Authors: Wendy Soliman
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency
“You appear to have thought of everything,” she said, taking a healthy sip in the hope that it would dispel her sudden shyness.
“I aim to please,” he said, with a mock bow.
He’d bowed, he’d plied her with wine, but he had yet to touch her. Leah was sure that if he did, she would no longer feel quite so unsure of herself.
“Are those gaps in the boarding deliberate?”
“Naturally. You’re not the only one with a healthy curiosity. The landlord makes a good profit from customers with voyeuristic dispositions.”
“Presumably with the prior knowledge and consent of the participants.”
“Absolutely. There’s nothing new about this. It’s been happening for centuries. I blame Eve myself. If she had resisted that apple—”
“What a typically male opinion,” she said, sniffing.
“The Hall is a warren of concealed passages,” Hal said, laughing at her feigned disapproval. “Some devised with such purposes as this in mind. Others as hiding places.”
“I thought they were escape routes for past generations disloyal to the king.”
He chuckled. “That too.”
“You hid in one on that first occasion when I visited with Mrs. Wilkinson. I saw you at the window when we left.”
“Ah well then, I plead guilty and must throw myself on your mercy.” He looked amused by the prospect of being at anyone’s mercy. Leah doubted if it had ever happened before, nor would it now. “There is even a long passageway that leads from my study all the way to the dower house.”
Leah wrinkled her brow. “Whatever for?”
“Rumour has it that my great-great-grandfather set his mistress up in that abode and was able to visit her whenever the mood struck without getting his boots dirty.”
Leah laughed. “Ah, the power of
” she said softly.
“Talking of which...” He took the glass from her hand and led her back to the wall. “There’re here.”
He must have supernatural senses since Leah hadn’t heard anyone arrive. She felt her cheeks warm, and then the rest of her body as anticipation roiled through her. So too did doubt. Should she really do this? If she didn’t say she’d had a change of heart right now, it would be too late.
She said nothing.
Instead she peered through the wall. And gasped. “That’s your bosun,” she whispered. Wright shed his clothes in seconds and cast them on the floor. “And Sally from downstairs.”
“Shush, speak quietly. The walls are thin.”
“Do they know we’re here?”
Before he could answer, Wright turned towards the wall and, laughing, bowed low.
“Oh my!” Leah clasped a hand over her mouth, now blushing more furiously than ever. Wright was very well endowed and clearly proud of it.
“Is his machine fierce enough for you?” asked a husky voice in her ear.
Leah moistened her lips. “It looks very angry.”
Hal choked on a laugh. “More impatient, I’d say.”
He stood behind her, his body pressed against hers. His machine felt every bit as impatient as Wright’s but Leah, fascinated by what she was seeing, tried not to think about that.
Wright pulled Sally into his arms and kissed her long and hard. He pushed her scanty bodice from her shoulders and bared her full bosom. Leah’s own breasts itched and tingled as Wright’s large hands roamed across Sally’s, pinching at the nipples and, at one point, breaking the kiss so that he could feast on them. Laughing, Sally ran her hands across the back of his head, encouraging him with throaty growls.
Her flimsy gown fell round her feet and she was clad now only in a thin chemise. Wright disposed of that as well and, holding hands, the pair turned towards the wall as though looking directly at Leah.
“What’s your fancy tonight, sir?” Sally asked her customer.
“The backdoor, if you please,” he said, pushing her towards the bed.
“Ah.” Hal’s sharp intake of breath told Leah that things weren’t going according to his plan. “I don’t think you should—”
“Shush, this is intriguing.”
Hal expelled a long breath and wrapped his arms round Leah’s waist. Instinctively she leaned back against him, enjoying the feel of his erection pressing against her behind, enthralled by what was taking place in the room beyond. She barely noticed when Hal loosened his hold on her and removed her jerkin. And then her shirt. She was fully aware though when his hands reached from behind, released the bands that bound her breasts and caressed them with gentle, agonising slowness. Recklessly she pushed her chemise off her shoulders, baring herself to the waist.
Leah watched as Sally climbed onto the bed on all fours, pushing her derriere towards Wright, who was directly behind her. He grabbed at her pubic bone, rather harshly, Leah thought. Even so, the sight was almost painfully erotic and, without thought, she pushed her behind into Hal’s crotch. She heard him mutter several expletives as he moved a little further back. But Leah wouldn’t let him escape and moved back also, settling her bottom exactly where she wanted it to be.
