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* * * * *

 

Early
the following morning the duke was once again seated behind his desk in the
library. It had always been his chosen spot for conducting business, but lately
it was the only place from which he would expedite matters of importance with others.
He was acutely aware of his ever-increasing physical frailty, and he was
grateful for the vantage point he felt the impressive piece of massive
furniture afforded him.

Across
from him, seated in the Chippendale armchair Brett had occupied yesterday, sat
a distinguished-looking man of about fifty. Robert Adams had been his personal
solicitor for over twenty years, having followed his father, Raymond, in that
position when the older Adams died in a fall from his horse in 1792. He
regarded Robert as a bit of an aging dandy, his attire always bearing the
unquestionable stamp of the influence of Beau Brummell in every aspect, but
this in no way affected the duke's regard for the man's competence. Over the
years he had come to rely on Robert Adams in a great many matters, some of them
highly personal, and the man's professional diligence as well as his
trustworthiness in matters requiring the utmost discretion had long ago earned
the duke's respect. Not the least of such matters had been the business of assigning
him to be his eyes and ears where the progress of his grandson was concerned,
and it was in this regard he'd decided to call upon his services this morning.

"So
you see, Robert, it is important to me that the boy be persuaded to marry—the
sooner the better," said the duke. "Yet, for the reasons I've just
suggested to you, it would appear that Brett's attitude is the only real
obstacle to such an event."

Adams
took a moment to respond, pensively gazing at the carved ivory head of his
fashionable walking stick as he mulled over the duke's words. Finally he raised
a pair of intelligent gray eyes to his old friend and client. "Your Grace,
allow me to see if I understand you clearly. You feel young Brett may have so
taken to heart your enjoinders to eschew the company of women, that he has, er,
abstained totally from association with—with the opposite sex, and therefore
perhaps even
fears
involvement with them—albeit even for the respectable
and necessary pursuit of wedlock?"

"That
is my fear precisely," replied the duke. "Oh, I know it sounds
preposterous at first consideration, Robert, but, believe me, if you had seen
and heard his reactions to my suggestion that he take a wife... well, sir, it
would, perhaps, have begun not to sound so farfetched after all."

"I
see," said Adams, again with a greatly pensive air about him. "Very
well, Your Grace, then what is it you have in mind that might require my
services?"

"Your
discreet
services, as ever, Robert."

"As
ever, Your Grace," Adams nodded, smiling.

A
conspiratorial look entered the old man's eyes as he leaned forward over his
desktop. "A very simple thing, really," he said, his voice dropping
to a lower pitch. "I want you to inquire about and locate a high-quality
house of—ah—illicit pleasures—"

At
Adams's raised eyebrows, the duke continued with even greater emphasis.
"That is correct. You heard me right, Robert. Locate a brothel—but only
one of the finest sort. We both know they exist, even down here, away from
London, but travel as far as you require. Your sources should provide you with
the proper information soon enough."

Adams
nodded, awaiting more.

"Once
contacted, inquire after the hire of a professional there who is young and
guaranteeably
free from disease.
In short, Robert, you are to hire me a clean
whore."

Adams
looked slightly uncomfortable. "Hire
you,
Your Grace...?"

"Dammit,
man, I mean for my grandson!" exploded the duke. "It's clear to me
now the boy lacks experience! I intend to rectify that, through the use of the
woman you will procure, and through doing so, demolish the only barrier to
seeing my grandson wed and on his way to producing
heirs! Now
have I
made myself clear?" In his excitement, the duke had become flushed in the
face, and by the time he had finished, he'd nearly collapsed over his desk in a
fit of helpless coughing.

Alarmed
by what he easily recognized as the old man's failing state, Adams rose and
worriedly peered over the duke's bent form. "Your Grace, you must not tax
yourself so! May I fetch someone? Are—are you all right?"

With
some effort, the duke pushed himself to an upright position and waved him off.
"I'm fine, Robert, or I shall be, just as soon as this business is taken
care of. Now, man, do I have your promise to do my bidding?"

Still
shaken by the evidence of greatly increased infirmity he'd just witnessed, and
unwilling to excite him further, Adams nodded anxiously. "At once, Your
Grace. You may depend on it."

* * * * *

 

Minutes
later, as Adams sat in the hired carriage that had taken him to Ravensford
Hall, he was deep in thought. What a muddle! If he hadn't been before, he was
now deeply convinced that his old friend and client was on his way out. It was
the only reason he could ascribe to the duke's succumbing to this preposterous
notion of his; not only was he physically failing, his mind must be weakening
as well.... Brett Westmont a
virgin?
Suddenly Adams began to laugh, the
source of the laughter so outrageous it soon reduced him to helpless tears and
prompted his driver to halt the carriage and inquire within as to whether
anything was amiss.

"Oh,
no, no, thank you, my good fellow
,
" answered Adams between
still only half-controlled outbursts of merriment. He gestured to the driver's
seat, visible through a small window inside the passenger compartment.
"You may proceed."

When
they were once again under way, Adams sobered enough to consider his
predicament. Over the years it had been his job to keep an eye on young Brett's
activities and periodically report to the duke on his findings. He had never
actually considered it spying, although he knew some would call it that.
Rather, he'd regarded it as a gladly assumed duty to put at ease the concerns
of an old friend, not to mention the foremost client of his firm. And since
almost all of his reports had been positively and for the most part truthfully
glowing, it had been a duty that was easily borne by him. Of course there was
one area in which he'd not been truthful with his client, but as it had been
what he'd always regarded as such a minor one, his bending of the facts in that
regard had never really troubled his conscience a whit.

