’d always had a good relationship.
“You’re welcome.” He hesitated, one eye on the door her husband had just slammed behind him. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Not tonight, although I would appreciate it if you could arrange for one of the maids to help me get dressed in the morning.” She brushed at her crumpled skirt. “I suppose the rest of my baggage is still in the hall, so I’ll have to make do with this gown until I can unpack properly. I wouldn’t want to face Lord Minshom in my nightgown.”
“Neither would I.” Robert bowed. “If it helps, I’m glad you are here. The master has gotten himself into a devilishly difficult situation.”
“I gathered that from your letters.” She sighed. “I doubt he’ll let me help him, though.”
“He probably won’t, my lady, but we can hope. Give me your gown and I’ll have it pressed and freshened for you. I’ll also arrange for a maid to attend you in the morning.” He hesitated by the door. “Sleep well, and I pray I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Why, are you worried I might not survive the night?”
Robert grinned. “I don’t think his lordship has quite sunk to those depths, ma’am, but maybe you should lock the door into his suite, just in case.”
Jane waited until he left and sank down into the nearest chair. Her knees were still shaking, her breathing as ragged as her thoughts. Blaize’s study had stunk of brandy, and glass had littered the fireplace. Was that how he lived now? In a permanent drunken stupor, not caring if anyone saw him use Robert to satisfy his unnatural sexual appetite?
But perhaps having caught him at such a disadvantage had worked in her favor. He’d backed down and allowed her to stay at least for one night. When she’d first seen the cool detached rage in his pale blue eyes, she’d wanted to run away, wanted to forget her stupid notion of making peace with him.
But giving in was never the best way to deal with her husband. He pounced on any show of weakness with the speed and ferocity of a starving cat. It was her lack of fear that had first won his interest and brought about their marriage ten years previously. Jane bit her lip. Not that that had proved to be much of a success…
On the long journey to London from Cheshire, she’d spent many hours wondering how Blaize would look, if the depravities of his lifestyle would be reflected on his countenance. To her dismay, he was as fascinating as ever. His gaze colder, perhaps, the pure line of his jaw and high cheekbones more sharply defined, but hardly the debauched drunkard portrayed in the satirical cartoons in the newspapers.
She got up and hurried to check that the door between the two suites was indeed locked. The thought of waking up with Blaize’s hands around her throat wasn’t pleasant. She returned to the fire, made sure it wasn’t smoking and stepped out of her gown and stays. Her suite of rooms didn’t look as neglected and unused as she’d assumed. They’d even been redecorated in soft shades of blue and lavender, her favorite colors. But then knowing Blaize’s sexual appetite, they probably hadn’t remained empty for long…
Her nightgown felt cold against her skin, and she crouched down beside the fire to warm her hands. There was no water to wash in and nothing to slake her thirst. She certainly wasn’t prepared to draw attention to her presence in the house by requesting anything. She was here, and she was not going to leave until she and Blaize had explored what needed to be said.
She shivered despite the building heat. Knowing her cynical, malicious, enthralling husband, she didn’t expect her task to be quick or easy at all.