Authors: Heather Boyd
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Regency, #Historical Romance
White-hot jealousy burned the back of his throat over the question he wanted to demand answers to. He swallowed to avoid asking if she’d fucked him.
“And then we dined formally for luncheon to give Oralia more practice,” she added in a clear voice. “I swear that girl’s parents taught her nothing of deportment.”
“And who taught you to choose the correct fork? Your mother?”
Calista didn’t answer his question. She smoothed out imaginary creases in her carriage dress, and a frown appeared between her eyes. “You seem out of sorts today.”
“I wonder why?” Constantine raked a hand through his hair and stood. “Yesterday I made you a perfectly respectable offer and you turned me down without apology or hesitation.”
“I don’t want to be your mistress, Grayling. Not every woman dreams of that life.”
He would give his left arm to learn what she did dream of. If he asked, he doubted she’d honor him with a truthful answer. “So you prefer being whore to hundreds, thousands.”
“Not quite that many. I made my choices long ago.” She smoothed the folds in her dress again. “Regret is for the weak and sentimental. If I had either of those two character traits I would not have survived. T’is the reason I like to reinvent myself. I’ve had a dozen or more fresh starts.”
Constantine considered her admission. A dozen or more names and no one knew her. That meant she’d been running from trouble for a long time. What if she was a wanted woman? She might need a man she could rely on one day. “Then start over again as my mistress.”
“No. I couldn’t do that to you. You barely wish to enter me as it is.” She drew in a deep breath and stood. “Am I in danger with you? You’ve never struck me as a cruel or violent man, but after yesterday’s admission I’m not sure I’m capable of judging your character. Did you kill your wife?”
He nodded slowly, remembering his joy at learning Augusta was with child again and then the crushing agony as he discovered her last breath had left her lips, her body bloody and limp across her bed. He clenched his jaw to hold back the grief that always came when he remembered. He did not want to burden Calista with such a scene. “I am responsible for her death.”
She was silent for a long time. When he eventually looked at her, there was sadness in her eyes. “You still mourn her?”
He nodded and her hand rose toward him, then fell without connecting. He frowned at her continued distance.
Her head tipped to the side slightly. “How exactly did your wife die?”
“She died after my daughter was born.”
He nodded again, and instead of the sympathy he expected, Calista scowled at him. She strode to the door, spoke a few urgent words to the footman who had remained close to the door, and gestured toward the stairs. Eventually the footman nodded and hurried away.
Calista slammed the door shut. “For heaven’s sake, never say you killed your wife again.”
“Why not? If not for my need for an heir she would still be alive.”
Calista crawled onto his lap. “T’is difficult to forget the ones you’ve loved and lost. There is no shame in mourning them.”
Relieved to have her so close to him again, Constantine wrapped his arms about her waist. “You sound like Lady Farnsworth.”
“A woman of sense.” Calista pointed to the doorway. “Do you even realize why William was standing guard at the door?”
Constantine frowned at the door and then several things fell into place. Her distance, the wariness he’d sensed from his arrival. “I told you I killed my wife.”
“And you made me doubt the wisdom of being alone with you.” She shook him. “You wretched man. Don’t ever do that to me again.”
Calista pulled his head to hers and clung to him. Constantine gathered her into his arms and inhaled the tiny woman’s distinctive scent. He’d never harm her. He’d taken every precaution he could to protect Calista from the same fate his wife had suffered. Although it wasn’t proven, his good friend Rothwell claimed a condom could prevent the beginning of a new life in a woman’s body. Since Rothwell had considerable experience in the area, and no offspring to date, Constantine had taken his advice and purchased one for himself.
“I’m sorry I worried you,” he murmured against her ear.
“Fool. Women die in childbirth all the time. Her death can hardly be your fault.”
It had been two years and the loss cut as deeply as the first day. “But it is.”
Calista drew back and searched his face. “Did you beat her? Refuse her any comfort she needed? Deny her a midwife or physician’s care? Let her wonder if you were thinking of her?”
He shook his head. “No. I did everything I could.”
“Do you hear yourself, Gray? You did everything you could and it was not your fault.”
He struggled with her denial of his guilt. He should have been able to do something to prevent her death. He’d never meant to risk her life. He bowed his head onto Calista’s slender shoulder and held her tightly. Was she correct? Had he truly done all that he could?
“Men like to think they have the power to do anything they wish, but fighting against death is beyond even you. You must forgive yourself. Surely your wife wouldn’t want you to suffer like this.”
Constantine squeezed his eyes closed. Damn it all, he was on the verge of tears. He would not weep before Calista. How did she do this to him? Continue to turn his world upside down and side to side just with a few words from her clever mouth? The woman who had disrupted his life from the moment she’d walked into view. He couldn’t give her up so easily. If she wouldn’t be his mistress, perhaps there was another position he could offer her, a role that would not require her to be in his bed unless she wished to be there.
He caught her hand in his. “What if I offered you a different sort of employment? Could you be happy without earning your living on your back?”
Calista drew back, confusion filling her eyes “What are you suggesting? There is nothing else appropriate for me, my lord.”
“I have three daughters.” Constantine drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “They are in need of a governess.” A governess was always held in the highest regard.
Calista turned away, a laugh on her lips. “Of all the absurd things to suggest I might be suited for. I am a whore, my lord. There is no way to smooth away that blemish or make my past disappear. How could you even consider it?”
“From the moment we met, I’ve had the feeling that each meeting might be our last. I don’t want to lose you, Calista. Not yet. Please.”
