Authors: Mary Balogh
“There is no point in telling me yet again that you are no man's mistress,” he said. “You are now. And you are going to be for some time to come. You are
mistress. Look at me.”
She looked at his chin and smiled as she settled her shoulders across the corner of the carriage.
“Into my eyes. Look into my eyes.”
“Whyever should I?” She laughed softly.
“Because you are not the sort to enjoy being called a coward,” he said. “Dash it all, look into my eyes.”
“Now tell me,” he said. “Would you prefer to go whoring with a different man each night than to be my mistress?”
“It would be the same thing,” she said.
He did not know why he was arguing with her. She kept insisting she was not his responsibility. Why not take her at her word? “Being a man's mistress is respectable employment. And it would not be uncongenial to you to be
mistress, would it? You did not mind two nights ago. I believe you even enjoyed it.”
“I am very skilled at feigning enjoyment, Lord Ferdinand,” she said.
He turned his head away. Yes, of course she was. He had doubtless been mortifyingly fumbling and awkward and ignorant. What did he know about pleasing any woman, not to mention a skilled, experienced courtesan? And why was he trying to pressure such a woman into accepting regular employment from him? How would he hold her interest—or incite it in the first place? Not that a man was required to do that with his mistress, of course. She was the one being paid. It was her job to hold
Except that he did not believe he would be able to do those intimate things with a woman who did them with him only because she was being paid.
She touched his arm then. “But I did not have to feign it two nights ago,” she said.
Well, there. He felt absurdly pleased, though she might well have said so just out of kindness.
“You will stay at that house of Tresham's until I can find a place of my own for you,” he said.
“Very well,” she said quietly. “Take me there. But I will stay only as long as we both wish to continue the liaison. We must both be free to end it at a moment's notice.”
It chilled him to think of ending the affair even before it had begun, but he had no objection. Of course she must be free to leave when she tired of him. He must be free to leave when he tired of her. It would happen at some time, he supposed. He could not imagine ever tiring of Viola Thornhill, but he was naïve and inexperienced.
“We have a deal, then,” he said, and he reached out and took her hand in a firm clasp. She did not return the pressure of his fingers, but neither did she pull away. “You will be my mistress and under my protection. All we have left to discuss is your salary.”
He could not bear the thought of paying her to bed with him. But dammit, he had offered her Pinewood and she had refused. He had offered her marriage and she had refused. What other choice had she left him?
“Not now,” she said, turning her head away to look out through her window. “We can talk about that tomorrow.”
There should be some definitive moment, he thought, to mark the beginning of their liaison. He should draw her into his arms and kiss her soundly. But
the carriage was well into London already. Indeed, they would be stopping outside Dudley House within a minute or two. He would wait until he had her inside Tresham's house—the other house, that is. He would kiss her soundly then. No, he would take her to bed and consummate their new relationship—employer and employee, man and mistress.
Lord, but there was something strangely depressing about the thought. He was not at all sure …
The carriage turned onto Grosvenor Square and rolled to a halt outside Dudley House.
“Stay here,” he said, releasing her hand as his coachman opened the door and set down the steps.
“Ferdinand!” The Duchess of Tresham came hurrying toward him as soon as he strode into the drawing room in the wake of the butler's announcement. “What a delightful surprise!” She set both her hands in his and kissed him on the cheek.
“Jane.” He squeezed her hands and looked her over. “As lovely as ever. Have you fully recovered your health after your confinement?”
She laughed. She was a golden beauty, whose figure looked just as good to Ferdinand now as it had four years ago, when he first met her.
“Jocelyn warned me before he married me that Dudley babies give their mothers a hard time even before they are born,” she said. “He said it to shock me at the time, but he was perfectly right. I have, however, survived the ordeal twice.”
His brother was in the room too, Ferdinand saw then. He was holding a tiny baby against one shoulder and patting its back.
“I never thought I would live to see the day, Tresh,” Ferdinand said with a grin, strolling closer to admire his newest nephew, whose eyes were open but fixed, as if he were very close to sleep.
