Authors: Jess Michaels
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical romance, #Regency
For those who have supported me, thank you for the encouragement in times of struggle, especially Michael, who has to live with my often chaotic and creative mind. For any detractors, thanks for lighting fires under me. Amazing what a woman can do when she’s told she can’t or shouldn’t.
Malcolm Graham squeezed his eyes shut as a tremendous crash echoed from the adjacent chamber. He strummed his fingers along the ledger before him and waited. When a moment had gone by in silence, he returned his attention to the line of numbers before him. But he had no sooner regained his concentration than another explosive smashing sound came from the other room.
Malcolm sighed, shut the ledger and got to his feet, just as the butler, Simms, stepped into the room. The other man’s face was long and stern, and he met Malcolm’s eyes with disapproval.
“Mr. Graham,” he began, his tone steeped in long-suffering agitation.
“Yes, yes,” Malcolm said as he picked up the jacket he had discarded earlier in the day and slung it over his shoulders. He smoothed it into place before he spoke again. “I have ears, Simms. I’m perfectly aware and I shall take care of it.”
The butler’s eyebrow arched. “So you say, but we had another maid resign this morning. One cannot run a household in this fashion, Graham.”
“Try running a life,” Mal muttered.
The butler folded his arms. “I beg your pardon?”
Mal stretched his fingers slowly and counted to ten in his head. There was already one unreasonable party in this household—he could not be the second.
Slowly, he faced the butler. “I do understand your concerns, Simms. But as I said, I am taking care of it. And you and your staff are compensated for your trouble, I would say at a much higher rate than any other household. So if you do not think what you endure is worth it—”
The butler held up his hands. “Of course not.”
Mal nodded once as he moved past the servant and stood at the door next to the room he had just left. He and Simms played this game regularly, but he certainly hoped the butler wouldn’t one day call his bluff. It would be near impossible to find another servant who would last a week under the conditions Simms regularly complained about. And Mal could scarcely stand the idea of the search. He was already worn to near his limit and he was tired.
Straightening his shoulders, he pushed the parlor door open and stepped inside. Although it was a perfectly beautiful and bright afternoon, all the shades inside had been drawn.
“Great God, man, light a lamp,” he muttered as he shut the door behind himself and leaned against it, allowing his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
“I don’t want a lamp,” came the sour, angry mutter from somewhere across the room. Probably in a chair beside the cold fire, judging from the sound of it.
“So you have something against the light,” Mal said as he slowly made his way across the room. “What do you have against the dishes?”
As he asked the question, he caught the edge of the curtains and drew them back in one swift motion that flooded the chamber with sunshine. He turned in time to see his best friend and employer, Liam, Earl of Windbury, recoil from the sudden brightness.
Liam did not look well. His hair was too long, his whiskers unshaved for at least three days, which made the bright-white line of the scar that sliced from his forehead to his chin all the more noticeable. His skin was pale and there were circles beneath his eyes that marked how little he was currently sleeping.
Perhaps under other circumstances Mal would have been concerned about this. But he had been through this with Liam for over eighteen months now. He had grown accustomed to his friend’s mercurial shifts in mood. Some days it was rage, some days sorrow and sometimes, just for a moment, Mal caught a glimpse of the man Liam had once been.
He lived for those moments. They kept him going when Liam was petulant, as he was now.
“Damn it, Mal, what did I say?” Liam asked, casually tossing a china cup in his direction.
Mal sidestepped it without much thought and it shattered against the wall beside him. He brushed a rogue piece of china from his shoulder and rolled his eyes.
“You know that every time you allow yourself to descend into foolishness that you lose at least three servants.”
Liam glanced up at him and for a moment his eyes lost their glassy emptiness. “I do?”
Mal snorted out a humorless laugh. “Most people don’t have the constitution I do for your moods, my friend. They don’t like the monster of the manse, crashing around, yelling and breaking things. It makes it very difficult for Simms and for me.”
Liam dipped his chin. “I apologize.”
Mal tilted his head to look more closely at his friend.
was the Liam he’d known since childhood, the one not entirely steeped in his own pain. The Liam who actually gave a damn about other people. Mal celebrated those brief glimpses of his true friend, for that person would be gone soon enough.
“I wish I could control my feelings,” Liam continued, fisting his hands at his sides. “But there are times when they take over so fully.”
Mal swallowed. “It is a great loss that you suffered when Matilda died, my friend. No one begrudges you that pain, nor the physical pain which lingers from the accident. But I think, if you try, you
control your feelings more.”
Liam jerked his gaze to Mal, his eyes narrow. “Do you?” he asked, his tone a dangerous warning.
Mal ignored it. “I do. We have come to Bath on your request, Liam. So instead of locking yourself away in a dark chamber, throwing crockery, why don’t you think of availing yourself of the waters, or seeing the town, or looking at the property, or anything else except act a fool in the sitting room?”
Liam’s face went hard, as it always did when his reactions were questioned. Slowly his friend pushed to his feet. He glared at Mal before he started for the parlor door.
“It must be nice for everything to be so easy,” Liam said as a parting shot before he stormed up the stairs. A few moments later, Mal heard the shuddering slam of Liam’s chamber door.
