Romancing the Earl – Heather Boyd

In Madam Bradshaw’s House of Pleasure, a gentleman could buy practically anything and anybody for the right price. This was no penny amusement. A man paid a premium for the pleasures offered here. Price only came here to drown his sorrows. The light was low in his corner, but the footmen knew to freshen his glass with cider brandy as soon as he drained it. His nearby friends indulged their own vices in a different manner. They took lovers, gambled, and argued their points of view vigorously as if the world turned only for them. Price, however, kept his opinions to himself these days. He took nothing for granted now, when once he would have been in the thick of any debate, freely expressing his opinions as he’d once thought his right to do so as the Earl of Carmichael. He’d risked his fortune on the turn of a dice many a night and offered his heart for the thrill of loving women, especially one in particular. He knew better now. Money and position did not guarantee happiness. Pleasure was fleeting but not to be forgotten. Every moment he drew breath was precious to him, as was the happiness of others. But he freely admitted he had no power to make others happy anymore, nor desire to try.

Price appreciated the sanctuary this place offered to someone who did not wish to be jollied into a better mood. His heart was broken—never to feel the indescribable joy of holding the one person who’d meant the world to him ever again. He embraced his solitary existence, relished it in a way he never had before. But that loss did not decree that he must hide. Madam Bradshaw prowled through the room, an empress of her decadent domain. Said to have been a duke’s mistress once upon a time, Madam had become infamous since going into business for herself. Past her prime now, she had opened this establishment and employed others to offer a level of attention most gentlemen of the ton craved but said they never found at home. The establishment had thrived these past years, and the waitlist for admittance was said to be long. Price had applied for membership on a lark years ago, never meaning to come here but once. For the fun of it.

Lately, though, he came each night to indulge his current vice —drink. Madam Bradshaw’s pretty temptresses came by every once in a while, attempting to bolster Price’s ego as they slid onto his knees and purred seductions into his ear. However, he was sure they all knew by now that he wasn’t interested in more than a brief conversation. Madam Bradshaw probably insisted they at least try to flirt with him once a night so he did not look like he was being neglected. Price didn’t feel neglected. He was happy here. He only came to drink in the company of others who would not criticize or try to reform him. He detested drinking alone at home, and his friends came here, so he did, too. If they thought he drank too much, they kept that opinion to themselves. He glanced about the room again and squinted at his surroundings.

Madam Bradshaw’s was a place quite unlike anywhere he’d visited before. The opulence of the furnishings was a touch overblown for his taste. The women who passed by wearing very little to suggest modesty reminded him of a painting he’d once glimpsed of Roman times —even down to the gold-leaf coronets adorning their heads. Not that he was at all interested. The only woman he wanted was dead, and he mourned her still. Price finished his glass, pushing away his despair, and was grateful when a footman instantly appeared by his side balancing a full glass on a small gold tray on his hand. “For you, my lord,” he murmured. “Thank you,” he murmured with a nod, taking another sip and eying the temptations on display dispassionately. Of the women Madam employed to give men pleasure, there were currently any number to choose from if he was so inclined. One or a dozen would join him in bed if he wished for it on any night.

Their limbs were fleshy and firm, young, their faces artfully painted with cosmetics that emphasized their eyes. If the eye was supposed to be the window to the soul, then those ladies suggested desire when they looked him over. Price wasn’t the only gentleman in the room watching the pretty parade pass him by in the dim light tonight. To his right, several gentlemen friends reclined on chaise lounges like his, glass in hand, too, jaded eyes lingering on Bradshaw’s offerings. One beckoned a fair lady onto his lap, and when she sat astride him, Price turned his attention back to his glass lest he saw more than he really wanted of their exchange. A few other gentlemen on the far side of the room had women sitting over their hips, too, in various stages of making love to them regardless of their audience. They’d go soon, find a room to make love in. They were free with their affections in a way Price could not be anymore. Price turned his attention to the other side of him, where the door was located. The card room across the hall was better lit and brimming with hardened gamblers, but he knew better than to play a hand when he was so deep in his cups.

He could feel the tension rising in this room, though, smell the scent of arousal in the air, but was not affected by it in the least. He was almost too drunk to feel any discomfort, too. The room, the people also, began to take on a soft glow as if he were seeing them through a dirty window. That made him happy. He saw none of their flaws under the influence of spirits. The world was a beautiful place when he was in this condition. Just as he preferred to imagine it. He took another drink, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. He had but one lovely memory to savor during the long hours of the night. He and Angela Berry, the young woman he’d loved and meant to marry, hiding together behind a crimson drape in a room slightly less opulent than this.

