The Virtuous Courtesan

Indulge your fantasies of delicious Regency Rakes, fierce Viking warriors and rugged Highlanders. Be swept away into a world of intense passion, lavish settings and romance that burns brightly through the centuriesInherited: one mistress! Gavin Stone discovers on his brother’s death that, to inherit his estate, he must also take on his mistress! Gavin never thought that claiming his inheritance could be so pleasurable. . . Sarah is horrified – she never thought she would be passed on as if she were a chattel – but what choice does she have? And Gavin will expect a practised seducer when, in reality, she is as unschooled as a debutante!But just maybe an innocent courtesan is what it will take to thaw this rake’s heart…
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The Virtuous Courtesan


   ‘He did not intend you become my housekeeper. He intended you become my mistress.’

   ‘And are you happy that your brother has organised your future?’ Sarah scoffed.

   ‘Of course I’m not happy about it,’ Gavin replied bluntly. ‘But I am willing to accept it.’

   ‘Because you want to claim your inheritance.’ The statement was tinged with acrimony.

   ‘Yes, I want my inheritance.’

   Eyes that had become sleepy roved her figure.

   ‘And I want you.’

   Mary Brendan was born in North London, but now lives in rural Suffolk. She has always had a fascination with bygone days, and enjoys the research involved in writing historical fiction. When not at her word processor, she can be found trying to bring order to a large overgrown garden, or browsing local fairs and junk shops for that elusive bargain.

   Recent novels by the same author:

   WEDDING NIGHT REVENGE*

   THE UNKNOWN WIFE* A SCANDALOUS MARRIAGE* THE RAKE AND THE REBEL* A PRACTICAL MISTRESS† THE WANTON BRIDE†

   *The Meredith Sisters

   †The Hunter Brothers

   

   Dear Reader

   The path of true love never runs smooth, so the old saying goes, and I have written a duet of novels with those wise words in mind. In this first book, THE VIRTUOUS COURTESAN, it is certainly a fitting adage! The heroine, Sarah Marchant, has suffered a traumatic childhood. When her future is cruelly bound to that of Gavin Stone—something neither of them wants—it seems matters must only get worse… or will they?

   The second story features Ruth Hayden as the heroine. Widowed when very young, she has also endured a great deal of heartache in her early years. Then Sir Clayton Powell arrives, with an offer that should benefit them both. But can a marriage without love survive?

   2008 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of MR TRELAWNEY’S PROPOSAL, my first Regency novel for Mills & Boon. It is, therefore, a double delight for me to be part of this year’s centenary celebrations. Although I enjoy reading and writing historical fiction, it has been exciting to see the innovative and widening choice of books on offer by the world’s most famous romance publisher. The Mills & Boon success story is heartening proof that, despite uncertain times, very many people continue to have an enduring love of reading all types of romance.

   In this special year I would like to take the opportunity of thanking all my editors and all my readers, past and present.

   Mary

THE VIRTUOUS COURTESAN

   Mary Brendan

   

   Chapter One

   It had been a calamitous few days for Joseph Pratt. Misfortune had first visited him on Monday when he had discovered his wife in bed with her young lover. On Wednesday he had lost thirty guineas on a wager, despite having it on excellent authority that the nag would secure a cup at the County races. Yesterday was no improvement; a rival firm of solicitors had poached one of his best clients. Now Friday had arrived and with it a raging toothache. Gingerly he probed the swelling with his tongue and flinched, whilst keeping his eyes fixed on the fellow seated opposite. Despite a throbbing gum his mouth stretched into a smirk, for he anticipated being soon so thoroughly entertained, it might compensate for his week of woe.

   Beneath stubby fallen lashes, the lawyer took a summarising look at the preposterously handsome profile presented to him. The fellow was frowning out into a sunny afternoon and Joseph noted his honed, almost fleshless visage was unfashionably brown for a Mayfair dandy.

   Mr Gavin Stone might possess an air of sleepy sophistication, but he obviously rose early enough on occasion to catch the sun and acquire a vulgar gypsy colouring. Joseph’s covert appraisal of his visitor continued; in fact, he found it hard to look away for the man was quite different to the louche individual he had been expecting. Not that his late client, Edward Stone, had spoken much about his younger brother. But he had gleaned from odd comments that the fellow was a damnable rogue.

   Presently the rogue’s lips were compressed to a thin line and, if that alone did not signify his deep irritation, there were the long fingers drumming on a shiny boot perched atop an elegantly breeched knee. He might have a reputation as a libertine, and have his pockets to let, but he was not a man with whom one might take liberties, of that Joseph was sure.

   Another look was slanted from beneath Joseph’s sandy brows at the fellow lounging in a chair. He had a hand plunged negligently into a pocket, ruining the effect of a suit of clothes that, even to Joseph’s jaundiced eye, looked to have cost a pretty city penny.

   Joseph quickly averted his gaze as Gavin Stone lost interest in the pastoral scene beyond the window and cast a glower at the empty chair on his left. From the corner of his vision Joseph saw first one, then the other finely dressed long leg extend as they were stretched out. Joseph’s lips twitched a little maliciously. It was a small chair for such a well-built man and no doubt, after almost three-quarters of an hour stuck within its cracked leather arms, Gavin Stone was feeling cramped. Suddenly his visitor’s enviable physique was rudely impressed on him as the man surged to his feet.

   The solicitor bent his head to peruse a document. Even when balled fists were planted gently on the edge of the desktop directly in his line of vision Joseph did not immediately look up. A moment later he met a penetrating blue gaze for he sensed that he continued to ignore Mr Stone at his peril.

   ‘How much longer must we tarry over this?’

   Joseph cleared his throat; the smirk had long since withered from his lips. ‘I can only apologise, sir. My correspondence was most concise. The appointment was for one of the clock.’ Rapidly blinking eyes sought the wall clock. ‘I imagine Miss Marchant has been unavoidably delayed.’

   ‘I imagine you are right.’ Gavin’s response was silky irony. ‘But I am not prepared to wait for her any longer. We have given her the courtesy of forty wasted minutes. Let us proceed with the matter. You can advise the lady of her bequest at a later date.’

   ‘I’m afraid I cannot, sir,’ Joseph stressed in a horrified tone. ‘My late client was most specific in his instructions. His last will and testament must not be read until both parties are present.’

   

   ‘What?’ Gavin cursed inaudibly and pivoted on a heel. When he spoke his back was to the lawyer and his voice was speciously calm. ‘Why did you not inform me of this sooner?’

   ‘You did not ask, sir, and earlier there seemed no need to bring it to your attention,’ the lawyer argued.

   Gavin’s back teeth met as he sought to control his vexation at that reasonable defence. ‘I intend travelling back to London this afternoon,’ he informed Pratt curtly. ‘I want to be on the road by three o’clock, four at the latest.’

   Joseph grabbed at a little bell positioned on the edge of his desk. ‘There is yet time, then. Perhaps some more refreshment…’

   The brass implement was snatched away by Gavin before he could again be tormented by its feeble clatter. He abruptly replaced it on polished wood. He had been fobbed off already with weak tea and stilted chit-chat and had no further stomach for either. ‘I think not… thank you,’ he curtly declined further hospitality. ‘I shall be at the Red Lion until four o’clock this afternoon. Should Miss…’

   ‘Marchant,’ the solicitor swiftly supplied the absentee’s name.

   ‘Quite…’ Gavin muttered impatiently. ‘Should she turn up before that time, send your clerk to the inn to inform me and I will endeavour to delay my departure. It is best to close this business today.’

   It seemed that within one stride Gavin Stone’s tall figure was at the exit and he was stooping in anticipation of quitting the office through a low sloping portal. Slowly he straightened and frowned at the scrawny clerk who had silently appeared and was now in his way.

   The young man stretched his neck in his stiff collar to take a peer around the broad chest blocking his vision.

   ‘Excuse me, Mr Stone…Mr Pratt,’ he piped. ‘Miss Marchant is below and sends her apologies for her late arrival—shall I…?’

   ‘Show her up…show her up,’ Mr Pratt hissed impatiently, finishing the nervous youth’s sentence for him. A flapping hand stressed the urgency to fetch her. ‘There…she is at last arrived,’ Joseph soothed. ‘We might speedily set to and you will still be refreshed and away in good time.’ He sidled closer. ‘Please, sit down?’ he hesitantly suggested, for the saturnine fellow remained close to the exit.

