The Secrets He Keeps – Amy Sandas

Callista Hale stepped gracefully from her stylish barouche to the cobblestone street in Soho. A winter gale kicked up and swirled around her feet, sending gusts of icy air up her skirts. Ignoring the cold, she peered through the black netting of her hat, which had been drawn down to conceal her features, and assessed the building in front of her. It was not as grand as she’d expected. Her own establishment near St. James was a veritable mansion built of red brick with ivy crawling up one wall, black shutters on every window, and a black-painted door possessing a gleaming brass knocker in the shape of a dragon’s head. This place was nearly its exactly opposite. Built in the romantic neo-classical style, it was three stories high but remained rather modest in size. It was all white with solid white pillars framing the entrance and marble steps that led up to double doors painted a conservative navy blue. Smoothing her hands over the fur-lined black velvet of her winter pelisse, she started forward. Anyone observing would have seen a mysterious woman of obvious wealth and consequence. They’d have no idea the black veil concealed a shrewd and focused gaze. Or that such graceful, languid steps were grounded in determination and ire. Because she was about to infiltrate the enemy’s lair. Whispers and rumors about London’s newest gentleman’s club had been flying about town for months.

At first, Callista had brushed off the news of a new place opening up. No club, brothel, or otherwise had ever been able to compete with Pendragon’s Pleasure House. Callista should have easily been able to put any possible concerns about the new gentleman’s club to rest. And she would have, if she hadn’t started to notice that for all the talk it inspired, no one really seemed to know exactly what went on behind the establishment’s blue doors. Even after months of using her rather extensive resources to learn more about the establishment in Soho, Callista had confirmed very little that proved to be useful or concrete beyond the fact that the place was owned and operated by one Erik Maxwell of unknown origins. And for a woman who’d been the primary custodian for the sexual secrets of England’s most prominent aristocrats, politicians, and businessmen for more than a decade, the lack of information was infuriating. She did not tolerate competition, and though she doubted this new club could possibly be considered as such, she’d had enough with the bloody mystery. The fact that the club catered to the same pool of extremely wealthy and influential gentlemen as Pendragon’s was enough to place the establishment in her line of fire. It was time to discover exactly what secrets Maxwell’s contained. Personally.

As she ascended the pristine steps to the front doors, she put an extra sway in her hips and curved her reddened lips. Poor Mr. Maxwell had no idea what he was up against. Lifting a hand gloved in the finest black leather, she ignored the gleaming gold knocker to rap her knuckles smartly on the wood. The door opened immediately to reveal a man who possessed the appearance and manner of an aged butler. Stiff spine, hooked nose, disapproving glare and all. “May I help you, madam?” Though the pompous servant was not what she’d expected, she replied with smooth command. “I desire an audience with the proprietor of this establishment.” “Do you have an appointment?” L She laughed—a rich, husky, sensual sound. Assuming the man would continue his butler charade and refrain from physically stopping her, she swept past him into the building and began unbuttoning her pelisse.

Though she probably shouldn’t have been, she was surprised to see that the attempt at mimicking an aristocratic home had not been limited to the doorman. The entryway was set up to give a visitor the impression they were entering a gentleman’s townhouse rather than a high-class brothel. “Pardon me, madam, but all visitations are by appointment only.” Lifting the small velvet reticule looped over her wrist, she slipped her hand in to withdraw a calling card printed in red ink on black. With a graceful turn of her elbow, she handed the card to the butler. “Take this to your master. He’ll receive me. With pleasure, I’m sure.” Then she turned and strode toward one of the open doors leading off the hall. She had no doubt the butler would do as she said and even less doubt the man she wished to speak with would see her immediately upon receiving her card.

She had only about five minutes or so to snoop around a bit. As she listened to the butler’s steps crossing the gleaming marble floor behind her, she entered what proved to be a small library. She scoffed. Who the hell featured a library in a blasted brothel? Although she had one at Pendragon’s, it was for her own personal use. Men did not come to a pleasure house to read. Yet this was clearly intended for the club’s guests. For a moment, she wondered if she had the wrong address. But her information had been confirmed. This was definitely Maxwell’s. The floor was covered in thick Persian rugs and a grand fireplace occupied nearly the entire wall to her right.

Leather chairs and sofas offered comfortable seating while books lined the opposite wall from floor to ceiling. The room felt like a quiet and studious sanctuary. Callista laughed as she removed her pelisse and draped it over her arm. It was all so…lord-ofthe-manor. So pretentious and arrogant and aristocratic. She was all about discretion and keeping the specific activities at her brothel private and protected for the sake of her patrons. But no one walked into her place and didn’t immediately know it existed for the expression and enjoyment of sin, sex, and all manners of wickedness. There was no shame in it. Annoyance seared her blood as she looked about the room, judging it harshly for its attempt at elevating the establishment above its purpose. It was a brothel.