“Yes, well, Dudley babies are not finished with giving their parents a rough time once they are out of the womb, Ferdinand, as we should well remember,” his brother said. “Don't waggle your fingers at him like that, if you please. I do believe he is about to nod off after deafening me with his cries for all of an hour past. Have the joys of country living palled already? I thought you had found your vocation at last. I came home from Somersetshire and told Jane so.”
“What Jocelyn means,” Jane said, “is that we are delighted to see you, Ferdinand. You must join us for dinner, which will be ready as soon as Christopher is returned to the nursery. Nicholas is already asleep. You must come and see him tomorrow.”
“I am not here to stay,” Ferdinand said. “I wondered if I might have a word with you, Tresh.”
“Alone?” his brother asked. “With something that is not for the duchess's ears? Dear me. Did you rid yourself of that woman, by the way? I hope she did not persuade you into paying her a large bribe.”
“Miss Thornhill is no longer at Pinewood,” Ferdinand said stiffly.
“Then I am proud of you,” his brother said. “Particularly if you did
bribe her. I'll take Christopher up to his bed, Jane. Ferdinand may accompany me and divulge his secret.”
“I'll say good night, Jane,” Ferdinand said, bowing to her, “and call on you tomorrow at a more proper hour, if I may.”
“You may call here at any hour you please,
Ferdinand,” she said, smiling affectionately at him. “I want to hear all about Pinewood Manor.”
“Well, speak,” Tresham said when they were on the stairs. “What scrape are you in now? And do not waste your breath assuring me that there is no scrape. Your face has always borne a distinct resemblance to an open book.”
“I would like a loan of your house,” Ferdinand said abruptly. “Your other house, that is. If you still own it, but I believe you do. And if there is no current occupant.”
“There are two,” his brother said. “Mr. and Mrs. Jacobs, butler and housekeeper. No mistress, Ferdinand, if that is what you meant, and I daresay it was. I have a wife. Now, let me guess and let me hope I am well wide of the mark. You
have a mistress. Lilian Talbot, by any chance?”
“Miss Thornhill,” Ferdinand said. They turned in the direction of the nursery, but Tresham made no move to go inside. “She needs somewhere to live. She won't take Pinewood and I won't be responsible for her returning to whoring.”
“She won't take Pinewood.” Tresham did not make the remark into a question. “I suppose you developed a chronic case of bleeding heart, Ferdinand, and offered it to her free of charge. And she had too much pride to accept. Good for her.”
“She won it,” Ferdinand said. “We made a wager. But she would not accept her winnings. Then she ran away. What was I to do? A gentleman cannot lose a wager and then retain what he wagered. It would just not be honorable.”
The baby, whose eyes were now closed, made stirring noises, but Tresham patted him on the back and he settled again.
“I am not going to ask what the wager was,” the duke said. “And please do not volunteer the information, Ferdinand. I have a strong suspicion that I do not want to know. She ran away, you ran after her, and now she is your mistress—but you have nowhere to take her. It all makes perfect sense,” he added dryly.
“I need the house for a night or two,” Ferdinand said. “Until I can get something of my own.”
“If you want my advice, Ferdinand,” his brother said, “which of course you do not because you are a Dudley, you will pay her handsomely and turn her off. She will not starve. She will be mobbed by prospective protectors as soon as it is known that she is in town. Go back to Pinewood so that you will not have to listen to all the men who will boast of having had her. I believe you belong at Pinewood. I was surprised to realize it, but realize it I did.”
“All I want,” Ferdinand said through his clenched teeth, “is permission to use your house for a day or two. Will those servants let me in?”
“They will if I write a note,” his brother said, “which I will do as soon as I have turned Christopher over to his nurse's care. Have
had her yet, Ferdinand? No, don't answer. I suppose you are still besotted with her?”
