Shameless – Erin Rye, Tarah Scott

JULIET SQUINTED AGAINST THE late morning sun that streamed through the open window behind Lady Honoria Peddington’s study desk. Girlish laughter wafted up from the modest courtyard as Honoria rose then skirted the large, claw-footed mahogany desk to where Juliet stood on the dark green, paisley-patterned carpet. For a woman nearing fifty, Honoria was remarkably beautiful, with only the barest hint of gray in her red hair. She pinned Juliet with a critical stare. “Curl your locks into proper ringlets for tonight.” “Tonight—” Juliet broke off when Honoria brushed one of the locks with her fingers. “I want to see candlelight dance off those gold streaks.” Honoria began a slow walk around Juliet, as if inspecting a horse she wished to purchase. With the real Lady Peddington making her circuit, Juliet stared at the large oil portrait of Lady Peddington that graced the mantle. At her back, hung a collection of small portraits of the local nobles of Edinburgh. She imagined the lords’ collective ‘tsk, tsks’ as Honoria reached Juliet’s face and grasped Juliet’s chin, tilting her head sideways. “Stain your lips a darker shade of red. Your pout will drive him wild.” Him? Her heartbeat accelerated. Honoria released her.

“And line your lower eyelashes. Your blue eyes are one of your best features.” She stepped back and crossed her arms. “You will meet the Duke of Hamilton tonight at the Midnight Ball.” “Midnight Ball—the Duke of Hamilton?” Anger twisted through her, followed by fear. Of all things the headmistress and founder of Lady Peddington’s School for Young Ladies could have thrown at her, Juliet hadn’t imagined this. “So, the notorious Duke of Hamilton intends to make me his mistress?” Juliet forced a smile and added with a double dose of sarcasm, “Why, Auntie Honoria, what more could a woman want?” “Little, indeed,” she said, ignoring Juliet’s derision. “Surely, you remember that I am returning to London in the morning,” Juliet said. “I have no time for balls—or dukes.” Honoria pinned her with a stare.

“I did not insist you attend the first ball, but I must insist you attend this one.” “Only gentlemen looking for less-than-honorable associations attend your Midnight Balls. You know that isn’t what I want.” “There is nothing dishonorable about an agreement between adults,” Honoria replied unruffled. “The duke will expect you at midnight. He is not a man who likes to be kept waiting.” Her heart sank. The Duke of Hamilton. His portrait did not hang on the wall alongside the illustrious nobility of Edinburgh. Still, Juliet had heard of the man.

Who hadn’t? His reputation preceded him. He was daring, handsome, scandalously rich and, “He’s never stayed with a woman longer than six months,” Juliet finished her thought out loud. “There is a first time for everything,” Lady Peddington said. Lady Honoria Peddington wasn’t truly her aunt, but she was the closest thing Juliet had to a relative. Auntie started her career in the same brothel as Juliet’s mother, where they’d formed a sisterly bond. As the years passed, both women had fulfilled their dreams. Honoria Peddington—born Honey Pedding—relocated to Edinburgh and opened Lady Peddington’s School for Young Ladies. Juliet’s mother moved to London and opened Lady Aphrodite’s House of Pleasure—Juliet’s childhood home. Honoria smiled gently. “There is no harm in meeting the man.

” “I’m no fool,” Juliet snapped. She nodded at the open window where her fellow students giggled in the small courtyard below. “They might not know the dangers of a Midnight Ball, but they don’t have a madam for a mother, now, do they?” “My dearest child,” Lady Peddington rapped her knuckles sharply on the desk at her side, “lower your voice. We cannot have such words overheard.” Juliet huffed another breath, but replied in hushed tones, “I am not staying in Edinburgh, Auntie. I leave early for London.” Honoria gave her a shrewd look. “You are no more anxious to return home now than you were yesterday.” Juliet’s heart constricted. Her aunt spoke the truth.

She felt more at home here than anywhere else she’d ever lived. The year had passed too quickly. Juliet tossed a wistful glance at the bookshelves filled with leather-bound volumes of deportment and etiquette. She’d read them all—or tried to. Truth be told, they’d put her to sleep better than any posset ever had. She had a plan to avoid the fate awaiting her in her mother’s house. She’d spent the school year fostering relationships with young ladies who would soon head households of their own. They would need a dressmaker. She intended to convince her mother to let her attempt to become a dressmaker before being forced into life as a courtesan. Juliet met her aunt’s gaze.

“Why meet this gentleman just as I’m leaving, Auntie Honey— Honoria?” After a year, she still slipped. “Have you sold my virginity to the highest bidder?” Her mother had attempted just that the year before. She’d auctioned Juliet off to a middle-aged banker, a man with a stomach the size of a bull’s, who smelled like one, too. She’d narrowly avoided the man’s bed by convincing her mother a year at Lady Peddington’s school would allow her to charge twice the amount from better-paying clientele. Juliet realized Lady Peddington was talking. “…caught Sir Stirling’s eye, Juliet. He specifically requested that you attend tonight’s ball and meet the duke.” Juliet frowned. “Sir Stirling James?” She’d seen the man only once, and from a great distance. One of the instructors had pointed him out during a sanctioned holiday outing in Edinburgh as he’d dashed past in a brightly polished carriage.