Nothing more. One of many that had tried to pilfer some of her elite clientele. All the others eventually perished from a failure to replicate the kind of service Pendragon’s provided. This place would do the same. “Pardon, madam,” the butler intoned from the doorway. “Mr. Maxwell will see you. This way, if you please.” Callista smiled beneath her veil. Of course the man would see her.

No one could resist an audience with Madam Pendragon, a woman celebrated throughout London for being the owner and proprietor of the most elite and fashionable brothel in all of England. It was a position she had no intention of relinquishing any time soon. The butler led her up the wide mahogany staircase to a spacious landing on the second floor. From there, two hallways extended in opposite directions. Both were lit by elegant gas lamps and were lushly carpeted in more Persian rugs. She paused to see which hallway the butler would lead her down and was momentarily surprised when he continued straight forward instead. The wall across from the landing displayed an elaborate carved relief depicting a scene of woodland stags and other small forest creatures. Callista tilted her head as she studied the piece. Almost all of the artwork within Pendragon’s depicted Grecian themes of sexual congress—nymphs and satyrs, Zeus in his many forms with his many conquests. But this large bit of art was not the slightest bit sexual.

It really was just a woodland scene. The butler stepped toward the carved relief to press two fingertips against a knot carved into the image of a gnarled oak tree. There was a near silent click and then the entire wall panel gently swung open to reveal a short hallway and another staircase. Callista’s lips twisted with reluctant appreciation. Finally, a little drama! But why would the club’s proprietor have her brought up to what were obviously his private quarters when he could just as easily have come down to meet her in one of the common rooms? At Pendragon’s, she had a special apartment of rooms that were designed to appear as her private suite, though it was nothing more than an illusion to make the clients she received there feel important and cherished. It made no sense, however, to go through the trouble of concealing the entrance to your personal rooms in such a way if you were going to reveal them to your visitors. Unless, he was trying to demonstrate that although he kept such things from his patrons’ knowledge, he saw her differently. Was it a way of treating her as colleague rather than guest or rival? It suggested he knew exactly what he was doing. This man might prove to be a better adversary than she’d expected. A thrill of particular poignancy danced across her nape and she almost wished it were true.

Ultimately, however, no man had ever proven himself to be equal to her in cleverness or ambition. She always won in the end. At the top of the secret stairway, the butler activated another hidden latch and the wall in front of them opened to a better-lit hallway. The third floor was as richly decorated and conservatively styled as the lower levels. It appeared the whole place was a study in aristocratic, gentlemanly décor. Cultured, generic, and—aside from the secret stairway—rather boring. Stopping in front of an open room, the butler clicked his heels and gestured stoically for her to enter. Pompous. With a roll of her eyes, she handed the servant her pelisse before sweeping past him in a subtle rustle of skirts. She sensed rather than heard him close the door behind her as she found herself in a spacious room dimly lit by candles.

Instead of thick carpets underfoot, the floor was a warm, gleaming wood that reflected the dancing firelight from the carved stone hearth. The only furniture in the rather Spartan space was the wide, imposing desk placed in front of the fireplace and the two tall wingback chairs that faced it. Upon her entrance, the man seated behind the desk rose to his feet. With the fire glowing behind him, she was able to discern that he was a tall man, dressed in dark clothing, with broad shoulders and a trim torso. It was a pleasingly masculine form suggestive of strength and vigor. But Callista had a gift for seeing men with more than her eyes. She could often sense things about them—fears, worries, vulnerabilities, and desires—before they could put them into words. She prided herself on being able to understand the things men preferred to keep buried deep inside. Already, she could feel the quiet restraint in this one. Though he’d only moved to stand, a steady force emanated from him.

As though he could leap into action at any moment but chose quite deliberately not to. That he hadn’t spoken yet suggested he was accustomed to taking his time, allowing things to fall into place as they would before taking command. And he would try to take command. That was evident as well. This was a man who embraced his power quietly but with definite assurance. But he’d never come up against anyone like her before. As she strode across the rather cavernous room, Callista knew very well that although he was in deep shadow, she was cast in a fiery light. Her favorite kind. Her black brocade gown would reflect some of the flickering glow while retaining its mysterious darkness, showing off the deep curves of her figure and accenting the sensual movement of her body. Her fair hair would ignite with the light of the flames while her veil would keep her face concealed until she chose to reveal it.