“‘The sound and sight of which thrilled to the very soul of me,’” Hal quoted in her ear, his voice a throaty drawl. “‘And made every vein of my body circulate liquid fires.’ Do you have liquid fires circulating through your veins, Peisinoe?”
She nodded, watching Wright as he grabbed Sally’s breasts, now swinging like pendulums beneath her, and gouged hard.
“He’s very violent with her,” she said.
“Perhaps she enjoys violence. Fanny wasn’t averse to it.”
She said nothing as Wright continued to take whatever he wanted, with Sally’s laughter driving him on. Then he slipped a finger into his mouth, wetted it and transferred it to Sally’s anus. Leah gasped, appalled yet fascinated.
“Is he going to sodomise her?”
Hal dropped his head to Leah’s shoulder and feasted on her neck. “I rather think he is. Have you seen enough?”
“No, I want to see it all.”
She didn’t have long to wait. Wright might be an exhibitionist but he didn’t appear to have much patience. He removed his finger and replaced it with his weapon, thrusting quite violently into Sally. It must have been painful but Sally’s face, a blank canvas, showed no reaction at all.
It was over in seconds, Wright panting and swearing as he reached his climax. They collapsed on the bed together, sweaty and out of breath, but only for a moment. Time was clearly money from Sally’s perspective and, presumably, she would do this, or something like it, several more times before the night was out.
Suddenly Leah no longer found it exciting, but cheap and tawdry.
* * *
Hal watched her turn away, not quite able to hide her disapproval. She appeared to become aware of her naked torso and tried to pull her chemise back into place. He placed his hand over hers to prevent her.
“You’re disappointed?” he asked.
“No, not exactly, but it just seems so—”
“This is how it would have been for Fanny.” Why was he trying to reassure her? He’d set this thing up deliberately to demonstrate how clinical, how brutal, these professional couplings usually were, for the woman at least. He had hoped to put her off further experimentation and avoid placing himself in the direct path of temptation. “She didn’t voluntarily enter this profession, any more than Sally did. It’s simply the way things are.”
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her with gentle passion, desire raging through him as she sighed softly and kissed him back. Her arms twined round his neck as he pulled her close, her soft curves resting against the angular planes of his body as though they belonged there. He ought to take her straight home, just as he’d planned. Instead, driven by a force greater than his own will, he devoured her mouth like a dying man being granted a final wish. His hands found her firm, pert breasts as he deepened the kiss, now determined to show her that not all lovemaking had to be as clinical as the display they’d just witnessed.
“What is it?” he asked when she pulled out of his arms.
“Your shirt,” she said. “Take it off.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea.”
“Well, I do. I want to feel your bare skin against mine. Is that so very bad?”
Yes, bloody disastrous.
Even so, unable to resist the supplicant expression in her sparkling silver eyes, he pulled his shirt free of his breeches and tossed it over his head. She reached out a hand and ran it down the length of his torso, tangling her fingers with the hairs that adorned it. Hal sucked in a breath, refusing to react in any way. Not that she was likely to be fooled for long. If she glanced down, she’d see for herself just how profoundly he was actually affected by the mere touch of her fingers. He’d worn his loosest breeches but they were proving to be not nearly loose enough.
Hal endured her questing fingers, their touch as light as a butterfly’s wing, by thinking about other things. It didn’t help much. He was still acutely aware of their progress, and it was slowly killing him. Somehow he managed to keep his arms at his sides and resisted the desire to kiss her witless. And more. Her expression was profoundly sensual and he would have given much to know what she was thinking. Attempting to interpret those thoughts, whilst suppressing his own increasingly desperate need, caused him to become careless and it took him a moment too long to realise that her fingers were on the buttons to his breeches.
“What are you doing?” he asked, clamping a hand over hers to stop its progress.
“I want to see.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Are you afraid I’ll be disappointed, having admired your bosun’s proportions?”
Hal grunted. “I’ve kept my part of our bargain,” he said, reaching for his shirt. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
“I was curious to know if you were made out of the same...er, mould as Fanny’s young man, Will.” She canted her head and regarded him with an impish expression from beneath lowered lashes. “That ‘superb piece of furniture’ nature had ‘so liberally enriched him with.’”