“Where might he have seen me? When? How? I’ve followed the rules, Auntie Honoria. I’ve told no one anything.” How could she? Classmates would faint from shock should they discover she’d been raised in a brothel. A new thought struck and she dropped her voice into an even lower whisper, “He isn’t one of Mother’s patrons, is he?” “Heavens, no.” She shook her head vigorously. “Nothing like that.” “Then why would he wish to make me a duke’s mistress?” Juliet hissed. “I’m not at all certain, child,” Lady Peddington whispered. She nodded at the open window and waited for more giggles to drift through before adding, “Sir Stirling is an old friend—not that kind of old friend,” she quickly added when Juliet opened her mouth to ask that very question. Her aunt gave her a knowing look.

“You have behaved yourself here in Edinburgh, but what of London?” Juliet winced inwardly. Oh. London. “I’ve been the picture of propriety, Auntie, I swear it,” she lied. After all, what did the pesky word ‘propriety’ actually mean? Everyone she’d met held a slightly different opinion on the matter. And really, who was to say that sneaking into London parties uninvited in order to frequent the card tables was truly improper? She’d been careful to wear a Venetian mask to protect her identity. After all, she’d met more than one gambler in the brothel while growing up. They’d taught her a good many card tricks over the years. Why shouldn’t she put such knowledge to use? She’d been quite the mysterious and popular figure in London that summer, and she’d won a tidy sum—almost enough money to open her own dress shop. Almost.

“What have you done, child?” her aunt pressed. “Nothing,” she lied again. Honoria’s stare seemed to penetrate clear to her soul. “Did you, by chance, fall in love in London or—” Juliet rolled her eyes. “Really, how can you ask? Love is a word thrown about too easily. I’m of no mind to lift my skirts for any man. Ever.” Her aunt chuckled as if relieved. Juliet lifted a suspicious brow. “I still feel as if I’ve been sold as your prized cow.

” “Nonsense. Sir Stirling is a matchmaker.” “Let him make a match elsewhere.” Juliet tossed her head and turned to go. “Juliet, listen to me.” Juliet paused, then faced Honoria. Her aunt stepped forward. “Your blood runs hot, too hot for just any man. Mind you, I know. You should embrace that passion.

Indeed, you’ll blossom under the right man’s touch. If the rumors about Duke Hamilton are true—” “No, thank you,” Juliet snapped. “Think of it,” her aunt whispered, eyes alight with anticipation. “A duke’s mistress. A man of the duke’s wealth would provide you not only a private house, but a yearly allowance, as well. Even your mother never dreamt that high for you.” Alarm coursed through Juliet. “You haven’t told Ma, have you?” the words shot out before she could stop them. Too late, Juliet realized her mistake. A calculating gleam entered Lady Peddington’s eye.

Juliet’s heart sank. She’d just handed her aunt victory on a silver platter. There was no recovering now. Honoria knew Juliet would do anything to prevent her mother from gaining knowledge of the duke’s interest. “Let’s strike a bargain,” Juliet surrendered. A smile twitched the older woman’s mouth. “Have I taught you so little this year? A lady never bargains like a fishwife.” Juliet tossed her aunt a pleading look. “I’ll do as you ask. I’ll attend this Midnight Ball and dance with this duke.

I’ll entertain him, just as you wish—outside of bedding him. But mother can’t know. Please, Auntie Honoria.” Lady Peddington primly took her seat. “Sir Stirling specifically requested that you play a game of commerce with the duke, and that you must win.” Cards? Juliet blinked. So, Sir Stirling had seen her at the London parties…but how had he recognized her? She’d always worn a mask. Heavens, had he had her followed? Horror washed over her. “You should know,” her aunt continued, “the Duke of Hamilton never loses.” Juliet took a deep fortifying breath and pushed her worries aside.

“Until now,” she replied. She hadn’t lost a game in years—not with the tools she had at her disposal. Lady Peddington smiled. “Keep the man happy. It’s only one night. Do that, and your meeting with the duke shall remain our secret.” “Bless you.” Juliet heaved a sigh of relief. She left the study quickly. Oh, Honey Pedding was a wily one.

She had manipulated the conversation in order to get her way. Juliet grimaced. She’d been raised by such women. How had she fallen so neatly into the net? At the bottom of the stairs, she paused and peered out the window at the young ladies who still chatted in the courtyard. In the past week, most had found suitors, honorable men offering marriage— not dukes looking for mistresses. As a fresh bout of giggles erupted from the girls, Juliet shook her head. They knew little of men. She’d seen enough men in her mother’s brothel to know them for the creatures they truly were: simple-minded fools focused solely on carnal pleasure. The Duke of Hamilton would prove no different. She would play that lust to her advantage.

She would wear her finest gown. She’d flirt, lick her lips, heave her breasts, and flash her ankles. Expose a little flesh and she could make the duke’s blood boil. In a blink, she’d have him thinking with his cock. Then, she’d trounce him at cards, take his money and vanish.

.

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