   Gavin muttered something inaudible beneath his breath and, ignoring the invitation to be seated, strolled to an open window, braced a hand against the frame and moodily stared out. His dark humour started to evaporate as warm scented air teased his senses and he squinted against late summer sunlight.

   At this time of the year this small country town was undeniably a pleasant spot. Picturesque cottages and the green sward of the town square could be seen from his vantage point. Pratt and Donaghue, the legal firm whose letter concerning his brother’s demise had summoned him from London, held offices on the first floor of a redbrick townhouse. The building was flanked either side by similar properties with sturdy entrance doors bearing brass nameplates of the educated fellows trading within. Along both sides of a narrow High Street were shops of varying sizes, some with wares displayed outside. It appeared enough was on offer in Willowdene to meet a person’s needs. Nevertheless, Gavin remained surprised that his brother had some years ago relinquished his Mayfair lifestyle to reside permanently in what, to Gavin, was simply a quaint backwater.

   ‘I’m so sorry to be late. I hope you have not been greatly inconvenienced.’

   Her voice was attractively youthful despite its note of husky anxiety. Gavin slowly turned his head, thinking it highly unlikely that Miss Marchant might look as good as she sounded. If he was surprised by what he saw, he restricted the emotion to a thoughtful pursing of his lips.

   When informed earlier this afternoon by Joseph Pratt that a Miss Marchant had been named in his brother’s will, and would be joining them to hear of her bequest, he had imagined a loyal spinster servant was to be handsomely rewarded for looking after Edward, and asked no more.

   Eddie had lived apart from his wife, Janet, for more than fifteen years. In the absence of a wife to marshal his household, it would be expected that a competent female would be hired to do so. Edward was ever a methodical man, if one disinclined to part with a penny more than he had to. It would not surprise Gavin one bit to find his brother’s menials were all owed back pay.

   But this was no middle-aged servant. He levelled a steady blue gaze on the slender young woman who was in the process of removing a bonnet from her pale blonde hair. She then stripped off her gloves, very quickly, as though to make up for lost time. This was a lady of refinement. Had she not already spoken and revealed her class, he would have known from her deportment and poise that she was gently bred. But what kept Gavin momentarily spellbound was her undeniable beauty. And then misanthropic thoughts started to fill his head.

   His eyes narrowed and his mouth took on a cynical slant. Perhaps he was beginning to understand his brother’s passion for the place. Considering the girl’s obvious youth and breeding, his suspicions should have been dismissed as ridiculous. Nevertheless he continued to ponder whether Edward might not have been quite the pious prig he’d liked to make out.

   ‘Umm…please sit here, Miss Marchant.’ Joseph indicated a similar armchair to the one Gavin had vacated. ‘And we can immediately begin. Mr Stone is impatient to get back to London tonight.’

   Sarah Marchant took a step forward, her eyes again drawn to the imposing figure positioned by the window.

   

   So this was Gavin Stone! He appeared stern, soberly dressed and nothing like the carefree wastrel Eddie’s description had led her to imagine. But it was not just his appearance that surprised her; she had expected a younger version of Eddie, for he had said they were physically alike. Sarah suppressed a wry smile. Eddie had obviously wished it so. This man was far taller and broader than his older brother had been and, she had to admit, far more handsome. He had darker colouring than Eddie and a luxuriant mane of hair framing the rugged planes of his face. Eddie had fretted over losing what remained of his thinning locks by the time he reached forty. Poor Eddie had been two years short of that milestone birthday when he caught smallpox. Sarah swallowed the little ache in her throat at the memory of his horrible illness. Thankfully it had been of short duration and he had succumbed quickly to its ravages.

   Sarah quickly averted her eyes. She had been staring in quite a vulgar fashion whilst she compared the brothers. Remembering her manners she dipped into a neat bob. She also delivered an apologetic smile despite his surly countenance. But then Sarah accepted Gavin Stone had every reason to be annoyed. In fairness she would not have been pleased either to have kicked her heels in Mr Pratt’s office for so long. Before sitting down she made an effort to appear confident and briskly repeated her apology and strengthened her smile.

   

   ‘I hope you were not delayed by anything unpleasant?’

   Sarah’s topaz eyes flicked to Gavin. He had uttered that in an odd tone…as though he expected her to furnish a reason for her tardiness. And now, far from appearing aloof, he had an amused, almost scornful look deep in his eyes that she found distinctly disquieting. ‘A domestic matter, sir.’ The concise information was quietly conveyed. She deliberately looked at the lawyer. A small nod of her blonde head indicated she was ready to proceed.

   Joseph swung a sly glance from Mr Stone to Miss Marchant. He sensed a certain amount of friction between them already. Ten minutes hence, when the full extent of Edward Stone’s last will and testament was made known to them, he expected sparks to fly. He coughed and collected his papers together in a businesslike manner. Although he knew each protagonist was perfectly aware of the other’s identity, he made brief formal introductions. He could sense that Gavin Stone was intrigued and not a little impatient to know what part this lovely young woman had played in his brother’s life.

   Earlier, when he had attempted to while away time by making small talk with Gavin Stone, he had purposely steered conversation away from the lady on whom they waited. Too much information about her might alert him to what may lie ahead and thus spoil the sensational surprise.

   

   Gavin settled himself back in the chair he had recently vacated, but in such a way that he now faced Miss Marchant rather than the desk behind which the lawyer was hunched.

   Aware that she was under scrutiny, Sarah flicked up her dusky lashes to boldly gaze back. When that did not deter him, but rather intensified the amusement at the back of his eyes, she flushed. She sensed that Gavin Stone had already taken against her. Perhaps he thought she was about to snatch away his inheritance. Well, she knew she was not. Eddie had told her that the bulk of his estate would pass to his only sibling despite the fact he didn’t like Gavin and rarely saw him. But he had promised to make adequate provision for her future. Today she was to find out what that was. She was hoping for a permanent tenancy of Elm Lodge, and an annuity. She flushed, ashamed of her mercenary thoughts. But then everybody must live…somehow… She just wished that there had been no need for her to participate in this pantomime in the lawyer’s office today. In life, Eddie had chosen to avoid his brother; she was coming to wish he had afforded her that privilege after his death.

   ‘I will come straight to the point,’ Joseph said in a ponderous tone and swept a glance between the pair seated opposite. ‘Mr Edward Stone, deceased, has left his entire estate and possessions to his brother, Mr Gavin Stone.’ He paused for a moment to allow that information to be digested. ‘However, there is a condition attached to the house in Brighton. The deceased’s wife presently resides there and is to benefit from free and uninterrupted use of the house until she dies. Edward has also left his estranged wife a small sum of money to be paid as an annuity.’ Another pause, then he added, ‘It was not necessary that Janet Stone attend today. In fact, it was Edward’s wish that she should not be invited to do so.’

   Gavin slanted a look at the lady sitting adjacent. ‘I see,’ was all he said, but his eyes lingered on her.

   Sarah felt the colour in her cheeks rising. The odious beast might have guessed the nature of the relationship between her and his brother, but did he have to make it quite so obvious that he disapproved?

   She had been a mistress, but no marriage breaker. Edward and Janet Stone had lived apart for many years before Sarah had even met Eddie. She clasped her hands in her lap to steady them, determined to ignore his barbs. After all, people in glasshouses should not throw stones. And she’d heard enough about Gavin Stone’s character to know he inhabited a very fragile domain. Having thus boosted her courage, she nevertheless wished that Eddie had shown more consideration for her feelings than to insist she attend, like a grasping harlot, and tolerate the company of two gentlemen she sensed held her in contempt.

   ‘Now we come to the role Miss Marchant must play…’ The lawyer coughed and stuck a finger between his collar and his rubicund neck. ‘That is to say, Miss

   

   Marchant is also mentioned in Mr Edward Stone’s will. Her bequest is linked to yours, sir.’ Despite the slick, quiet way in which he had introduced that last bit of information, a dangerous gleam immediately flared in Gavin’s eyes, making Joseph hasten on. ‘In order that your inheritance might be taken up, you must comply with Edward’s stipulation that you continue to keep Miss Marchant in the manner to which she has become accustomed.’

