“Surely you are exaggerating, Emily.” Richard Ross studied his sister’s indignant expression. “Paul St. Clare is heir to a dukedom.”
Emily raised her chin. “And Lucky is my dearest friend. Do you think she would lie to me?”
Richard put his half-empty bowl of hot chocolate down on the kitchen table. It was early in the morning and most of the staff at the pleasure house had already gone home. If one discounted Madame Durand, the cook, and Ambrose, the manager, he and Emily had the kitchen almost to themselves.
“But think of the scandal!”
Emily sniffed. “The higher the rank of the individuals involved, the less of a scandal there seems to be. Think of the Duke of Devonshire. His domestic arrangements were highly unorthodox. It is because Paul is heir to a duke that the ton will look the other way and pretend that he and Lucky have a perfectly respectable marriage.” Emily put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her hand. “In truth, their marriage is respectable. It’s not as if Constantine Delinsky has moved in with them.”
“He maintains lodgings on the same street, but he practically lives in their house. Everyone knows that he shares Paul St. Clare’s bed. Doesn’t your friend Lucky object?”
Emily grinned at him. “Are you shocked, brother of mine? I never thought you were so straitlaced. What if I told you it was far more complicated than that?”
“What do you mean?”
“Constantine shares Lucky’s bed too.”
Richard just stopped himself from gaping like a fool. “He beds them both?”
“They all bed each other.”
Richard shook his head. “I would never have thought it of Lady Lucinda. She seemed like such a nice, quiet, well-behaved young lady.”
“Unlike me, you mean.”
“You are sitting in the kitchen of a notorious pleasure house at three o’clock in the morning,” Richard pointed out. “That hardly helps your reputation.”
Behind Richard, Ambrose cleared his throat. “Miss Ross is not allowed upstairs, Mr. Ross. Madame Helene was very insistent about that.”
“More’s the pity,” Emily groused. “I’m practically on the shelf. Why shouldn’t I have some fun?”
“Because our revered father wishes you to marry well and be happy. You know that.”
Emily glanced at Ambrose, who kept his gaze fixed steadily on Richard. “And what if I refuse to marry well and marry where my heart is?”
“That is something you will have to take up with our father.” Emily’s face fell and Richard felt compelled to continue. “But as his own second marriage was scarcely an orthodox one, perhaps he will be more willing to listen to you than most parents.”
“I doubt it. He thinks I need the stabilizing influence of a wealthy, titled man. What he doesn’t understand is that most of those men view me with great suspicion because of his decidedly odd marriage to Helene.”
“Would you like me to mention it to him?” Richard asked.
Emily smiled. “I don’t want to add to the friction between you two. I’ve already told him how I feel, but he chooses not to believe me.” She sighed. “Eventually he’ll have to face the facts. I’m three and twenty. All I can hope is that I’m not too old to marry before he listens to me.”
Richard reached across and took her hand. “I’m sorry, Em.”
“It’s not your fault. And I truly am happy that after his disastrous relationship with our mother, Father has Helene in his life.”
“You don’t know that.”
She raised her candid gaze to his face. “That he is happy?”
“Our mother was scarcely any happier than our father, and she blamed him for that.”
“You weren’t there. You were away at school and then at university. Despite what Mother told you, she brought most of her unhappiness on herself.”
Richard carefully released Emily’s hand. “We’ll never agree about that, will we? Perhaps we should talk about something else. Isn’t it time you were going home?”
Ambrose got to his feet. “I’ll call for your carriage and find your maid, Miss Ross.”
Emily shot Ambrose a glare. “I asked you to call me Emily.”
“And I’ve explained several times why that would be inappropriate.”
Richard stared, entranced, as his sister and the manager of the pleasure house continued to glower at each other. Had he missed something very obvious? Was his sister in love with the dark-skinned ex-slave and pickpocket Christian Delornay had saved from the streets?
Ambrose bowed. “I’ll fetch your maid.”
Emily turned away, but not before Richard had seen the hurt in her dark brown eyes. He waited until Ambrose had most uncharacteristically slammed the kitchen door before turning to his sister.
“Is Ambrose the reason why you spend so much time here? I thought you were just avoiding your social obligations.”
“What on earth does it have to do with you?”
Well used to the ways of his stubborn sibling, Richard didn’t take offense at her combative tone.
“I’m your brother and I care about your happiness.” He hesitated. “Have you told anyone how you feel?”
She hunched her shoulder at him. “If you mean have I told Ambrose, I have. He told me to stop behaving like a spoiled little girl and find a proper husband.”
“That’s what he meant, although he put it in a far more conciliatory way.”
“Perhaps he had a point,” Richard said quietly.
“Because he’s too different? Because his skin is too dark?”
“You are as bad as he is. I don’t care about those things, so why should anyone else?”
“You are still very young and …”
Emily spun around to face him. “I am old enough to know what I want!”
“And what about what Ambrose wants? Is he to have no say in this?”
Emily opened her mouth to reply and then closed it again as Ambrose reentered the room with her maid.
