Benedict Sterling paced the length of the dressing room, hands folded behind his back. His entire body thrummed with nervous tension, making it difficult to stand still. His patience was paper thin, but snatching his watch up and noting the time, he realized there was no reason to rush. He had over an hour before his assignation. If only that knowledge could ease his mind. As it was, he hadn’t slept the night before and couldn’t stomach a bite of food. He was a powder keg ready to explode at the slightest provocation. He flicked his gaze at the woman preening before the cheval mirror, hands braced on her hips. Wearing a riding habit of navy blue, Lady Celeste Browning, Dowager Countess of Langford, was dressed for an afternoon of being seen in Hyde Park. Driving down Rotten Row with her at his side, the hood of his landau lowered for all the world to see, was typically one of his favorite past-times. Firstly, because he knew word of his every move always reached his father—and if there was one thing Benedict enjoyed, it was annoying the viscount. Secondly, there was the appeal of Celeste herself, who had become as close to him as his male friends over the years. Few were privy to the secrets he kept close to the chest, but he trusted the woman the entire ton thought of as his mistress. If only they knew the truth. As a gentleman courtesan, he was in no position to keep a mistress—not that he particularly wanted to.
He was the one who did the servicing, along with the dozen other men he had hired to join the agency. Only he, Celeste, and two of his closest friends knew the entire truth of their arrangement. Most had no idea what really went on when he visited the countess’s townhouse three nights a week. His role as proprietor of the agency was only one aspect of Ben’s secret profession. It wasn’t necessary for the others to know what he was up to, and Celeste offered the perfect smokescreen. However, it had begun to wear thin. While he had never been more financially secure, and was glad to have helped his friends achieve the same success, Benedict was beginning to regret founding The Gentleman Courtesans. What had started out as a means to make money had become an enterprise fraught with dangers. The threats of exposure and scandal had always hung over their heads, but they were now exacerbated by a gossip columnist with a penchant for unearthing the most salacious stories. How could Ben have guessed she would latch onto the notion of male courtesans in London and make it her personal mission to unmask them? Really, it wouldn’t have bothered him so much if not for the other things he wished to keep hidden—secrets so damning that ‘ruin’ would be too mild a world to describe the consequences of their discovery.
Aside from that, there were his friends to consider. Out of the original five men who had founded the agency, three were retired and settled with wives. One was even expecting his first child. They had families to protect, and Benedict would never forgive himself if his downfall led to their shame. It was up to him to ensure the protection of not just his own secrets, but theirs, as well. His mother and brothers were dead, and he abhorred his father. For all intents and purposes, the other gentleman courtesans were all the family he had, and he would be damned if the devious London Gossip trifled with them. Celeste turned away from the mirror, her cat-like blue eyes following his progress— back and forth, back and forth. “Ben, do relax. Have a drink.
” Benedict waved her off. “I need to be sharp when I meet her. I cannot afford to be addled with drink.” “You mean, when we meet her,” she corrected, turning to lift two hats into the light. Celeste inspected them with a critical eye—one a sedate design matching her habit, the other a deep violet with an array of flamboyant plumes. “Which hat? I think the blue would be best, to help us avoid too much scrutiny.” “No, wear the feathered one,” he muttered. “A little attention might not be a bad thing. The Gossip obviously wants us to be seen. She chose the fashionable hour for our meeting, and I will not have her think she has intimidated me into trying to go unnoticed.
Either she plans on making a spectacle of me, or she wants to use the crowded park as a safeguard.” “She fears you would wring her neck otherwise,” Celeste quipped, setting the blue hat aside and settling the violet one over her dark brown hair. “Not that anyone could blame you if you did.” Benedict was known for his lethal fists, but he would never use them against a woman. However, the author of The London Gossip tempted him sorely, and at times he couldn’t help but think he would like to make her choke on the pen she used to slander everyone who crossed her path. “I don’t want you involved in any of this,” he grumbled. “As I’ve said countless times, anyone caught—” “Associating with you may also be ruined,” she interjected, rolling her eyes. “Yes, I did hear you the first ten times you said it.” “This is no laughing matter.” “Of course it isn’t.
If you think I will allow that shrew to scare me into shunning you, you do not know me at all.” Benedict sighed. He did know Celeste, and one of the things he admired most about her was the unflinching strength and bravado with which she faced the world. The gossip about her ran rampant, with all of society speculating that she had murdered her husband to earn his fortune. Like Ben, she wasn’t interested in anyone’s approval, least of all acceptance into a world where a friend could become an enemy with nothing more than a whisper in the right ear. When he had come to her with his proposal that she pose as his mistress, Celeste had laughed in his face. But, when he explained why he needed her to do it, she embraced him and agreed to help him for as long as he required it. He had come to her aid once, and though he insisted she owed him nothing, Celeste asserted that she most certainly did. “It will cost me nothing to do it,” she had said when he’d made the suggestion three years ago. “Besides, I think it should be quite an amusing lark.