   Joseph sat back in his chair, his lids lowered to shield the fact that his eyes were excitedly batting between the couple in front of him. He had expected a stunned silence, but after many seconds, when all that could be heard was the clock ticking on the wall, he peeked up and ventured, ‘Are there any questions?’

   Finally Sarah broke free from her debilitating daze. It could not possibly be what she thought! Eddie would not do such a vile thing. He had said he was fond of her. There was a mistake…an infelicity in phrasing… ‘Would you please repeat that last?’ she murmured with a trembling smile.

   ‘Yes…please repeat that,’ Gavin uttered in a voice so consumed with icy rage that the lawyer again loosened his collar from his fiery neck.

   ‘The gist of it is that you, Miss Marchant, will henceforth be protected by Mr Gavin Stone.’ He turned a wary blinking eye on the dark face of the gentleman. ‘For you, sir, the gist of it is that you must continue to pay for Miss Marchant’s keep or you forfeit your inheritance.’ He swivelled the papers about. ‘Here…you may read it yourself,’ he offered. ‘If you refuse these terms and conditions, I’m afraid you will not receive a penny piece from your brother’s estate and in six months’ time the Crown may have it all.’

   Further words of explanation from the lawyer were lost as Gavin sprang to his feet. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ His eyes were fixed mercilessly on Sarah’s whitening face. ‘Did you know of this? Did you put this mischief in to my brother’s head?’

   The accusation and disgust in his voice fired Sarah’s temper. Her head was flung back, sending blonde hair rippling about her shoulders. ‘I assure you, sir, had I known of this I would not have bothered turning up at all today, late or early.’ She jumped up, bristling with indignation. Barely a foot of space separated them. ‘I am as shocked and appalled as you are.’ She sent a look over his raw-boned face. Oh, he might have the veneer of quality, but close to she could tell a man who lived a debauched lifestyle. She had watched her papa drink and whore until he met his end in an ugly death. ‘In fact, I might ask whether you had some hand in this devilish strategy,’ she snapped out. ‘Is your indignation real or subterfuge?’ Sarah barely paused for breath before adding in a hiss, ‘I cannot believe that Eddie would have done this without much persuading.’

   Gavin took a pace towards her. Just one. But something in that slow determined movement made Sarah shrink back. ‘You think I need to plot or use coercion to get a paramour?’ he enquired softly.

   A frisson of fear raced through Sarah. Far from his previous expression of faint amusement, he now looked perilously enraged. She regretted having spoken so impetuously, but found it impossible to either retract the accusation or apologise for it. ‘I know you are a reprobate. Eddie told me,’ she said in a wobbly voice. ‘Will you deny it?’

   ‘Would that he had mentioned you, madam,’ Gavin drawled, ignoring the reference to his riotous reputation. ‘Had he done so, I might have come and given my opinion of you whilst he was still alive. Then he would have known better than to attempt to foist you on to me.’

   Joseph sank back in his chair and compressed his lips to stop a smile. Oh, entertainment, indeed! This was exceeding every expectation he’d had of a diverting scene taking place here today. Things were so fraught between them that he quite expected Miss Marchant might slap the insolent rogue’s face. Her small hands were squeezed into fists at her side, and so tensely did she hold herself it seemed she might topple forwards.

   Of course, Joseph had known for some while that Miss Marchant was Eddie Stone’s mistress, as did most people hereabouts. But it was a discreet liaison and, after the first months of scandalous chatter, interest about them had died away. Little was known of Miss Marchant for she kept herself to herself and lived on the very outskirts of town. She did not seek approval from the town’s grandes dames, thus they could not withhold it. She did not attempt to socialise with them, thus they could not shun her.

   As for Eddie, he had been thought an upstanding and popular fellow who was known to live apart from his crippled wife. He cared for Janet Stone, which was all people expected he might do in the circumstances, and if he sought comfort elsewhere…who could blame him? The mystery was, of course, why a genteel beauty such as Sarah Marchant would abase herself to become a gentleman’s paramour when, clearly, she could have attracted offers of marriage before her reputation was irreparably sullied.

   ‘You may have no fear of having me foisted upon you, sir. I refuse the terms.’ That crisp statement was directed at the lawyer, jerking him from his musing. Sarah did not deign to give Gavin even a cursory glance. ‘I have no desire to benefit from Edward’s will and agree to sign whatever I must to make that final.’

   ‘Umm…I’m afraid that makes no difference to—’

   ‘Well, what does?’ thundered Gavin before the lawyer could finish.

   ‘Nothing, sir.’

   ‘So we’re stuck together in some unholy alliance?’

   ‘If you will, sir,’ Joseph said carefully and lowered his eyes.

   Sarah flushed scarlet. The unfortunate choice of words elicited imagery that was clear to her and obviously was to the gentlemen, too. She heard a sound that could have been a coarse laugh, but was probably a snort of anger issuing from Gavin Stone. Gathering up her bonnet and gloves in shaking hands, she took her leave without a single word. Her steps towards the door were rapid although a rational part of her mind hoped it did not look as though she fled from him. Within thirty seconds she was down the stairs and out in the mellow September sun.

   Chapter Two

   ‘Are you not going after her?’

   Gavin levelled a narrowed gaze on the lawyer. The man had had the impertinence to sound quite disapproving. ‘To what purpose?’ he coolly enquired. ‘So we might argue in the street and provide not just you, but the whole town with diversion?’

   Joseph had the grace to glow whilst gesturing his innocence. ‘Of course a scene would not be at all wise. But I imagined you hoped to come to some sort of arrangement with the young lady.’

   ‘I think Miss Marchant has made it clear she would not want to consider an arrangement with me.’

   ‘But you are not averse to an arrangement with her?’ the lawyer prompted with sharp inquisitiveness.

   Gavin strolled away from the window, from which vantage point he had watched the chit rush off as though the hounds of hell were on her heels. Either she’d been genuinely innocent of any hand in the scheme, and had meant what she said about forgoing her meal ticket, or she was a damn fine actress. For a man who had never experienced any difficulty in the art of seduction, that notion brought with it a crushing conclusion. There was a courtesan who might seriously choose to starve rather than sleep with him. Whereas he, if he were to be honest and circumstances had been different, would have sought to proposition her. She was one of the most divine-looking women he had ever met. And Heaven only knew he had enjoyed the company of quite a few alluring females. Why such a jewel was not dazzling the ton in Mayfair was as mystifying as why she had been attracted to Edward in the first place. An irritable sigh escaped Gavin. But nothing was as damnably vexing as his brother’s decision to attach such bizarre terms to his inheritance.

   If Edward had wanted his mistress to continue living in comfort on his death, why on earth had he not simply left her a tidy sum? She might be young, but she’d looked and sounded intelligent enough to manage her money. Or had Edward known his mistress to be an incorrigible spendthrift who might quickly run through her pension?

   A rueful twitch lifted a corner of Gavin’s mouth as he considered the possibility. Expensive mistresses were an enduring worry of which he had first-hand knowledge. Half his present financial problems had resulted from his current paramour’s profligacy. The amount Elizabeth frittered on shoes alone would keep a family in modest comfort for several months of the year. Charitably he allowed that the blame for the other half of the pecuniary crisis in which he found himself fell squarely on his own shoulders. Gaming, horseflesh, two new vehicles delivered to his mansion in Lansdowne Crescent in as many months.…

   But even the memory of his luxury purchases, and his wanton lover, could not keep his mind long in Mayfair.

   The knowledge that his brother had kept an exquisitely beautiful woman was stirring a very unwelcome feeling in Gavin. He had not imagined Edward lived like a monk simply because he resided in the sticks and liked to moralise, but neither would he have imagined Edward capable of attracting such a gem. He swiftly banished the ridiculous idea that he might be jealous. Sibling rivalry between them had died with childhood and scraps over toys. As adults they had always been too different in character to covet what the other had. Or so he’d thought.