Mal sighed as he walked over to the fire where Liam had been seated. Broken dishes were scattered around the floor for some poor maid to clean up. Lucky her. She only had to clean up broken dishes. Mal had been cleaning up the rest of Liam’s messes for years.
Serving as his friend’s man of affairs for almost five years, Mal had been the only one of their circle to stay after the accident that had killed the love of Liam’s life and made him the shell of a man he now was.
Mal had given up a great deal to help Liam. Most of the time, he didn’t regret it. Sometimes he wondered what exactly he had lost in doing so.
He was about to turn away when he noticed that one plate in the pile on the floor was almost entirely intact. He picked it up gingerly, shaking off the broken china that littered its top. With a frown, he tossed it against the fireplace and watched it shatter fully.
“Hmm, it does help,” he muttered. “But Liam is a fool if he thinks any of this is easy.”
Then he turned to ring for Simms and whatever maids were left who could clean up the mess Liam had made.
Olivia Cranfield paced the small parlor of the home she shared with her friend and fellow courtesan, Violet Milford. It had been a remarkably trying day. Despite the fact it was only just after noon, Olivia currently wished she could just go back to bed and forget any of it had happened.
She had lived the life of a mistress for seven years, but she had never kept a protector for very long. The protector she had parted ways with that very morning was not much different. After six months, she had felt the familiar itch of anxiety that he knew her well enough to see through her act, her disguise.
Despite being a “gentleman”, David had not behaved very gentlemanly in their parting. His cruel words still rolled around in her mind.
Stupid, low bitch.
part she could ignore. It was a slur that didn’t trouble her. But
hit very close to home, and she couldn’t help but go over and over in her mind if there was any way she had revealed herself to him. Had she slipped and let her real accent through? Had she said something that would make him see what she truly was?
Violet couldn’t understand Olivia’s fears. But then, Violet didn’t come from the same background. She would never understand the hesitation and terror that came with being unmasked as an uneducated Cockney chit no highborn man would want as his mistress. She could be ruined.
Her thoughts were interrupted as the front door was opened and shut in the foyer. She heard Violet speaking to their servant, Rodgers, but she couldn’t tell from her friend’s tone if her unexpected meeting with a duke and duchess had been a positive experience or a negative one.
How she envied Violet’s ability to hide so much about herself without accompanying fear or grief.
Olivia moved to the door of the parlor and met Violet’s eyes as Rodgers took her wrap away. Swiftly, she masked her insecurities and reactions from the morning and put on the guise of a light and knowing courtesan.
“Do you need tea or brandy?” she asked with a half smile.
Violet laughed. “Brandy, I think, to start, despite the early hour.”
As Violet entered the parlor and sank into the settee with a sigh, Olivia watched her. “So it didn’t go well? Do they accuse you of something?”
“No, not anything like that,” her friend reassured her. “They want to hire me to seduce and spy on the duchess’s brother, the Earl of Windbury.”
Olivia’s eyes went wide and she couldn’t help but let her mouth drop open. “You are in jest.”
“Not at all,” Violet said, toeing off her slippers as she rubbed her eyes. “Won’t you get that brandy, dearest?”
“Of course,” Olivia said, rushing to the sidebar to pour two drinks. As she gave one to her friend, she tried to lighten the mood with her next statement. “Damn, I was hoping the Rothcastles had invited you to their home to make you their secret lover!”
Violet laughed, but she rolled her eyes. “Good God, Olivia, you couldn’t have believed that.”
Olivia smiled before she took a sip of her drink. “One could hope. Just imagine the scandal, and you in the middle of it.”
Violet shook her head, but Olivia knew that a scandal could make a courtesan. Violet was the perfect one to be in the middle of such a storm. She was always so certain of herself.
“Well, it wasn’t that, but I’d say hiring a courtesan in order to seduce and spy on Lord Windbury is certainly scandal enough, even though no one will ever know about it.”
shocking,” Olivia conceded as she sat down across from Violet. “But lucrative.”
She looked at Violet carefully. Yes, such a scheme would be something that would make Violet a tidy sum. And she knew full well what Violet was squirreling money away for. The very thought made Olivia’s hands shake. She almost didn’t want to ask the next question in her mind.
“You—you won’t really run away to the country when it’s over, will you?”
She held her breath, hoping she had sounded light when she asked the question, not stricken. Violet had her reasons to leave London; there was no cause to make her friend feel guilty, with an expression of her true feelings on the matter.
“I will.” Violet smiled and there was a flash of joy, of
, on her face. “But you may visit me if you think you could bear the boredom.”
“You deserve happiness and boredom, if that is what you choose. You
Olivia sighed. They always joked about retiring to the tedium of a country life, but sometimes it sounded heavenly. But she didn’t have the reason, a child, nor the means that Violet did to depart London. Violet had always been the more successful courtesan. She had far surpassed Olivia’s training years ago.
Violet waved her hand to dismiss the subject of the child she adored and missed so deeply that she never spoke of him for fear of breaking down. “So, as I said, this is an important mission. But
an easy one. He’s a hard man to reach, as a great many courtesans have discovered over the last eighteen months.”