” Now, it would seem his machinations would cost her something. The rumors about her notwithstanding, for Celeste to be tangled up in his eventual ruin would see her ostracized. No, Benedict would not let it come to that. The London Gossip had dealt a few blows, but nothing they couldn’t recover from. This had not spiraled too far out of his control. The minutes passed far too slowly, but once Celeste announced it was time to leave, all that changed. It seemed he entered his waiting carriage only to blink and find himself strolling along a footpath with Celeste on his arm. The late afternoon air held a biting chill, and he faintly noticed the smell and taste of coming rain. Nevertheless, Hyde Park was as crowded as could be for this time of year, where those who only journeyed to London for the Season had taken their leave. The dismal gray of the sky fit his mood.
He fairly vibrated with unease, eyes darting as he sought out his enemy. He had never seen her face, of course, but would know her when he saw her. Benedict could picture her as he had last seen her—dressed in black from head to toe, with a veiled hat obscuring her features. He recalled the scent that tickled some buried memory in the back of his mind—one that had him reaching up to finger the scar on his right temple. The thin line was only visible when his hair was combed back and someone stood close enough to notice. Many had tried to draw him into conversation about the injury, but it was his habit to spin some outlandish story about where it had come from. “Did she specify where you were to meet her?” Celeste asked, interrupting his convoluted thoughts. “She only mentioned the Serpentine, but if I haven’t missed my guess, she will want to be visible to as many people as possible. From here, anyone walking the footpaths or riding Rotten Row will be able to see us. She’s close.
” The plumes in Celeste’s hat brushed his jaw as she craned her neck to look around, her grip on him tightening. “There?” He followed her gaze to where a woman stood near the edge of the Serpentine. Awareness prickled the back of his neck as he spotted the lonely figure dressed in somber gray instead of black. But, everything else about the London Gossip was the same, right down to a wide-brimmed hat with a veil. Benedict narrowed his eyes as he noticed the four hulking men standing in loose formation around her. After being accosted and assaulted by two of them, he had expected this. She had planned it all perfectly— ensuring he would not be able to unmask her without causing a scene. “That’s her,” he confirmed, guiding Celeste along the path toward them. “This is your last chance to back out. Go home, Celeste.
Let me face this alone.” “I think not. I am as much a part of this as you and your courtesans. You cannot be rid of me so easily.” Benedict patted her hand and said nothing. In the absence of the other courtesans, there were few people he could rely on. He grudgingly allowed himself to feel comforted by Celeste’s presence as they drew nearer to the figure in gray. The Gossip turned to face them, and the four men edged forward to box them in— though they were careful to keep their gazes fixed elsewhere. Their presence was a tangible threat radiating at Benedict with the promise of violence if he made one false move. He could have taken one of them in his sleep with a hand tied behind his back.
Two of them wouldn’t be a problem even on his worst day. But, four? Too risky, even in such a public place. “You aren’t very good at following directions,” one of the men barked. “That’s close enough!” Celeste flinched, but Benedict held his ground, glaring at the man standing just before him and to the left. He was the only one looking at them, his beady eyes narrowed under a heavy, prominent brow. He had a jaw like an anvil and huge, meaty hands. Come alone, the note had said. Don’t look for me, I will come to you. Benedict looked to the Gossip, searching for her eyes behind the sheer gauze of her veil. “In case it has escaped your notice, I do as I please.
You wanted me, and here I am. Either we talk now, or I walk away.” The Gossip inclined her head but said nothing. Aside from that small motion, she did not move, appearing as if she weren’t even breathing. “M’lady was very clear—” The Gossip raised a gloved hand, and it was enough for the brute to snap his mouth shut. Lowering her hand, she then proffered something to Benedict with the other. Celeste advanced before Ben could make a move. The Gossip remained where she stood, allowing Celeste to take the offering. Paper rustled as she returned to Benedict, face blanching while she read what looked like a copy of The London Gossip. If it was today’s issue, Benedict did not understand her reaction.
They had read it together over tea—an account of a mysterious woman who’d had an affair with one of his courtesans. The details were too exact to be a fabrication, and after finishing it Benedict had been certain the man described was Dominick Burke—who had just eloped and escaped to Paris with his bride following a magnificent scandal. Nick hadn’t been named outright, and that was enough to bring Benedict comfort. For now. When Celeste reached him, her head tipped back and wide eyes peered up at him, filled with trepidation. He glanced down at the paper with a frown. It was, in fact, a copy of today’s issue of The London Gossip. However, sitting atop it was a slip of paper, upon which was written a list. Benedict turned it over to read the words. His entire body went numb, his hands shaking as he realized what he was looking at.
There were names written on the scrap of paper, at least a dozen of them. He found his own name at the very top, but that wasn’t what made bile rise up in the back of his throat. It was the four others written beneath his that made Benedict feel as if he might be sick. The Hon. Dominick Burke The Hon. Hugh Radcliffe Mr. David Graham Mr. Aubrey Drake He recognized the other names as well, but it was those four that struck dread in him. Benedict wanted to tear the page to shreds and hurl them at her feet, but understood the futility of such an act. Destroying it wouldn’t change that his nemesis had unearthed the names of nearly all the men in his employ, including those who were his closest friends.