   ‘Have you decided to return to London and give up your brother’s bequest?’ The lawyer interrupted Gavin’s concentration with a doleful tone and a cautionary shake of the head. ‘There is much at stake, you know: several fine properties and almost three thousand pounds annual income from the Willowdene estate. Then there is a not inconsiderable sum of cash in the bank and bonds—’

   

   ‘I know I stand to lose a lot,’ Gavin tetchily curtailed him.

   ‘Indeed so, sir! A terrible waste it would be if it is taken by the Crown.’ He tapped the document, inviting Gavin to check the threat. ‘And you could put the funds to good use, I’m sure.’

   Gavin shot a look at the smug fellow. So Joseph Pratt knew he spent beyond his means. But then, as Edward’s man of business, he would naturally know that Edward had loaned him money, at an extortionate rate, once or twice.

   ‘Does Miss Marchant have adequate private means or was she wholly dependent on my brother?’

   ‘I’m not sure, sir,’ Joseph answered with a frown. ‘But I’ve always imagined her relationship with Mr Edward Stone was borne of necessity,’ he added a mite too truthfully.

   Gavin’s cynical expression became more pronounced. ‘Has she family hereabouts who might help her?’ He didn’t want it on his conscience that the chit might end up in the workhouse.

   ‘I’ve not heard of any kith or kin. She has a couple of loyal old retainers who came from London with her. Due to the…arrangement between her and your brother, she naturally did not socialise with other ladies in town. For a while their relationship stirred much gossip, but that died away some time ago.’

   ‘How long ago?’ Gavin asked. He had judged her to be of tender age and had deduced that Edward must have quite recently taken up with her. Or perhaps she was blessed with more youthful looks than her years warranted.

   Joseph sucked his teeth as he made a mental calculation. ‘Oh, I should say it all started about three or four years ago now.’ He gave Gavin a shrewd glance. The fellow’s anger seemed to have been overtaken by a growing interest in Miss Marchant. ‘Her young age gave rise to the worst of the chatter. But a lot of females are wed before they turn sixteen. And Sarah Marchant had already reached that very age by all accounts.’

   Gavin’s expression barely changed. But a sweeping look arced up and over the ceiling, displaying his disgust at what he’d just heard. Gavin had not bedded a woman that young since he was a teenager himself. But what really rankled was Edward’s hypocrisy. His brother had readily given him the mantle of black sheep of the family despite having seduced a girl barely out of the schoolroom. The fact that Miss Marchant looked delectable enough to tempt a saint was hardly an excuse for such behaviour.

   ‘Where does she presently reside?’ Gavin asked abruptly.

   ‘At Elm Lodge. It is one of the properties you now own, or will own if…’ Joseph’s voice faded and he gestured pointedly at the document in front of him. ‘The Lodge is situated on the edge of the Willowdene estate by the woods.’ After a few silent moments, when it seemed Gavin had plunged deep into thought, Joseph probed, ‘It is almost a half-past three. Will you journey back to London today?’

   Gavin cast a frown at the clock. He had quite forgotten that it had been his intention to rush back to Mayfair. It was now unthinkable to head home without seeing Sarah Marchant again. The need to stay was not just to do with securing his inheritance, though he needed the money. A quite vulgar curiosity about her was bedevilling him. He wanted to find out more about her; especially why she had slept with his dull brother to earn her keep.

   ‘As you say,’ he replied coolly, ‘it is sensible that a solution of sorts be found. I shall remain at the Red Lion tonight and will contact you again regarding this vexing matter.’

   ‘Why do you not stay at Willowdene Manor?’ Joseph asked quickly as Gavin made to exit the room. ‘I do not think any risk of infection lingers,’ he reassured him. ‘Edward was interred immediately and none of the staff succumbed.’

   ‘It is not that. I’d sooner stay at the Red Lion as my time here is to be brief.’ The excuse was valid, but only part of the reason for staying away from his brother’s home. Gavin anticipated many questions from the staff at The Manor. Quite rightly they would be concerned for their jobs and pay until a new master took over and things were back to normal. At the moment he had no answers to give them. With a brusque nod for the lawyer, he ducked beneath the low beam and quit the room.

   

   From the window Joseph Pratt watched the tall figure of Gavin Stone striding away. He noticed that minx Molly from the Red Lion giving him quite a bold smile and calling out to him before huddling, giggling, against her friend. Both girls turned to ogle as he strode past.

   Joseph felt a prickle of envy. Gavin Stone was too damned handsome for his own good. That irritation apart, he oddly felt a sense of unease at what had occurred in his office this afternoon. He had relished the drama, but he certainly did not relish the possible outcome. Apart from other considerations, it would do his professional reputation no good. It might be construed that the Stone inheritance had been snatched away by the Crown because his good advice had been lacking rather than his late client’s benevolence.

   He had no real desire to see Gavin’s fortune in jeopardy or Sarah made homeless. But then Joseph was sure, once her pride had been salved, that the young woman would come to her senses. It was a shame her lover had died, but unfortunate things occurred in life. Kept women were usually of a practical nature and accepted they must transfer their affections from time to time.

   Miss Marchant had always seemed to him pleasant and polite and, of course, like any man, he could not fail to be smitten by her loveliness. In fact, he thought with a flash of inspiration, should Gavin Stone have spoiled his chances by being rude to her, perhaps a humble solicitor might wangle his way into favour. More modest terms would need to be negotiated, of course. But he could run to a small cottage and a stocked larder. Joseph turned from the window, grinning. And if he did take a beautiful young mistress it was no more than that cheating harlot, Mrs Rosamund Pratt, deserved!

   Sarah sank onto the bale of hay and let the tears flow. Hateful man! Hateful man! The phrase flew back and forth in her agitated mind before bursting through small pearly teeth. But to which gentleman that insult was directed she could not have said: the smarmy lawyer, the mean lover, the insolent stranger—all deserved the epithet, and more besides.

   A handkerchief was snatched from her reticule and held to her wet eyes. Had she not known Edward Stone’s true character at all? How could he have acted so horridly? Eddie had not kept her in luxury, but neither had he been cruelly parsimonious. She had not gone without basic necessities. Now it seemed that to keep a roof over her head and bread on her plate she must apologise to his wastrel brother and then attempt to seduce him. The very idea made a sob of hysterical laughter choke her. She would rather… Her angry thoughts ebbed and stilled. What would she rather? Face destitution? Would she see Aunt Bea and Timothy starve?

   Sarah felt a chill creep over her. It was unthinkable.

   

   She wrung the little handkerchief in her fingers, until a ripping sound made her stop and push it back whence it came. Slender fingers smeared away the last of the tears on her cheeks and she gulped a calming breath. What was she to do? Even if she eventually managed to subdue her misgivings and pride enough to solicit Gavin Stone’s protection, he had made it clear he didn’t want her. In fact, he had made it clear that she disgusted him. He had even had the nerve to suggest that she might have plotted with Eddie to trap him. She had done no such thing but, in truth, she did regret having let the swine rile her. She had said things that were most unwise given her circumstances. Yet the greatest pity of it all was that her memory of Edward was now spoiled by a wrangle over his money.

   She had been bitterly disappointed at not receiving the things she had wanted—Elm Lodge, an annuity of her own—but perhaps she had been hopelessly optimistic in thinking they might come to her. She had not been Edward’s wife, neither had she been his only lover.

   Edward had been quickly buried to allay fears of infection. Sarah had stayed away from the formal service and paid her respects privately, when the townspeople had gone from the graveside, but the other woman who had shared Edward’s life had been there.

   Christine Beauvoir had been accepted at the interment despite everybody knowing that she had been Edward’s mistress for a long time. Her widow status conferred on her a certain respectability.

   

   Yet she had been absent from the solicitor’s office today. Her name had not been mentioned in Edward’s will. Sarah knew the widow had her own property and income. She could only guess that Eddie had thought Christine had no need of any financial help from him on his demise.

   A dejected grimace twisted her soft mouth. She was not so lucky. She must gratefully take the provision Eddie intended her to have. That conclusion brought her to a bitter truth: a suitable agreement with Gavin Stone must be reached. But she would not sleep with him. She had seen disgust in his eyes when he looked upon her face. How much more repulsive would she be to him when he first saw her naked in his bed?

   Abruptly she gained her feet and began to pace to and fro, her full, soft lips compressed and her white brow puckered in concentration.