“I’ll see you to your carriage, Miss Ross,” Ambrose murmured, his face a smiling mask that mirrored Emily’s.
“Thank you, Ambrose. Good night, Richard.”
Emily hurried out before Richard could even attempt to kiss her good-bye. He sat back down with a soft oath and stared at the kitchen door. He didn’t like being at odds with Emily, but he wasn’t sure how to make amends without offending her further. If she asked for his help to intercede with their father, or even with Ambrose, he would do so willingly, but he was past the age when he thought to force his opinions on anyone. He’d wait to be asked and in the meantime, keep his own counsel.
Ambrose came back into the kitchen rather slowly, his expression distracted. He directed his gaze at Richard with a visible effort.
“Is there anything else I can help you with, Mr. Ross?”
“You can start by calling me Richard.”
Ambrose half smiled. “And risk the wrath of your sister? If you don’t mind, I’ll continue to call you Mr. Ross. She would never forgive me if I made an exception for you and not for her.”
“My sister is a very determined woman.”
“I know that, sir. But she is still young.”
“For God’s sake, don’t tell her that.” Richard shuddered.
Ambrose sighed. “It’s too late. I already have.” He picked up Emily’s empty cup and took it over to the sink. “Are you staying the night, Mr. Ross?”
Aware that Ambrose had deliberately changed the subject, Richard rose to his feet. “I’ll just take a stroll through the pleasure house, and then I’ll probably turn in.”
“Excellent, sir. I did ask one of the maids to ready your bedroom on the off chance that you would be staying.”
“You are a marvel, Ambrose. Thank you.”
“I am certainly a first-class servant.”
Richard paused at the door. Was there a hint of bitterness in Ambrose’s words? “You are far more than that. Christian sees you as more of a brother to him than I am.”
Ambrose’s smile was sweet. “I doubt that. Blood, after all, is thicker than water.”
Richard wasn’t so sure, but he didn’t feel up to discussing the interesting family dynamics of the Delornay-Ross clan at this point of the evening. He nodded a farewell to Ambrose and started up the stairs to the main levels of the pleasure house.
There weren’t many guests in the larger of the salons, and those guests were mostly naked and writhing in a tangle of bodies on the pile of scarlet silk cushions. Richard recognized a Member of Parliament, an archbishop, and a prominent social hostess energetically fucking each other while the woman’s husband watched and commented from the nearest couch.
He managed to avoid gazing directly at any of them, and made his way to the buffet table where he poured himself a glass of excellent red wine. There was no sign of his half brother Christian Delornay or his delicious wife, Elizabeth. Richard knew they would be somewhere on the premises making sure everything was running smoothly. Christian was eager to prove he could manage the pleasure house his mother had founded as well, if not better, than she had.
Richard sipped at his wine and sighed. At least Christian had a purpose. All Richard was supposed to do was wait for his father to die so that he could assume his titles. It seemed a ridiculous waste of his life. Sometimes he dreaded the thought of shouldering the enormous responsibilities that went with it. He almost wished he were back in France avoiding Napoléon’s soldiers and saving forgotten souls. Life seemed sweeter when all he had were his wits and strength to protect him….
None of his family had any idea what he’d been doing in France. His father thought he’d stayed there to avoid coming home. In the beginning, that had played a part in Richard’s decision, but the real thrill had been the dangerous and deadly work he performed for the government. And that couldn’t be spoken of in polite society. So his family continued to think he was a boring, brainless, ungrateful drone.
He drained his glass and refilled it, his attention caught by an influx of new people at the door. A young man of medium height dressed in the latest fashion was laughing up at one of his companions. Something about the joy on the man’s face reminded Richard of a woman he’d once known—a woman he’d foolishly loved to distraction….
He stiffened as the little group came toward him, aware that they were all speaking French and that he knew at least two of them from his previous activities on the Continent.
“Ah, Mr. Ross. Good evening to you.”
Richard bowed in response to the cheerful greeting from the tall, blond-haired peer. “Good evening, Lord Keyes, gentlemen.”
“Not taking advantage of the facilities, eh, Ross?” Lord Keyes nudged his arm and Richard almost tipped red wine everywhere. “No lovely ladies to tempt you tonight, or do you like to watch, eh, eh?”
Richard smiled politely and stepped away from Lord Keyes. He’d already noticed that despite his outward display of drunkenness, Lord Keyes’s blue gaze was as sharp as ever. Only a fool would underestimate him.
“Actually, my lord, I was just considering retiring.”
“You’re spent then, are you?”
“Indeed. Have you just arrived?”
“Aye, we’ve been to the theater.” Lord Keyes put an arm around the shoulders of the slight, dark-haired man. “I was just introducing my young friend here to the pleasures of London.”
The man stuck out his hand. “I’m Jack Lennox, Mr. Ross. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
As he shook the proffered hand, Richard found himself studying the perfection of Jack Lennox’s features. He looked as if he had stepped out of a painting, or a young lady’s dreams. His likeness to the deceased Violet LeNy was quite extraordinary.