Swallowing past the acidic taste of defeat on his tongue, Benedict squared his shoulders. He was not beaten yet. If she played this hand so openly, it had to be because she couldn’t prove what she knew. Perhaps she had enough to implicate him and Dominick, but not the others. “Why?” It was the one question that had haunted him from the moment he realized the woman was on to him. The Gossip’s tinkling laughter emitted from behind the veil, grating and familiar. Benedict flinched, something within him reacting adversely to the sound. His suspicion grew as she pressed a slender hand to her middle, laughing as if Ben had told the most humorous joke. He knew her. There was something about her that nagged at his memories, making him dizzy from trying to puzzle it out.
Whenever he prodded at the persistent thought that she felt familiar, he brushed up against other recollections better left alone. Things he had endured that he never wanted to think of again. “Because I can, of course,” the Gossip replied. “Being the cause of your destruction gratifies me more than you will ever know, Mr. Sterling.” Benedict wrinkled his brow as the sound of her voice jabbed through his eardrum like a needle. It went deep, piercing his mind like a lightning strike. A flash of light illuminated the mystery for half a second before he was once more cast into the dark. Celeste frowned, concern written all over her face. “Ben?” “I know you,” he rasped.
“How do I know you?” “That isn’t important now, and if you cannot puzzle it out for yourself, that is of no consequence to me,” the Gossip replied, an acerbic bite in her tone. “All you need to know is that I have everything I need to take you down. Unless you give me exactly what I want.” Benedict shook his head to clear it, determined to keep his composure. Where he had been chilled before, he was now burning up within the confines of his greatcoat, a sheen of sweat breaking out along his skin. His insides churned, and his eye twitched—whether due to lack of sleep or his unraveling self-control, he wasn’t certain. “And just what do you want?” Celeste asked, moving to stand between Benedict and his foe. “What have you to gain from targeting someone who has done nothing to harm you?” “Mr. Sterling, you will inform your strumpet to keep her silence, or this interview will come to an abrupt end.” Celeste’s voice raised sharply, “Strumpet? Why you—” “Enough.
” Benedict just barely managed to take hold of her arm before she could advance on the Gossip. He then gently tugged Celeste back to his side. He could feel the hostility thrumming through her. If he turned Celeste loose, she might murder the Gossip with her bare hands. “Will you answer me, then? What do you want?” “We aren’t here to discuss that.” “Like hell, we aren’t!” Benedict roared, forgetting the other occupants of the park. A group of women bundled in furs and hats paused to stare at them before walking on, shaking their heads in disapproval. One of the Gossip’s men edged closer, knuckles cracking as he curled his fists. The Gossip laughed again, and this time it held a note of irony to it. She was toying with him, the little bitch.
Benedict drew in a calming breath and tried again, keeping his voice level this time. “If you didn’t summon me to tell me what you want, why are we here? I hardly needed you to deliver me a copy of your ridiculous paper, as I have already read today’s outrageous fabrication.” The Gossip scoffed. “My source was a reliable one, and we both know it.” Benedict ground his teeth, the scandal sheet crumpling in his fist. Damn her, she had him over a barrel. He had already spent the morning rifling through his documents and contracts, trying to decide which of their former clients had betrayed them. He was fairly certain he knew which woman had gone running to the Gossip with her story, and was prepared to deal with her in due time. “I simply asked you here today to make certain I have your full attention, Mr. Sterling.
As you can see, I have been made privy to every so-called gentleman selling himself as part of your organization. If you do not wish for me to publish those names, you will give me what I want.” “I am still waiting for you to tell me exactly what that is.” There was a slight movement behind the veil, and Benedict detected the flash of white teeth when she smiled. “We will get to that when I’m good and ready, and not before. Think of this as a prelude of sorts, Mr. Sterling. Until recently, I believe you thought of me as nothing more than a minor nuisance. Today, I have come here to inform you that if you don’t fear me yet, you ought to. You will.
” “Will I? Where is your proof, your evidence?” “Oh, but I do have proof. It isn’t much, but it is a start, I am sure you will agree. There’s a collection of distinct calling cards—” “Which could belong to anyone with the initials G.C.,” he countered with a dismissive wave. “Is that all?” “There are accounts of a secret office in the back of Madame Hershaw’s dress shop.” “And when you visited there, what did you find?” Benedict felt bolder now, realizing that what information she did have was now obsolete. He had taken great pains to make sure of that. “I’d wager absolutely nothing.” “You are awfully brash for a man whose back is against the wall.
” “And you are as stupid as you are arrogant if you think I can be intimidated by names on a list, and an outlandish story you could have spun out of thin air. Unless you have something more substantial than that, we have nothing else to discuss.” It was a wild gamble, and he knew it. But Benedict had never been one to back down, even when faced with insurmountable odds. Defiance seemed threaded through the very fabric of his being. The Gossip issued a labored sigh and folded her hands. “I had so hoped we could avoid such unpleasantness, but I can see you are determined to do this the hard way. Very well, then. If you will not give me what I want—”