   It was as Sarah was marching back and forth behind the tumbledown barn on the edge of town that Gavin caught sight of her. It was a mere glimpse of pale curls that first arrested his attention. A few moments later he spotted a swirl of grey skirt as she changed direction.

   He settled back against the wall of the Red Lion’s stables and plunged his hands into his pockets. She obviously had not fled far. He was glad she was still in the vicinity. He had not relished the idea of pursuing her to Elm Lodge like a draconian landlord about to claim droit de seigneur.

   After a short surreptitious observation, he had seen enough to be sure the woman was indeed Sarah Marchant. He guessed from her restless pacing that her frame of mind was similar to his own. With a wry smile he realised that now was probably as good a time as any to see if they could find a sensible solution to the damnable predicament Edward had landed them in.

   ‘It seems we got off on the wrong foot. Shall we try again?’

   Sarah swivelled about to see Gavin Stone brace a dark hand against the wall of the barn. Immediately her heart was jolted into pumping faster. Her mouth parted in readiness to spontaneously demand an apology for his boorish behaviour earlier. Her soft lips came together again without her having uttered a blameful word. He didn’t look quite so arrogant or scornful now and, in any case, her opinion of his manners was irrelevant. He held the key to securing her family’s continuing comfortable existence.

   ‘That seems a sensible suggestion,’ she coolly agreed and, simply to occupy her jittery nerves, collected her bonnet from the hay bale she’d sat upon. She had also moved away from the edge of the barn to conceal herself from inquisitive eyes. Her reputation might be thoroughly besmirched, but she had no wish to add to her infamy. If she were caught in broad daylight loitering behind a barn with a gentleman, it was likely to give the town’s gossips a fine time.

   Gavin moved closer, watching as she fiddled with her hat, first winding the strings about her palm before immediately jerking them loose.

   Obviously he had startled her by coming upon her so unexpectedly. He strolled into the barn and made a cursory inspection of the dilapidated state of it before wandering out again. She still seemed unsettled, so he walked the length of the building to give her a little longer to regain her composure.

   ‘Please don’t stand where you might be seen.’ Sarah pursued him to the edge of the barn. She made as though to catch his sleeve and tug him backwards. Momentarily a small hand hovered in space before recoiling. ‘It is best if we keep out of sight. I would not want any curious passerby to come and investigate what is going on.’

   Gavin duly complied whilst emitting a rasping chuckle. ‘In Mr Pratt’s office you called me a reprobate. Are you now worried for my reputation?’

   ‘Perhaps I am more concerned for mine,’ Sarah remarked acidly. ‘But then you believe I have no good name to keep, don’t you?’ she added quietly. She could tell he was about to humour her with polite lies and she’d rather not hear them. ‘You are right, of course,’ she interrupted him. ‘I am not liked or welcomed here in town. But it does not do to flaunt my notoriety or unnecessarily rub people’s noses in it.’

   Gavin noticed the proud tilt to her chin, but she couldn’t conceal the tremor in her voice. She might know she was despised, but she suffered for it. After three or more years as a courtesan one might have expected her to acquire an amount of robust defiance. Her vulnerability was rather sweet and stirred something akin to tenderness in him.

   Within a moment he had quashed the noble emotion and reinstated a more cynical outlook. He had no idea whether Miss Marchant had gladly set on the path to ruination with a man old enough to be her father. Until he did, he would reserve judgement on how genuine was her trembling modesty and whether plucking at his heartstrings was simply part of a calculated act.

   ‘Is it correct that you were just sixteen when Edward…?’ Gavin hesitated, sought an inoffensive term. ‘When he took you under his protection?’

   ‘Yes, I was sixteen,’ Sarah said. ‘And I would rather not discuss it. It was a long time ago,’ she said carefully. She had no intention of furnishing details of her affair with Edward to his brother. But neither did she want to rekindle friction between them. She was very conscious of the need to prolong this truce.

   ‘Three years is not so long.’ Gavin was not so easily deterred.

   ‘It was four years ago. It seems a long time to me,’ Sarah countered with grit in her voice and immediately turned the subject to the one presently most troubling to her. ‘We must try to find a way to solve the problem of Edward’s will. I’m sure you must want that too. It would be a great pity if you lost your inheritance.’

   

   ‘Indeed, it would,’ Gavin drily concurred.

   Sarah ignored the ironic inflection in his voice. He thought she was showing him faux-concern in order to wheedle what she wanted out of him and secure her own future. It was true. A quick encompassing look roved over him. Oh, he might be far more handsome and sophisticated than Edward, but she would sooner have Edward any day.

   She sensed Gavin Stone could be courteous and charming when it suited him—as it did now—but a latent and dangerous power seemed to lurk behind his measured words and smiles. He naturally wanted his bequest and she was the obstacle preventing him having it. Was Gavin Stone capable of resorting to devilry to get his money?

   An anxious breath filled her lungs. She had earlier settled on an idea that seemed a very fair compromise. It was a simple plan, but she’d persevered with it because she recalled Mr Pratt had mentioned Gavin Stone wanted to hasten back to London. To expedite matters he might readily agree to her suggestion and return tomorrow. And that would suit her admirably.

   ‘I live At Elm Lodge,’ she blurted out. ‘It is part of the estate that you have inherited.’

   ‘I know.’

   Sarah looked at him, hoping he might contribute more conversation. He did not. ‘I hope you will not deem it an impertinence,’ she quickly continued, ‘but I have thought of a compromise that might benefit us both.’

   

   A slight rise of his dark brows was not the encouragement she had hoped for, but did indicate that he was willing to listen to her idea.

   ‘As you know, your brother resided at Willowdene Manor where there are plentiful staff. I have lived alone at the Lodge for three years and have just two servants who live out. Mr and Mrs Jackson help with cooking and gardening and so on. They have taken on other work too and have their own cottage in the village.’

   ‘No.’

   ‘You don’t know what I’m going to say,’ Sarah gasped out at that rude interruption.

   ‘Yes, I do. You’re going to say that you will dispense with their services and act as a housekeeper and gardener at the Lodge to earn the right to stay there.’

   So he had known what she was going to say. But then it had hardly been an ingenious plan. ‘Why will you not agree to it?’ Sarah’s demand was harsh with frustration. ‘It will solve everything. You can honestly say to the executors that you are providing for me financially and thus will be able to legally claim your inheritance.’

   ‘I have every intention of claiming my inheritance,’ Gavin stressed softly. ‘But not like that.’

   Chapter Three

   ‘Why ever not? Is it too simple a plan?’

   ‘Simple plans are usually the best sort.’

   ‘Well?’ Sarah prompted, a glimmer of hope brightening her eyes and voice. ‘Are you now persuaded towards it?’

   ‘No.’

   ‘To what do you object, sir?’ Sarah demanded, barely suppressing her exasperation.

   ‘Several things,’ Gavin said. ‘But let us start with the most obvious. If I wanted a housekeeper at Elm Lodge it would be more economic to employ Mrs Jackson.’

   ‘But Maude cannot help you lay hands on your brother’s fortune,’ Sarah pointed out with a note of triumph. ‘I alone can do that. My employment might be more costly, but also greatly beneficial.’ Whilst willing him to agree to her logic, she came closer to look up expectantly into his darkly rugged features.

   

   Within a moment she could feel heat prickling beneath her cheeks for eyes of cerulean blue were interestedly roving her face, lingering on her mouth. An odd feeling quickened her blood. It disturbed her so profoundly that she took an involuntary step back. If he thought to flatter her into accepting less than was her due, he was to be sorely disappointed. She would never be duped by a philanderer’s artfulness.

   He thought he had her measure. Perhaps he did, but she had his, too. Just a short time ago at the will reading he had been incensed and scornful of her. How different he seemed now he’d had time to reason that a gallant might do better than a tyrant. However much he was tempted to curse her to hell he needed her cooperation just as she needed his.

   ‘I only want a small living allowance of fifty pounds per annum,’ Sarah briskly informed him and peeked from beneath twin fans of dusky lashes to see what reaction that demand provoked. She could discern no change in his demeanour. He remained resting against the barn, indolently watching her.

   She suspected he must eventually agree to her suggestion. There was too much at stake to reject a reasonable plan just because she’d been the one to voice it. If he wanted to puff up his ego by quibbling and driving a hard bargain, she was not about to indulge him.