Her smile was soft, sultry and sinfully tempting. Instinct over experience. “Do you think you would stand the comparison favourably, my lord marquess, or are you afraid to try?”
“Witch!” Hal sighed deeply, just for a moment sorely tempted. Honour and common sense came to his rescue in the nick of time. He made do with swatting her rear before helping her back into her clothing. “I’m not so insecure about my manhood that I would succumb to such an obvious challenge.”
Leah pouted. “I can’t imagine you being kept awake by feelings of insecurity of any type.”
“Come,” he said, chuckling as he slipped an arm round her waist. “I shall get you home before I forget myself entirely.”
“Must we go?” she asked boldly.
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her. “We absolutely must.”
“But we haven’t...that is to say—”
“You wanted to observe,” he said, turning towards the door. “You have done so. There is nothing more to be done here.”
On the evening of the ball Leah sat stock-still as Flick’s maid put the finishing touches to her hair. Unable to shake off her disgruntled mood, she burned with embarrassment every time she thought about the way Hal had rejected her. She had thrown herself at him, which perhaps hadn’t been wise, but there was no occasion for him to make it quite so insultingly obvious that he didn’t desire her. He’d been very aroused when they observed Wright and Sally at play but had still cast her aside, presumably so that he could seek gratification elsewhere.
She felt mortified and ashamed, wondering how she could ever face him again. He’d kept out of her way since their assignation at the Boar, so that difficulty hadn’t yet arisen. She hadn’t caught more than the occasional glimpse of his retreating back and he certainly hadn’t sought her company. Nor did he try to contact her with information about Morris—if indeed he hadn’t abandoned that task as readily as he had her. Presumably he was afraid that she would accost him like the immoral doxy he thought her to be if he allowed her to get too close. Any respect he might have felt for her had been killed off by her brazen behaviour and she really only had herself to blame for that.
Since her tryst with Hal, Leah’s time had been completely taken up with preparations for the ball. Even so, recollections of all she had observed and experienced on that fateful evening kept creeping past her guard, filling her with a strange yearning that refused to be quelled. Alone in her bed at night she tortured herself by allowing memories of his searing gaze and marauding hands to flood her mind, daring to imagine where it might have led if she hadn’t been quite so brazen.
Leah refused to dwell upon what might have been. She sat a little straighter, vowing to dismiss him from her mind forever.
“He is gone and I shall forget all about him,” she muttered mutinously beneath her breath. “I don’t need him, or anyone else to make my way in this world.”
“Did you say something, miss?” the maid asked.
“Oh no, I was talking to myself.”
Flick had suggested that the girls remaining at the Hall all day, dine with the family and spend the night there. She made it sound as though their presence was essential to the well-being of the entire event. Leah suspected that with her usual perspicacity she understood their need for an experienced maid—a service not available to them at the gatehouse.
Since there weren’t to be any guests for dinner it really would be a family affair and Leah was conscious of the honour. Like it or not, Hal would have to acknowledge her. Leah’s stomach lurched at the prospect, her recent vow to forget all about him already showing signs of strain. Well, if she had to face him, she would do so with equanimity and keep her hurt feelings a closely guarded secret.
Flick glided into the room, a vision in rose silk, her blond hair piled in a profusion of disorderly curls that framed her lovely face and accentuated her lively personality.
“You look beautiful,” Leah said, smiling at the lady she was now privileged to call friend.
“Perhaps, but you have yet to see your sister.”
The wait wasn’t long. Beth joined them, looking breathtakingly lovely in a sapphire blue gown that almost exactly matched the colour of her eyes. Leah didn’t need to ask what had caused the translucent glow to her skin, the expectancy that shimmered beneath her expression as she accepted their compliments with becoming modesty. Once again, Leah wanted to advise caution but didn’t have it in her to spoil Beth’s pleasure. Tonight the rules didn’t apply. They would let fate dictate their actions and worry about the consequences later.
“There you are, miss.”
The maid stood back, smiling at her handiwork, as well she might. She had somehow managed to tame Leah’s corkscrew curls into submission. Shorter ones framed her face, more were piled behind her head, with long tendrils trailing down her back.
“It’s needs something,” Flick said, tilting her head to one side.
“It looks fine to me,” Leah said.
“I know.” Flick rummaged in her jewel box and produced two lovely combs studded with diamonds. “Here, add these, Milly.”