Face
it, Robert,
he
now told himself,
in seeking to spare the old man's doting heart, you were
too cowardly to tell him that, in addition to being every inch the golden boy
his grandfather dreamed of raising, Brett Westmont has become one of the worst
rakes in England—at least where women are concerned!

Adams
sat farther back into his upholstered carriage seat and pondered the facts.
Brett Westmont had left a trail of broken hearts and pining females from one
end of London to the other, and God knew how many other places besides. He was
widely known in sophisticated circles as one who used women ruthlessly,
attracting them immediately like flies to honey through his astounding good
looks and outwardly charming manner, then dropping them just as quickly when
his fancy strayed to another. All of London whispered about it. Why, he was
becoming almost as notorious as Lord Byron, who was frequently seen in his
company.

And
the only reason his grandfather, the duke, had never found out about this one,
less-than-savory, side of the young heir's nature, was because the duke of
Ravensford lived like a virtual recluse, buried away in the family estate here
in Kent— that, and Adams's prudent discretion and his decision that it would be
harmless to spare the old man's feelings.

But
now Adams wondered if it had been as harmless as he'd always imagined. What
should he do? If he procured the woman—a simple enough task—and unblinkingly
allowed the duke to offer her to Brett, the young man was likely to
explode—with anger or amusement, he wasn't certain which— and give away the
entire game he'd taken such pains to cover all these years. No, owing to the
old man's poor state of health, that way could result in disaster. There was
only one answer: sometime between now and the presentation of the woman, he
would have to corner Lord Brett Westmont and confess all to him. Yes, that was
it. The man had always impressed him as being possessed of more than a modicum
of good sense and understanding, and Adams now felt he could be relied upon to
help protect his grandfather and keep up the game.

With
a final sigh of satisfaction, Adams relaxed in the briskly moving carriage.
Tomorrow he would travel to London. He knew just the place—what was it
called?—Hampton House, that was it. Tomorrow he would make inquiries at Hampton
House.

 

CHAPTER
THREE

 

Monica
Chatworth's almond-shaped eyes narrowed to chocolate slits of ill-concealed
hatred as she observed Ashleigh through the half-open doorway of her chamber.
The younger woman was down the hallway, bending over a narrow stand just
outside Madame's suite, where she was preparing to lift an ornate silver tray
that held the remains of Madame's breakfast and carry it down to the kitchen, a
task she accomplished promptly every morning at eleven. From where she stood
Monica missed neither the feminine, curved outline of Ashleigh's hips and
derriere beneath the simple servant's frock she wore, nor the lilting melody of
the tune the young woman hummed gaily to herself as she went about her work;
and the observed combination rankled.

The
increased shapeliness and other obvious charms of Ashleigh Sinclair were
becoming a constant reminder to Monica that she herself was not getting any
younger in a profession where youth and its accompanying beauty were
everything, and that there would always be newer, younger flesh waiting in the
wings to replace her when her own allure began to fade. The happy tune
emanating from Ashleigh's lovely throat was even more disconcerting; word was
out in the house that Madame had been prevailed upon to find the chit a
"decent" position of employment elsewhere:
Ashleigh
was going
free!
It was surely this that was prompting the carefree and joyful demeanor, and
why shouldn't it? Any day now Ashleigh would leave this place to become settled
into some nice, safe situation where she would be spared the social ostracism
and insecure future that had never sat well with Monica after she'd been forced
to choose this way of life.

Oh,
it wasn't that she'd been completely unhappy with her life at Hampton House. It
was far better than anything she might have expected before Drake found her
walking the streets, frightened and hungry, and deserted by a young lord. First
he'd compromised her honor when she'd been a companion to his sister during the
Christmas holiday season several years ago, then run off with her, promising
marriage, but leaving her alone and penniless in their rented chamber in an inn
not too far from here, never to return.

Monica
shut her eyes and gave a toss of her blond mane of hair as if in an attempt to
shake off the unpleasant memories of that time. She rarely allowed herself to
think of the weeks she'd been forced to take to the streets to eke out a living
before Drake found her, just as she kept at bay all thoughts of the home in
which she'd grown up.
Home!
It had been a veritable prison! Her
stern-faced father, the vicar, with his ever-present admonitions to her to deny
herself any form of pleasure lest she "fall into the ways of sin,"
the tight-lipped mother she loathed, a holier-than-thou creature bent on
keeping Monica from enjoying life in even the smallest ways... No, she
certainly had no desire to go back to their way of life, even if it were
possible.

But
what wouldn't she give to have the chance that Ashleigh Sinclair now had! To be
privately employed in the fine house of some wealthy lord, where who-only-knows
what sorts of possibilities might lie in store for a woman who was enterprising
and clever—it was a chance Monica longed for with every nerve and fiber of her
being, and to see such an opportunity thrust haphazardly in the lap of that
little bitch, Sinclair! Yes, it rankled....

Suddenly
the door to Madame's chambers opened, just as Monica saw Ashleigh disappear
down the servants' stairwell at the end of the hall, and Madame appeared,
dressed in a superb apricot silk traveling dress and matching pelisse. Missing
nothing, as usual, she spied Monica standing beside her partially ajar door and
smiled knowingly.

"Prying
about for useful information, Monica?" she purred in the blonde's
direction. "I cannot think there is much you will come upon at this early
hour. We both know most of the working women of this household are yet asleep,
and so, I think, should you be, if you wish to retain your looks!"

Monica
stifled the gasp that rose to her throat at the pointed mention of her need for
beauty rest and assumed an air of nonchalance. "Just looking about to see
if I might be of some service to anyone, Madame. I've had all the sleep I
require today."

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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