   ‘Why will you not agree?’ she taunted him. ‘Do you not want to return to Mr Pratt’s office and tell him you can comply with the terms of your inheritance?’

   

   ‘I would be delighted to do just that,’ Gavin drawled. ‘I imagine my bank would also rejoice at the news that they can give up hounding me for loan repayments.’

   Sarah was suddenly assailed by a memory of her papa skulking behind drawn curtains when heavily in debt to the bank and in regular receipt of threatening missives. ‘Very well,’ she said calmly. ‘I can tell you are not swayed by that offer. I am prepared to accept a lesser sum of forty pounds per annum just so we might both go home.’

   A chuckle grazed Gavin’s throat. ‘I take it you don’t play cards?’

   ‘I do, but not very well. What made you say that?’ she asked sharply, sensitive to being mocked.

   ‘You have not mastered the art of bluffing, my dear,’ he explained softly. ‘You’ve disclosed your hand far too soon.’

   He was laughing at her. Bright spots of colour burned in her cheeks. ‘This is a matter of some gravity, not a silly game,’ she snapped. ‘I would sooner be direct and honest. I can only hope you might be too.’

   Gavin bowed his head in humble acknowledgement of being chastised, but humour was still slanting his mouth. ‘In my world, Miss Marchant, gambling is a matter of some gravity and not a silly game. And being direct and honest when the stakes are high is foolish.’

   ‘And that, sir, is a helpful insight into your character, for which I thank you,’ Sarah retorted primly. ‘It is also another reason for me to want to speedily conclude our business. You may then return to your world and your sophisticated friends in London and leave me in peace.’

   That acerbic comment drew to an end Gavin’s comfortably lounging stance. A lithe movement freed his person from planked wood. He strolled closer, his thorough appraisal bringing more blood to sting her cheeks. ‘For a woman who has spent all her adult life as a harlot, you can appear a mite too sanctimonious, my dear.’ Gavin watched as the scarlet stain spread, marring her flawless complexion. ‘It seems Edward took too many liberties with you,’ he continued in a sensual tone. ‘As I see it, the worst by far was forcing false piety down your throat.’

   A small hand flew to Sarah’s neck as though that part of her anatomy was under assault. ‘How dare you!’ she finally gasped. ‘How dare you speak to me like that.’ She gritted through small pearly teeth, ‘Your brother always treated me with respect. He was a decent man. He was kind.’

   ‘Kind?’ Gavin echoed sardonically. ‘Was it kind of him to leave you to the tender mercy of a brother he’d slander as a reprobate?’

   Sarah visibly winced at that. She had asked herself the same question many times since she’d bolted from the solicitor’s office. If Edward had cared even a little for her, it was indeed hard to understand why he would put her future security in the hands of a man he’d described as a rake and a wastrel.

   

   ‘Why do you think he did that?’ Gavin asked abruptly.

   ‘I’m sure he…I don’t know…Edward was gravely ill,’ she stuttered out, aware she was under intense scrutiny from narrowed blue eyes. ‘The smallpox left him often delirious.’

   ‘His doctor and his lawyer deemed him of sound mind to the very end. He was compos mentis when he dictated his instructions to Joseph Pratt. He knew what he was about.’

   Sarah twirled agitatedly on the spot. ‘What does it matter now?’ Her small hands gestured hopelessness. ‘Edward has gone and taken with him the reason we must endure this madness.’ She pressed her brow with slender fingers as though she might smooth out the furrows there. ‘Oh, how I wish that he were still here,’ she whispered almost to herself.

   ‘I’m sure you do.’ Gavin’s laugh was as mordant as had been his tone. ‘A few months ago he was a healthy man in his prime. It must be galling having your meal ticket whipped away so unexpectedly.’

   ‘I wish he were here because I miss him,’ she enunciated icily, yet the grain of truth in his sarcasm made her voice quiver. Her main concern was how she would go on now Edward had left her with nothing of her own. She tilted her chin to glare at the stranger who held sway over her life. ‘And my feelings for your brother are private and none of your concern.’

   ‘Unfortunately my brother has seen fit to make your very existence my concern.’ It was a reminder issued in a voice of silky steel.

   It had the effect of immediately goading Sarah into retaliation. ‘Well, you may fret no longer that I will be a burden of unwanted responsibility.’ A tiny part of her mind acknowledged that she was about to act rashly. Still she could not prevent the words erupting. ‘I would sooner face penury than accept your charity.’

   ‘I’m relieved to hear it,’ Gavin said ironically. ‘Charity is not at all what I have in mind for you, Miss Marchant. I intend you earn your keep.’

   Swiftly Sarah settled her bonnet back on her head and tied the strings with unsteady fingers. Blood thundered at her temples, making her feel she might faint as she readied herself to leave. She could tell it was late afternoon as the sun was low and soon Mr Bloom would be closed for business. She must purchase laudanum from the apothecary before heading back home. But it was the unspoken question hovering between them that was really prompting her to speed away.

   Several times since their encounter in Mr Pratt’s office Sarah’s mind had glanced away from an unpalatable truth. A virile man—and especially, as in this case an infamous womaniser—was unlikely to turn down the opportunity to bed a young woman passed on to him for that purpose. When one took into account that the fellow was required to pay for her board and lodging, the idea that he might do so simply from the goodness of his heart seemed ludicrous.

   

   But Gavin’s furious reaction on hearing of Edward’s wishes had encouraged Sarah to hope they might find a less sordid solution to this conundrum. From the start Gavin Stone had seemed to her to be his own man and not a character to take easily to his brother manipulating him from the grave. But she could no longer deny that the fire in his eyes was generated as much by lust as anger. He might not like her, he might mock and scorn her and call her a harlot, but none of it would stop him wanting to sleep with her. And she was his for the taking…or so he thought…

   ‘Good day to you, sir,’ she said with admirable aplomb and attempted to stride past him.

   ‘Are you about to run away again like a spoiled child because you cannot get your own way?’ Gavin had stepped to block her path, but it was his comment, not his person, that brought her to a halt.

   Her blonde head swayed back on her slender neck and she attacked him with fierce tawny eyes. ‘I am not running away,’ she informed him clearly. ‘I am going because I refuse to participate in more pointless wrangling over Edward’s will.’ She sucked in a calming breath. ‘You have rejected my very reasonable compromise, and so be it. For now it seems wise to part company and see if a solution can be found tomorrow. Perhaps by then a little of the hostility between us might have evaporated.’ There was a brief pause before she added, ‘Good day to you, sir.’

   ‘I’m encouraged that you think there is yet hope for us, Miss Marchant.’

   

   Sarah dodged past him and, when sure she was in no danger of being restrained, swished about to look back at him. ‘And I’m encouraged, sir, that you did not immediately act petulantly and say you would be miles away in London tomorrow.’ She hesitated at his silence and took a step closer to him again. She was now in a more logical frame of mind. The thought that he might return home had rendered her more anxious than annoyed. ‘Are you going straight back to London?’ she demanded to know.

   ‘No. I have my petulance under control,’ he wryly answered. He gazed indicatively at the golden orb settled on the horizon. ‘It would be foolish to travel overnight and risk being set upon by felons. Should I expire also, I imagine you, Miss Marchant, would be in very dire straits.’

   Sarah gave him a faux-sweet smile. ‘Then I must wish you good health, sir, and safe journeys, till we have this sorted out to my liking.’ She watched his amusement deepen, his mouth and eyes soften as he casually put his hands in to his pockets. At times he could look quite youthful and appealing when hard mockery was gone from his eyes and they shared a little joke…

   Sarah put such silly sentiment from her mind. Just a short while ago he had insulted her, shown his disdain for a woman he classed as little more than a harlot. With a very brief nod she turned her back on him and gracefully walked away.

   

   * * *

   Sarah caught Mr Bloom just as he was in the process of bolting the door to his apocothery. He slid back the bolts, welcomed her in, and served her the usual dose of laudanum.