Hands fumbling, lips meeting, tongues tangling. Breathless with anticipation. Angela had been inexperienced but very eager. He’d been eager, too, but with the experience to enjoy the anticipation of teasing her until aroused, but never going further. He should have married her after their first kiss. Taken her away to Gretna Green and forgotten about trying to win over her family before they married. He should have— Hands, soft and gentle, slithered over his shoulders, pulling him from his regrets. “You shouldn’t be alone, my lord,” a sultry voice whispered in his ear before he sensed her moving to sit at his side. Price opened his eyes slowly. “Not…” The words in his throat died as he blinked in surprise, and then he came to his senses fully.

The woman in front of him bore a striking resemblance to an old acquaintance. But that was impossible. Lenore Griffin was miles away in the country acting as a lady’s companion, and she would never throw away her good reputation in this sordid place. He blinked quickly, and that slight confusion disappeared. The whore might have the same abundant chestnut hair spilling around her pretty face, but that was where the similarities thankfully ended. It was just a trick of the weak light and of the drink. “Not tonight, my dear,” he stated, turning his face away. The woman took his drink from his hand and out of the corner of his eye, he saw her sample some before speaking again. “Not any night, I hear. Madam is becoming worried about you, my lord.

Why do you shun our company?” He smiled at her as he retrieved his glass. “Madam only worries about money, and what I do shouldn’t be of interest to anyone. I pay her well to be left in peace.” A faint smile tugged her lips. “If you’re trying not to be noticed, you are failing horribly, my lord. We find your disinterest even more challenging the longer you remain alone.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’ve no room in my heart for women.” “I don’t want your heart, my lord.

” She winced. “If I might be entirely honest, I don’t really want you, either. But Madam expects us to entertain someone, and there is a wager worth winning over you. I thought perhaps you’d help me win it by making it seem as if you like me more than the others.” Whores wagered on him? Price found that sad. Angela had often made ridiculous wagers with her friends. He’d helped her win a few, too. Their laughter when she won seemed so long ago. Price did appreciate the whore’s honesty about her reason for approaching him, though. What could be the harm so long as he only had to pretend? “Join me then, and we’ll pretend together.

” Her smile was utterly delighted. “Gladly, my lord.” She swung her feet onto the chaise and wiggled around until she was in his arms. He pulled her close against his body but kept her facing away from him. He didn’t want to kiss her or take her to bed. Her company was all he would tolerate. After a time, the woman stirred in his arms to look back at him. “My lord?” “What is your name?” “Angie, my lord.” He startled. A variation of the name of his true love was not what he had expected to hear.

He darted a quick glance beyond Angie, searching for the abbess. Madam Bradshaw was known to go to extraordinary lengths to fulfill her clientele’s unasked desires. He wouldn’t put it past her to have dug into his life a little and found a woman specifically for him. “Is that your real name?” “Yes, my lord. Madam wanted to change it to Celeste but that were my mother’s name and I thought taking it up disrespectful.” He calmed himself, believing Angie was telling the truth about her name. Women with daughters of marriageable age had been known to push their offspring at him all his life. Avoiding romantic entanglements was one of the reasons he had avoided many of this year’s parties and amusements. There was no scheme or contrivance here. He looked at the woman beside him again.

Her hair had a dark reddish tone to it, her lips pink and smiling. Her eyes were blue, but cold and calculating in a way that unsettled him as he looked at her longer. Lenore Griffin had blue eyes but soft, and often sad. She’d hardly ever smiled, which wasn’t surprising given her station in life. He exhaled slowly. “How long have you been here?” “Not very long, really,” she murmured then looked over her shoulder again. “But every day feels an eternity.” “I know the feeling.” He moved her hair aside when it began to tickle his nose, and then lifted his glass to his lips for another sip of the cider. He leaned his head back again, feeling the effect of the spirits dragging him down toward unconsciousness.

The woman turned over and faced him, lying half across him. Her limbs tangled about his, and he felt not the slightest pleasure in it. She put her hand to his cheek softly. “I’m not asleep yet,” he promised. “But you soon will be. The wager cannot be won this way. You should come with me, my lord, and we will find a room together. I’ll let you sleep, but everyone will think otherwise,” she whispered, trailing her fingers down his chest. He grabbed her hand before it could wander too far. “Unless you’ve changed your mind and want something more,” she purred.