“Is it your first trip to London, sir?” Richard asked.
“No, Mr. Ross, I was born here; but I must confess I haven’t been back since well before the war.”
Richard smiled. “You will perhaps forgive me for remarking that your command of French is that of a native.”
“I’m aware that it makes my claim to be English sound rather suspicious, especially since the recent conflict.” Mr. Lennox’s grin was meant to be disarming, but Richard wasn’t quite swayed. The mere fact that Keyes had deliberately introduced Lennox to him meant something was afoot. “Perhaps the more I speak English, the more convincing I will become.”
“I’m sure of it, sir. Are you planning on making your home here in England?”
“I would like to, but, naturally, there are various plans that need to be put in place before I can achieve my aim.” Mr. Lennox shrugged. “I heard that you spent many years in France yourself, Mr. Ross.”
“I suppose Lord Keyes told you that.”
“Among others. It seems we have several acquaintances in common.”
“Indeed.” Richard studied Mr. Lennox. “Is that why you instigated this conversation?”
“Instigated, Mr. Ross?” Lennox raised his eyebrows. “You make my motives sound rather suspect. Perhaps I merely wished to exchange pleasantries with a man who spoke French as well as I do.”
“You came in with Lord Keyes and Sir Adam Fisher, who both speak excellent French. Are they not up to your high standards?”
“No, I fear they are not.”
Richard met the other man’s vivid blue eyes. “What do you want, Mr. Lennox?”
“To talk to you?”
“We are talking.” Richard glanced over his companion’s shoulder and saw that the other men had moved on to other more salacious pursuits involving the hasty removal of their clothes. “Do you not wish to join your friends?”
“Only if you wish to come with me.”
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
“We’re in a pleasure house. I assume you can talk and fornicate at the same time?”
“Not if I intend to make any sense.”
Jack Lennox laughed out loud. “You are a man after my own heart, Mr. Ross. Perhaps we might just share a glass of wine together before we adjourn for the night?”
Richard studied the other man’s amused expression. Despite the openness of his manner, there was something dangerous lurking at the back of Mr. Lennox’s eyes, something ruthless that demanded to be recognized. Richard had met his own kind too many times before to be fooled. For the first time in a long while, he felt a lick of excitement curl through his gut.
“Of course, Mr. Lennox. Would you like to join me at the far end of the salon, where I hope we shall remain relatively undisturbed?”
He led the way past the piles of writhing bodies to the quieter end of the salon where several chairs were grouped around small tables. He took a chair that allowed him to see the rest of the room and waited to see which seat Jack Lennox would pick. Lennox sat directly opposite him, half-blocking Richard’s view, a brave move that Richard could only admire.
“Now, Mr. Lennox. What can I do for you?” Richard signaled for one of the waiters and asked for some brandy to be brought to them.
“It is a delicate matter, Mr. Ross. One I am not quite sure how to approach.”
“Are you under the impression that I can somehow help advance your career? If that is so, you are quite mistaken. Lord Keyes is the man for that kind of thing. He already holds an important position in the government and is connected with all the best families.”
“Lord Keyes has already offered to help me, Mr. Ross.” Jack Lennox thanked the waiter for the brandy and then turned his intent gaze back to Richard. “The matter I wish to speak to you about is a more personal one.”
“Yet you hardly know me, sir.”
“Which presents me with some difficulties, I know. But this request is not entirely on my behalf.” Jack Lennox hesitated. “I am charged to deliver a message to Madame Helene Delornay. I understood from Lord Keyes that you have some connection with her.”
“I might have.” Richard sipped his brandy and wondered exactly what Keyes had told Lennox. “But since you are in her house of pleasure, why not simply ask to meet Madame Helene herself?”
“I understood that she no longer runs this establishment.”
“She still looks in occasionally. Why did you not attempt to speak to her son, Christian? He is in charge now.”
“Because I am not sure if the message I bring will be welcome to Madame Helene.” Lennox’s smile was roguishly charming. “I hoped you might act as a—how do you say it? A go-between.”
“That is certainly the correct phrase, but I’m not sure if I like the idea at all. Why should I offer myself up for such a potentially hazardous duty?”
Jack Lennox sat forward, one hand clenched on his knee, and lowered his voice.
“My grandmother knew Madame Helene when she was a young woman. I believe they shared some terrible experiences during the revolution. I’m unsure if Madame Helene would wish to revive those memories. I hoped you might intercede with her, or her son, on my behalf.”
Richard studied the other man. He’d always considered himself an excellent judge of character. There was a sincerity behind Lennox’s words that couldn’t be denied. Instinct also told Richard there was far more to the story. Did he want to become involved, or did he wish Jack Lennox and his grandmother to the devil?
“Why didn’t your grandmother just write a letter to Madame Helene?”
“Because she is reluctant to commit anything to paper. She is extremely suspicious. After surviving the twists and turns of a revolution, I can understand her fears, although it makes my task more complicated.”