Though he couldn’t see it, her gaze remained sharply trained upon the infamously secretive man who’d become her temporary rival. Reaching the space between the two wingback chairs, she paused to give a disdainful tilt of her head. Mr. Erik Maxwell, who no one in London had heard of prior to his arrival nearly eight months ago, lifted his hand in a small but definitive gesture. “Please have a seat, madam. It is my honor to receive you.” The words were formed in a slight, indiscernible accent with a voice that made her think of fine cigars and even finer brandy. Decadent, rich, and masculine, with just the slightest hint of roughness around the edges. Rolled together with understated but undeniable command and confidence. Goose bumps—delicate and tingling—spread across her skin.

She didn’t enjoy the feeling. Sweeping forward, she lowered herself into one of the chairs. The tall, straight back did not prevent her from reclining with the sensual grace she was famous for. From her new angle in the chair, she was able to discern more details of the man’s face when she glanced up at him. He looked to be close to fifty in age, though a very virile, well-maintained fifty, to be sure. His hair—dark and liberally laced with silver—was brushed back from a square forehead. Deep-set eyes of an indiscernible color addressed her with keen attention from behind square spectacles. Strong cheekbones, an angled jaw currently shadowed with a day’s growth of salt-and-pepper beard, and a wide sensual mouth. He was undoubtedly the most distinguished-looking sex proprietor she’d ever seen. A gentleman pimp? The thought made her lips curl.

She replied to his greeting in a smooth, unhurried tone, “I hope my unexpected visit isn’t too much of an imposition.” By the subtle arch of his dark, slashing brow, she knew they were both aware that imposing was her exact intention. When she saw the twitch of a smile at the corner of his mouth, her blood heated with a sensation she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Desire. Attraction. Lust. Dammit. Of course her long-dormant libido would choose now to reignite. But she had never been subservient to her more base desires and she quickly buried the unwanted physical reaction. “You may feel free to impose upon me anytime, madam,” he said as he reclaimed his seat.

His tone was sincere. The man was smooth. Shifting in the chair, she slowly lifted the veil from her face. “Well, I do not expect my purpose to require more than one.” Meeting his eyes without the black netting filtering her view proved more unsettling than she’d expected. The man had a poignant gaze. “I shall assume you are an intelligent man and that you know why I’m here.” He lowered his chin and the look he gave her then would have made her pulse flutter if she had been a weaker woman. “I would never presume to know a woman’s mind.” “Intelligent, indeed.

” He flashed his teeth in a brief smile. “Tell me what you need of me and I shall endeavor to please you.” She ignored the tightness his words and voice and eyes created low in her body. A sharp edge entered her voice as she replied with a practiced smile. “What would please me, Mr. Maxwell, is your exodus from London.” Her declaration did not appear to surprise him. Leaning back in his chair, he linked his fingers over his abdomen and returned her steady stare. The curve of his mouth was undeniable, as was the lowered, more intimate tone of his voice as he replied. “It appears you are everything you’ve been reported to be, Madam Pendragon.

This pleasures me immensely.” “It is not my intention to pleasure you, Mr. Maxwell,” she noted coolly. Though he remained silent and unmoving, his gaze intensified as light sparked in their depths, making her wonder if his eyes were not as dark as they’d first appeared. “Nor is it my intention to suggest a threat in my words. The simple truth is that you cannot compete with Pendragon’s Pleasure House. Your club will fail.” She smiled, silky smooth. “I hope only for you to avoid the inevitable embarrassment and loss. You would be better off re-establishing your club elsewhere.

Might I suggest Bath or Edinburgh?” He lowered his chin with a long, slow exhale as he removed his spectacles and laid them atop his desk. When he looked at her again, he kept his chin lowered and lifted only his gaze. “Madam Pendragon. It seems clear that you would not have come here if you did not fear the exact thing you deny. But I would like to assure you that my business is not a threat to yours in any form.” Annoyance filled her at his unshakeable poise and subtle condescension. But before she could respond, he leaned forward to prop his elbows on his desk as he looked intently into her eyes. “You see, our businesses could not be more dissimilar.” Her temper flared. Did he believe himself so damned superior, then? Callista shifted in her chair and leaned forward to mimic his posture, folding her hands on the gleaming surface of his desk.

Though the position pushed her breasts against the edge of her bodice, exaggerating her cleavage and lengthening her neck, she was surprised to see that his gaze flickered not to her bosom but to her leather-encased fingers. The flame that had sparked in her core at the first sight of this man flared. Steeling herself against it once again, she tilted her head to reply in a cool tone. “No matter how covert your services or how boring the décor of your establishment, the truth cannot be changed. Your business, Mr. Maxwell, is fucking. And so is mine.” She didn’t exactly think she would shock him with her crude choice of words, but she certainly didn’t expect the reaction she got. It started with a slow, almost gentle widening of his lips—as though he’d just been offered a favored sweet and was imagining how he’d savor it—followed by a glitter of unnamed intention in his eyes. “You are quite right, madam.

And also very wrong.”

.

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