“No. On second thought, I have changed my mind. I’d rather be alone here.” “I’ll look after you better tonight than anyone ever has before,” Angie whispered. Despite his disinterest, he couldn’t help but smile at her claim. She was a determined one. “That is not possible. Find someone else.” Angie flounced off in a huff, and Price finished his drink in peace. He did not wish to become involved with bothersome, demanding women.

He set his head back on the cushions and thought of Angela, or tried to. Instead, he found himself thinking of quiet Lenore Griffin and wondered if her new situation suited her as well as the last. Her previous employer had passed away suddenly, and she’d been taken in by a respectable widow in the same town. It had been a while since he’d heard from her. He should write and make good on the promise he’d made long ago to keep in touch. “I say, Carmichael, are you asleep, old man?” He opened one eye to find Marquess Wharton standing over him. “Not with you shouting at me.” “Good. We’re done here.” Price refocused his gaze, noticing his party had shrunk down to just three.

“Where’s Sullivan?” “Gone off hours ago,” Scarsdale, a lanky man of similar age, said with a scowl. “You know he disapproves of these places.” “He could just drink like I do and ignore the rest,” Price suggested. “No one drinks the way you do and hopes to live very long,” Wharton complained. He got hold of Price under the arm and hauled him up to his feet. “Good grief, you’re heavier than you appear.” Price wobbled a bit as he straightened his coat and tugged down his waistcoat. “I didn’t need help.” Wharton scowled. “You certainly do need someone’s help.

” “Come on,” Scarsdale said as he grabbed Price by his other arm, and the three of them weaved their way toward the entrance hall and the newly rising sun outside. Price stumbled into the carriage, taking up one whole bench while his friends sat side by side opposite him. He ran a hand over his jaw, covering a yawn and the beard he’d grown since he’d stopped caring about trying to impress society. “You’ll ruin yourself with the drink, you know,” Wharton started before they’d gone too far along. “And that beard has to go soon.” Price shrugged away the criticism. “What does it matter what I look like to you?” “Well, the ladies don’t much care for beards, I’ve noticed.” He grabbed the bench as the carriage lurched into motion. “I’m not interested in women.” “You can’t be in mourning forever,” Wharton protested.

“You weren’t even engaged to the girl. It’s been months now. Time to look to the future.” “I’ll never love another,” Price warned, wishing his friend would understand and quit pestering him about Angela. He knew the state of his own heart. Scarsdale laughed softly. “Who’s talking about love?” Wharton silenced Scarsdale and sat forward. “Listen, I understand what you’re doing, but Angela Berry wasn’t the only pretty woman in society who could have made you a good wife. There are many keen to catch your notice. Why, just the other day, I heard a pair of ladies speaking of you.

” “Indeed.” Price shifted in his seat. “Protesting that I could hardly have suspected my godmother was a murderess, I suppose.” Wharton nodded. “No one blames you.” “No one talks about anything else. That is why I started avoiding certain hostesses and still do. The ones who leap to my defense are the worst because they never let the matter rest. I’d rather be alone.” Wharton sighed.

“Surely there’s something better than spending every night of your life in this state.” “I’m not a drunk,” Price promised. “No. No. But you are not acting like the man we admired,” Scarsdale complained. “First month after Angela died, you hardly ate, then you dine lavishly every night as if it was your last meal, and now you’re drinking constantly and moping.” “You forgot the month he could not stand to be still,” Wharton complained. “Damned if I had the stamina to keep up with him.” “The point is, you can’t keep this up much longer without it affecting your health. It’s time to put your grief aside and think of the future.

” Price scowled at them. “You are trying to marry me off.” “He means you should live as you did before. As a gentleman. As the earl you were before Angela died,” Wharton said. “You used to be fun to be around. Reliable. You have responsibilities. You were a voice in the House of Lords once. People looked to you to know how to vote.

” “How dull that sounds.” “And you must marry, too,” Scarsdale noted. “We have to face that at some point, don’t we?” Wharton nodded emphatically. “If you want the best, to make your own choice rather than stumble into a situation not of your own making, you’d better face the world clearheaded.” “What are you saying?”


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