   If privately Daniel Bloom held an opinion on the quantity of the drug he sold to Miss Marchant, he kept his own counsel. She was a joy to behold and a good customer and it would not do to upset her. He watched her curvaceous figure with an appreciative eye as she turned from the counter, clutching her purchase. Time and again over the years he had deemed Edward Stone a lucky dog to have such a filly in his bed. But of course now Edward Stone was lucky no more…and it was whispered that neither was Miss Marchant…

   Already there was a rumour in town that Miss Marchant had been so put out by what transpired at the will reading earlier that she’d run off in a fine old state. But then people were always looking for something to tattle over.

   Daniel looked out of the shop window. Towards the eastern end of the High Street he could see the dogcart with old Matthew Jackson perched on the seat. He’d seen the fellow sitting like that, puffing on his pipe, for quite a long time. Daniel watched Sarah increase her pace as though she regretted being late for her lift home. Daniel shook his head in disbelief. For a woman who got through that amount of sedative she had a surprising amount of vim.

   

   ‘I’m sorry to be late, Matthew,’ Sarah burst out as she came within earshot of Maude’s husband. He often brought her into town and always waited in the same spot for her to finish her business.

   ‘Don’t matter none,’ the old fellow answered having removed the clay pipe. Once she had settled on the seat beside him, he gave her a grizzled look. ‘All come right, has it?’ It was Matthew’s oblique way of asking whether she’d got a pleasing bequest from her protector’s will.

   Sarah summoned up a small smile and tried to look optimistic. ‘Not quite,’ she answered. ‘But I’ve not yet lost hope that it will…eventually.’

   Matthew grunted an unintelligible response, thrust the pipe back between his teeth, and set the horse in motion. After a few yards the pipe was removed again. ‘Straight home?’ he asked.

   ‘No…’ Sarah looked at the brown bottle clutched on her lap. ‘No, to Aunt Bea’s, please, Matthew.’

   He grunted again and bashed out the pipe’s contents on the side of the cart. Shaking his head dolefully, he gave his full attention to the road.

   Gavin watched the cart pulling into the distance as he strolled back to the Red Lion. A look of frustration tautened his features. It was not solely due to the fact that the day was closing with his inheritance still hanging in the balance. Constantly pricking his mind was the wish that Edward’s mistress might be as unappealing to him as had been his spouse.

   

   Even when Janet had been a vivacious brunette of twenty with many admirers, he had not found her desirable. His feelings for Miss Sarah Marchant were, unfortunately, quite different. In the lawyer’s office he had scorned Sarah for imagining that he might stoop to coerce a woman to sleep with him. At the time he had meant what he said: never in his life had he bedded an unwilling woman. But his attitude to her had undergone a subtle change, although he couldn’t pinpoint when or why it had come about.

   She was attractive, as befitted her line of work, but she also possessed a beguiling innocence.

   He’d believed he knew the artful ways of courtesans. It was no idle boast that for over a decade and a half he’d kept company with women of every class and character. Never had he come across a woman as enigmatic as Sarah Marchant. He reluctantly accepted that it would be easy to become obsessed with his brother’s mistress and the knowledge disturbed him. That way lay insanity.

   They both knew where this situation must ultimately lead. If she had given him just a small sign that she might welcome his protection, he would have offered it. But she had sought to deflect his advances by offering to be his housekeeper.

   He had considered—and rejected—employing her before she voiced the suggestion. Once he had curbed his initial anger on discovering that his brother was dictating to him from the grave, he’d accepted his responsibility to protect her. It was no hardship. He’d known from the moment he set eyes on her that he found her desirable.

   The reason for her ruination he’d yet to discover, but it was likely to be the usual mundane tale: her well-to-do family had cast her out after a faithless lover in her youth had abandoned her to her fate. Gavin could not recall any such gossip over a Miss Marchant, but then, if she had always lived in the countryside, the scandal would not have reached London.

   Whatever had occurred, it had not cowed her. He was not dealing with a timid mouse. From their conversations he knew she was intelligent and forthright. She could be wilful and passionate, too. Perhaps he was dealing with an artful schemer. Her subtle rejection might be a teasing ploy to aggravate his desire and increase her settlement. Gavin smiled ruefully. It wouldn’t be the first time a particularly comely courtesan had managed to do that. But with his inheritance secure he could afford to be generous to his paramours without plunging himself into debt. The chit simply needed to say yes and he would undertake to look after her in style.

   His intention was to take her to London with him and settle her close to his Mayfair mansion. What was there for her to object to in that? She might have been fond of Edward, but he was gone and his parting gift was that she be passed on like a family concubine to pleasure his heir. It was an act likely to crush tender memories in even the most loyal mistress.

   

   Gavin had been aware he was under observation as he stood in contemplation of the cart disappearing into the distance. Now he turned his attention to his admirer. The saucy wench had been trying to catch his eye since he arrived at the Red Lion. He decided she was attractive enough to dampen the fire Miss Marchant had put in his loins. As he passed he gave Molly a wink that sent her, rosy-cheeked, scuttling into the kitchen to boast of her success to the other girls.

   ‘Oh, I can’t go on like this,’ was Aunt Bea’s flustered welcome as she opened the door to her niece and flapped her gloved hands at her.

   ‘How has Tim been today?’ Sarah asked quietly, for she was well aware of the cause of her aunt’s agitation. She removed her bonnet and smoothed her blonde hair.

   ‘In a temper,’ her aunt responded pithily. ‘And I’m in a mind to go out and let him stew in his own juice. Your brother should mind his manners, no matter his pitiful condition.’

   ‘He cannot help his moods,’ Sarah said softly. She indicated the laudanum in her hand. ‘A draught of this is sure to calm him and ease his mood.’

   ‘And thank Heavens for it.’ With that announcement Aunt Beatrice took the drug and led the way into the front room of her neat cottage. She turned about and gave Sarah a penetrating look. ‘Come, tell me everything. What happened this morning? Did you get the Lodge to live in and a pension as you hoped?’

   

   Sarah shook her head.

   ‘You must quit the Lodge? Edward left you a pension at least?’ Beatrice said, a mixture of shock and outrage in her tone.

   ‘No,’ Sarah said and pulled a little face.

   ‘Well…I never did! And him such a gentlemen. Or so he seemed.’ Beatrice took an indignant march here and there in her small sitting room. ‘Well, how are we all to live? The cupboards are nearly empty. Why did the tightfist want you to attend his will reading if he’d no intention of leaving you a bequest of some sort?’

   ‘He did make me a bequest…of some sort,’ Sarah admitted and close behind that declaration followed a small hysterical giggle.

   Aunt Beatrice gave her an old-fashioned look. She crossed her thin arms over her narrow chest. ‘Well, I’m pleased you can joke about it all, miss. When we’re all in the workhouse you may not find it so amusing.’ She huffed a sorry sigh and said more gently, ‘Come, tell me what it was he left you.’

   ‘His brother,’ Sarah said.

   Chapter Four

   ‘Mr Pratt! It is a surprise to see you, sir.’

   Joseph Pratt had advanced ahead of her housekeeper into the neatly furnished room Sarah used as a small parlour. Having given the fellow a glower for arriving at Elm Lodge uninvited, Maude Jackson withdrew and shut the door. For a moment she lingered with her good ear near the panels before removing herself to the kitchen.

   Moments ago Sarah had been sorting through her jewellery box. Apart from a few family heirlooms left to her by her mama, she had no wish to keep the rest. All were pieces Edward had bought for her and she would sooner be rid of painful memories of him. She would also sooner have the cash they might raise. Now the casket was put aside and, with a perplexed expression, she got to her feet. It could only be a matter concerning Edward’s will that brought Joseph Pratt to her door. She looked enquiringly at him, but no immediate explanation was forthcoming.

   Joseph fiddled with his hat brim, his cheeks taking on a bashful glow. A smile slanted sideways at her before he burst out, ‘I beg you will not deem my call an unpleasant surprise, Miss Marchant.’

   Sarah’s bemusement increased. ‘I can only answer that when I know what prompted it, sir,’ she returned politely. ‘I imagine it concerns the business in your office yesterday.’

   ‘Precisely…’ The confirmation was issued with a sibilant throb.

   ‘I hope there is no more bad news…’ Sarah ventured, unable to properly decipher his queer attitude.