“I was never—”
But Tresham had opened the nursery door and proceeded inside. Ferdinand followed him. The children slept in the same room, Nicholas in a bed, the baby in a crib. Ferdinand went to look at the sleeping boy while his brother set the baby down and the children's nurse hurried in from an adjoining room and curtsied.
Just a few years ago, Ferdinand thought, gazing down at the tousled head of his sleeping nephew, one could not have imagined Tresham domesticated. It would
certainly have been impossible to picture him with a baby in his arms or bent over a crib as he was now, tucking a blanket warmly about the tiny form.
All appearances suggested that his elder brother was a contented family man. Ferdinand felt an unexpected pang of envy as he bade the nurse a good evening and led the way out of the nursery.
But why the devil had Tresham never sold that house? Did Jane even know about it?
“Come to the library for a moment,” Tresham said, “and I'll write that note for you. Where have you left her?”
“Outside in the carriage,” Ferdinand said.
His brother did not comment.
Viola did not move from the carriage even though after Lord Ferdinand disappeared inside the Duke of Tresham's house she was very tempted to get out. His curricle had come to a stop behind the carriage and Hannah sat there with his groom. It would be easy enough to call her maid, find their bags among all the other luggage, and walk away into the gathering dusk.
But perhaps not. Perhaps after all she would discover that she was a type of prisoner. Perhaps one of his servants would make a fuss, try to stop her, knock on the house door to raise the alarm. Not that any of them could or would detain her for long against her will, of course. But she would embarrass Lord Ferdinand in front of his servants and the duke's—perhaps in front of his brother too.
She would not do that to him.
She might at this moment be back at Pinewood, Viola
thought. Alone. The undisputed owner. She was a fool to be here instead. But Pinewood would no longer have the power to bring her any sort of peace or security. She had thought, after she first read Claire's letter, that Pinewood rents would pay off the debt to Daniel Kirby even if the estate was impoverished in the process. But she had realized since that he would not accept that arrangement. He wanted her back working for him, earning him a fortune. If she failed to come, he would punish her by using Claire.
Lord Ferdinand would agree to pay her a large salary as his mistress. She had no doubt about that. But Viola knew Daniel Kirby would not accept a share of that either. He wanted to control her career.
All the way to London she had pondered the situation and all the possible choices she had. But however her mind approached the problem, it always ended up with the same conclusion—the only possible one. She had to go back to her life as a courtesan.
Besides, she could not bear the thought of being Lord Ferdinand's mistress. She did not want to do with him what they had done by the river as a condition of employment. She did not want to earn her living by lying with him. Ah, dear God, not with Ferdinand.
The carriage door opened and interrupted her train of thought. Ferdinand took his seat beside her again. She turned her head, but darkness was already falling and the interior of the carriage was dim. Even so, she shivered at the sight of him and wished after all that she had had the courage to make her escape with Hannah while he was inside the house. She could not bear this.
“We will be there in a few minutes,” he said as the carriage lurched into motion. “You must be weary after such a long journey.”
He took her hand in his, curling his strong fingers about her own. But he made no attempt to draw closer to her, to kiss her, or even to converse with her. His hand did not relax. She wondered if he regretted what he believed they had agreed to. She wondered if the Duke of Tresham had tried to talk him out of it. But it did not matter. Nothing mattered. Tomorrow he would be able to go back to Pinewood. He belonged there—it was a bitter admission. He would soon forget her.
Tomorrow she would set the future in motion.
That left tonight. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the squabs of the carriage. Oh, yes, she would allow herself tonight.
The house in which the Duke of Tresham had housed his mistresses was in a quiet, respectable neighborhood. The manservant who answered Lord Ferdinand's knock also seemed like the kind of servant one might find in any respectable home. So did his wife, who came into the hall to discover who the late callers were, and curtsied first to Lord Ferdinand and then to Viola after he had introduced her and explained that she would be living there for a short while. They looked at her as she had become accustomed to being regarded, as if she were a lady worthy of respect. They would have been trained to behave that way, of course. The Duke of Tresham would not tolerate servants who treated his mistresses like doxies.