“No, Flick, they’re valuable,” Leah protested. “And knowing how clumsy I can be, I shall probably lose them.”
“Nonsense, I insist that you take them as a present.”
“Absolutely not! I couldn’t possibly.”
“Yes, you can. I’ve already given Beth that lovely fan she’s holding so you must have something too. Without you both I never would have managed all the preparations.”
“They do look lovely,” Milly said, setting the combs in Leah’s hair and standing back to admire them. “Lady Felicity is right. They’re the perfect finishing touch.”
Leah had to agree. She still had grave misgivings about wearing the combs but knew it was an argument she would never win.
“Right, Milly, help Miss Elliott with her gown,” Flick said, clapping her hands. “I’m longing to see the finished result.”
Thankfully the design didn’t allow for Leah to wear stays. She slid into the cool silk that Milly held out for her, standing perfectly still as the maid tightened the concealed ties at the waist and beneath her breasts. She twirled in front of the others, suddenly fearful about their reaction. She didn’t wish to look ridiculous in this rather innovative gown.
“Well?” she said anxiously, when neither Flick nor Beth spoke.
“It’s stunning,” Flick said. “The back drapes beautifully. You have a lovely back and your hair trailing down it is the perfect teaser.”
“You will eclipse us all,” Beth said, hugging her sister.
“It’s just as well you stayed here today,” Flick said, laughing. “Your aunt would expire with jealousy.”
“Are you trying to undermine my confidence, such as it is?”
“Of course not, but I long to see her face when she first observes you looking so svelte.”
“Aunt Augusta is already out of sorts because we’ve been invited to stay over,” Beth said, chuckling.
“Serves her right for being such a crosspatch.” Flick headed for the door, which Milly opened for her. “Come along, then. Dinner is about to be served but we ought to let my brothers admire us in all our splendour first.”
That was precisely what Leah most dreaded, but there was no avoiding it. She took a deep, fortifying breath, stole one final glance in the mirror, picked up her fan and followed the others from the room.
* * *
Hal blamed Leah for the fact that he’d growled at everyone these past few days. How he’d been persuaded to indulge her curiosity he was at a loss to explain. He’d gone too far and didn’t like what he’d exposed her to one little bit. He’d done everything he could to avoid her since the incident at the Boar, unsure whether he’d be able to resist her if she tried to resume their amorous games. She compelled him like no other female ever had, and he simply couldn’t put her out of his mind. But she was forbidden fruit, he reminded himself for the umpteenth time. Even so, he ardently wished to be of service to her and if he couldn’t have her bodily, at least he could bring Morris to account.
Except even that hadn’t gone according to plan. The damned man had changed his habits and not ventured from his establishment these past several days. In one respect that was good since Hal had no excuse to send for Leah and be exposed to temptation. Mostly, though, it was tiresome. If this business could be resolved she would no longer be his concern. Flick wouldn’t need to have the girls constantly at the Hall after the ball, and Hal might then be able to get images of Leah out of his brain. At the moment they were lodged fast and clearly had no intention of vacating his head.
He would dance with her tonight. He knew he wouldn’t be able to resist, however much he tried to tell himself that it would be unwise. He wondered what creation the modiste had dreamt up for her. Would she actually wear the diamond combs in her lovely hair? Flick had shot him the strangest look when he’d passed them to her, suggesting them as a gift for Miss Elliott since her assistance had been pivotal in arranging the entire affair. His sister’s mouth sometimes ran away with her but Hal instinctively knew that she wouldn’t reveal where the combs had really came from.
He had spent the afternoon supervising the installation of Jean-Philippe and Martell in the old nursery, two of his most trusted men guarding the door. Martell was also armed and ready to use his weapon in defence of his master. Only Potter knew the identity of their additional guest. Anticipation trickled through Hal, and not only because he would soon see Leah again. One way or another, the situation with Jean-Philippe would be resolved this evening, which would relieve him of a huge responsibility. He set extra men to patrol the grounds, instilling in them the requirement for additional vigilance.
He had just finished dressing in his evening clothes when Spencer informed him that a person by the name of Parsons required to see him on a subject of the utmost urgency.
“At last! Have him shown into the study.” Hal adjusted the frill of his cuffs, took a brief disinterested glance at his appearance and headed in that direction himself.
“What news?” he asked.