Her mouth opened to protest, but a knock silenced her. She crawled off his lap and took care of setting out food. When she turned, he dug into his pocket and held out the jewelry box. Calista shook her head. “I’m not suited to the position of governess for an earl’s daughters. Tutoring a young woman to be a whore is quite different. How old are they?”
“The eldest is not yet five.”
“There, you see, what they need is a new mother, not me.”
Constantine opened the box so she could see the rose-cut garnet rivière. “But I did not ask you to marry me, you will not be my mistress, so my only other option is to ask you to come and live with me and my daughters. I’d like to know where you are spending your nights.”
Calista shifted closer to the necklace and shut the lid. After a moment, she began to laugh. “You, sir, are beyond amusing. You must think of your girls.”
“I am.” He scrubbed his hand over his jaw and scowled. “When I am here, I’m thinking of them. And when I am there, I am wondering what mischief you’re up to here. I don’t like Squires or any other man sniffing round your skirts. But if you won’t be mine exclusively, then consider this. My daughters don’t need another mother. They need a friend. Someone who can make them laugh as they once did. You have far more intelligence than anyone I’ve interviewed for the position in the past. I choose you for them.”
Constantine sucked in a sharp breath, determined to convince her his offer was worth considering. “If you remain here, I will waste my fortune to keep you to myself. The governess position is yours if you want it with no strings attached.”
“You would not be expected to share my bed.”
“You’ve tired of me?” Her expression lost all animation.
“I never said I’ve tired of you.” He held her hand to his chest. “I doubt I’ll ever get enough, but I’ve come to believe you deserve better surroundings.”
Her lips twisted and then she laughed. “How sweet. You mean to be a champion of old, a hero to take me safe into your realm and protect me from the harsh world. I am so very sorry for how your wife died and the suffering you and your daughters have gone through, but I could not inflict myself on them. I’m the least appropriate person to teach three young girls how to be ladies one day.”
“You might surprise yourself with the depths of your knowledge, my dear.” He shrugged out of his coat and tossed it aside. “You forget that we have spent as much time out of bed as in. You were born for more than this life.”
“What I was born for is not relevant.”
Constantine continued undressing. “That’s what I like about you, Calista or whoever you really are. You never hesitate to challenge me. Another hint about your past left unanswered. Another glimpse of the woman you were supposed to be. You have had my complete attention from the moment our eyes met. Now I intend to convince you to run away with me.”
He pulled his shirt over his head and stood naked before her. Her eyes drifted south over his skin, and the dark of her eyes widened. She licked her lips. Every emotion was there for him to see. His suggestion that she deserved more from life had terrified her, but she’d tried to hide it behind her laughter.
He scooped her up in his arms and tossed her on the bed with less care than usual. Her heavy gown had tangled between her legs, and she struggled to orient herself on the bed. Before she was ready, he pounced and caught her wrists. He lifted them over her head gently, and she bucked in mock protest.
“This is hardly fair,” she complained.
He pinned her with the weight of his body. “The more you fight me, the more pleasure I’ll lavish on you.” He pressed his lips to the hint of cleavage the gown revealed. “Lie back and enjoy.”
The carriage dress had buttons on the front and he slowly opened each, bestowing a kiss to each piece of new flesh revealed. Calista squirmed and he pressed his growing erection against her sex. Her thick gown created an impenetrable but necessary barrier between them.
Her nails sank into his back to hold him more closely against her. “We’ll never see eye to eye except in this,” she hissed. “I won’t be your mistress and I can’t be your governess, so if this is the last time you will visit me then we will do everything at least twice.”
Constantine met her gaze. “Do your worst. I’m brave enough to take whatever you dish out.”
THERE WERE SOME advantages to being a dishonest woman in a responsible brothel. When her monthly courses came, Meredith was not wanted in the drawing room, so she’d learned early on to be indisposed for as long as possible. She curled up on her attic bed, huddled under the meager warmth of her blankets, wishing for the pains racking her body to ease and perversely hoping they would continue. The longer she stayed apart from the brothel’s clients, the more time she had to think over her future.
Grayling had gone. After one last glorious night beneath his warm hands, he’d returned to his home a sexually satisfied man, and maybe he’d even forgiven himself for his innocent part in his wife’s death. Women, no matter their station, risked much in childbirth. As Grayling had left, he’d asked her to reconsider becoming his children’s governess and insisted she keep the necklace.
Meredith held the pretty stones up to the light, admiring the elegant design and foolishly wishing she could wear them every day. They looked very fetching beside the ring she’d won from Linnie for seducing Grayling. But only a lady wore such gems by daylight. Grayling’s gift would be worn at night but he would not see them.
She’d reconsidered his offer. More than once. But Calista the whore did not belong in a grand house with innocent children. There was no way to move directly from a brothel to an earl’s home without being noticed. He had to think of his reputation and that of his daughters. If the truth came out, there could be consequences.
Still, with ample time on her hands, his suggestion bore thinking about. Meredith was considering if she shouldn’t change her name again and move on to a new life, a new career, somewhere where no one knew what she’d done. She was tired of smiling at leering men. She wanted no part in Lord Squire’s plans to make her his mistress either. It was all Grayling’s fault. He’d made her crave intimate relations with only him. Yet if she became his governess, he claimed she’d never need to make love to him again.
Was that a sign of his honor or an insult to her desirability? Meredith dropped the gems back into their box and hid them away.