“Don’t know why Morris didn’t venture forth,” Parsons said without preamble. “There was a lot more activity than usual, even after business hours, so I suppose that would explain it. Word must have spread about his services.”
“You did finally get in there I take it?”
“Course we did. It wasn’t any trouble finding his secrets either.” Parsons rolled his eyes. “People are so predictable. A loose floorboard in his bedroom concealed a tin box.”
“And you brought me its contents?”
“Naturally.” Parsons withdrew a thick sheaf of papers from the inside of his coat and handed them to Hal.
“Thank you.” Hal scanned them quickly. They were a veritable gold mine of information, containing details of all the blackmail the weasel had ever carried out. Interesting, but not what Hal was looking for. His patience was finally rewarded when he found receipts for Leah’s father’s books, one of them signed by Hal’s secretary.
“Thank you, Parsons.” Hal paced the room, thinking fast. He would like to have Morris brought to him immediately after the ball to account for his actions and to make restitution to Leah, but his first priority had to be Jean-Philippe. If his father’s murderer was apprehended tonight then Hal would be required in London. Nothing took priority over that. “Stay ready to bring Morris to me as soon as I send you word.”
“Very good, m’lord.”
Hal rang for Potter, who appeared to escort Parsons out. Hal himself then headed for the drawing room. Both of his brothers were already there but he barely had an opportunity to greet them before the ladies made their entrance. Hal’s eyes immediately sought out Leah. He felt extreme satisfaction as he saw the diamond combs nestled in her hair. He also felt relieved at the nature of her attire. Her gown was the perfect colour for her and the tight sheath flowed elegantly over her figure, displaying its curves to their best advantage before billowing into ruffled skirts that whispered about her legs.
His relief was attributable to the neckline. It was respectably high, helping to keep his mind off the pretty breasts concealed beneath it. Then she turned sideways and his muttered curses caused everyone in the room to glance his way. The gown completely bared her back in a manner ten times more sensuous than something as obvious as revealed bosom. Hal simply stared at her, unable to help himself.
“Ladies,” Rob said, showing a degree more composure than Hal could muster. “Have we been introduced? Has anyone seen my tiresome little sister anywhere about?”
Everyone laughed and it broke the tension. Potter circulated with a tray of drinks, affording Hal an opportunity to regain control of himself. Against his better judgement, he continued to frequently glance Leah’s way. He couldn’t do much about that but had better fortune with his voice. Apart from bidding her a curt “good evening,” he had yet to address a single remark to her.
There being only six of them present, his incivility was in danger of becoming obvious. His siblings were used to his introspective moods, and probably thought nothing of it, but such self-indulgence really wouldn’t do when they had guests. Thus recalled to his duty, when dinner was announced he offered his arm to Leah.
“I wouldn’t burden you with my company, my lord,” she said tartly.
Ouch, he’d deserved that. “But you deprive me of the pleasure of it instead?”
“There’s no need to be gallant,” she said in an undertone. “I perfectly understand your repulsion and don’t blame you for it.”
“Repulsion?” What in the deuce was she talking about?
“You know very well what I refer to,” she said, colour invading her cheeks.
“The others are staring,” he pointed out, still holding out his arm. With patent reluctance, she placed her hand on it. “Shall we wipe the slate clean and start again?”
“Is that possible?”
“I fail to see why not.”
She moved into step with him as he led her to the table. “Well, I—”
“That gown is a triumph,” he said softly as he held out the chair on his right-hand side and waited for her to arrange her skirts to her satisfaction. The process didn’t detain her for long. “You are to be congratulated.”
“Thank you. Your insistence upon it will probably bankrupt me.”
“But you will still enjoying wearing it.” He waved a hand. “Don’t bother to deny it. It shows in your face.”
“Is Jean-Philippe safely installed?” she asked in an obviously deliberate change of subject.
“He is indeed.” Hal sighed. “Now we must wait.”
“And have all the suspects accepted your invitation to the ball?”
“Only two of them.”
“So, presumably you have absolved the other two from blame.”
“Yes, if they’re connected, I fail to see how.”
“Now that the time has come, will you tell me whom you suspect?” she asked in an undertone. “I might be able to help keep watch on them.”
“Lord Phillips and Sir Michael Humphrey,” Hal said grimly.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “You obviously look upon them both as friends, which must make it difficult for you.”