   ‘No…no,’ he reassured with a flap of a hand. ‘Please do not alarm yourself.’ A look of studied sympathy shaped his flaccid jowls. Inwardly he was gratified to learn that she considered the prospect of becoming Gavin Stone’s mistress as bad news. ‘I know the terms of the will must have come as a terrible shock and disappointment to you.’

   His eyes were drawn to the open jewellery box. The sight of it boosted his confidence. Ladies sorted through their gems for only two reasons: to bestow them or to sell them. He came to the swift conclusion that Miss Marchant was taking stock of her assets so she might cash in. And that heightened his suspicion that she had not yet come to an arrangement with the deceased’s brother.

   

   Joseph had seen Gavin Stone earlier that day. Although they did no more than exchange a nod in greeting, the scowl the fellow had on his face was enough for Joseph to surmise that Gavin was no closer to securing his inheritance. But Edward’s heir had six months in which to win over Miss Marchant before he lost his fortune. In the meantime the lady could either choose to swallow her pride and go to him or foster a little dalliance elsewhere to pay her bills. Joseph had deduced that she might prefer the latter simply to avoid the churlish rogue for as long as possible. In fact, he was increasingly hopeful Miss Marchant might be persuaded to accept discreet assistance from a personable lawyer…and naturally display ample gratitude for it.

   Emboldened by what seemed to him perfect logic, Mr Pratt continued, ‘It’s my ardent wish that I might ease the…um…regrettable situation in which you find yourself, Miss Marchant. To that end I am begging you will favourably consider what I am about to put to you.’

   Sarah looked up at him, a spark of hope livening her weary eyes. Had he come to tell her that he had discovered a legal solution to their woes? He was looking at her intently as though something of significance was on his mind. His language was rather flamboyant but then he might be anxious that before business was concluded she would fly off in a huff as she had yesterday.

   ‘I…please do sit down, sir. Naturally I am interested in any suggestions that might improve my lot. I shall get Maude to fetch some tea.’ Sarah’s tone held muted excitement and she speedily set about summoning Maude to bring refreshments.

   Joseph sat down, satisfaction settling on his features. Miss Marchant seemed to have grasped his meaning and was not too coy to show pleasure at it. He lounged back into the sofa and drove specks from his cuff with finger flicks. Her enthusiasm was to be expected. He was, after all, a pillar of Willowdene society. Miss Marchant was no doubt thanking her lucky stars that a charming and prosperous saviour had prevented her enduring the attentions of less worthy individuals.

   Sarah returned to sit opposite her guest who had taken the space on the sofa she had vacated. She was eager to learn in what way he might ease her situation. But he remained stubbornly silent and was impertinently eyeing her jewellery.

   ‘I expect you have been looking through your keepsakes.’ Joseph continued peering judiciously into the casket. He had decided to kindly condescend to have tea and a little chat for her modesty’s sake. He sighed, touched a finger to a silver bangle. ‘Memories of the departed are a comfort at such times.’

   ‘I have had my memories tarnished,’ Sarah answered, truthfully.

   ‘Quite.’ Joseph sagely nodded. ‘The prospect of being left in the care of a…shall we say…licentious fellow is not something a young lady of refinement ought ever to face.’

   Clasping her hands in her lap Sarah leaned forward in her chair. ‘I think you are about to suggest an alternative,’ she prompted. ‘Please let me know what it is, sir. I am impatient to hear anything of benefit.’

   Joseph goggled at her. He had been hoping for a positive response to his proposition but a little reticence—even if faked—would also have been welcome. He did not want his prize devalued by the knowledge that Miss Marchant bestowed her favours too easily. He looked at her lovely face, aglow with expectation, rosy lips parted in readiness to smile. He swallowed and eased his position, deciding her eagerness was quite charming for it was having the required effect. ‘You have been treated badly, my dear,’ he said hoarsely, ‘but I can offer you not inconsiderable consolation. I only await your permission to describe the advantages to you.’ He made to pluck one of Sarah’s slender hands from her lap.

   Sarah quickly withdrew her fingers, but sent him a tight smile. She needed no physical demonstration of his benevolence. His words would do very well. When he made another clumsy lunge for her midriff, she sprang to her feet and put distance between them. ‘What advantages, sir?’ she prompted rather impatiently.

   Joseph was also on his feet, but he gave up his pursuit of Sarah. His attention had been drawn to a woman of more advanced years. Maude had reappeared, not bearing the tea tray, but news of another caller.

   

   ‘Mr Gavin Stone is here, miss.’

   That gentleman was strolling into the room before either of its occupants had fully digested news of his arrival.

   ‘Mr Stone…’ Sarah’s flustered greeting drew a penetrating look from Gavin’s deep blue eyes. His attention then flicked to her companion.

   Joseph executed a very stiff bow and, with his sallow complexion mottling, stalked to the sofa to collect his hat whilst muttering about the need to take his leave.

   ‘Don’t go on my account,’ Gavin said placidly. His tone seemed at odds with the long hard stare concentrated on the lawyer. It had the effect of hurrying Joseph towards the door.

   The sight of Gavin Stone, attired in riding clothes with his black boots gleaming through a layer of dust, had unsettled Sarah for a moment. He had the look of a prosperous Romany come a-calling with his rugged tanned features and careless dark locks. Now, as the lawyer reached the door, Sarah quickly jerked herself to her senses. A suspicion niggled at her that this might be no chance meeting between the three of them, but something the gentlemen had deliberately concocted to browbeat her. Her conspiracy theory was soon quashed: Joseph Pratt looked distinctly put out by Gavin’s arrival. She was, too, for had the lawyer not been about to expound on a way of improving her lot?

   ‘You have not yet fully explained the reason for your visit, sir,’ Sarah reminded him, skipping to the door to intercept his departure. ‘We were talking of—’

   ‘It is of no consequence now, Miss Marchant,’ Joseph interrupted brusquely. His floridity increased until he was red to the roots of his receding hair. With a jerky bow he was soon gone from the room.

   ‘How odd,’ Sarah murmured to herself, unaware that her genuine puzzlement had caused Maude’s gimlet eyes to slide to meet those of her remaining guest.

   Maude had not liked the lawyer, but she’d welcomed this fellow turning up unexpectedly. She knew as soon as he gave his name that he had every right to be here. Gavin Stone was, of course, the wild brother who’d inherited the big estate and that included Elm Lodge. That aside, she’d also given him a once over and decided he was handsome enough to be as bad as he liked. Sometimes scoundrels changed when they found what they were looking for. And Maude reckoned, from the way that Gavin Stone was staring at Sarah, he’d met his match. Satisfaction writhed across her pursed lips. ‘Shall I bring in the tea, miss?’ Maude asked.

   Sarah glanced at Gavin. They had parted yesterday on frosty terms. She did not want to offer him her hospitality, yet to deny him a cup of tea seemed mean. A glint of humour in his eyes betrayed that he was aware of her quandary.

   ‘Yes…thank you, Maude.’ The firm order for refreshment sent Maude immediately from the room.

   

   To break the tense quiet Sarah blurted, ‘Mr Pratt is quite an odd character, I think.’

   ‘Do you? Why?’ Gavin asked mildly.

   ‘I’m still not sure what was his purpose in coming here today. I thought at one time he was about to tell me he had found a legal loophole through which we might both wriggle to freedom. But if that were so, he would have stayed to tell us. He went off in a peculiar mood, I thought.’

   Gavin strolled closer to inspect the look of bewilderment on her face. He could detect no coyness, no sham modesty. She seemed genuinely unaware that the lawyer had designs on her virtue. Once again he was struck by her apparent innocence…her undeniable beauty. He could understand why Joseph Pratt had felt compelled to try his luck. Gavin imagined the lawyer would not be the only gentleman sniffing around Miss Marchant, spouting sympathy and suggestions.

   ‘I think Mr Pratt was about to tell you he expected your personal attention in exchange for any assistance he offered.’

   Sarah frowned and then her brow smoothed, her eyes widened in shock. Quickly she brought her soft lips together and turned away from him to shield her confusion. He would think that! The lecherous beast!

   ‘I do not think you should judge every gentleman by your own lax morals, sir,’ she retorted crisply. She twirled around to face him with her chin at a haughty angle. ‘I found nothing…offensive…in Mr Pratt’s behaviour.’ The moment it was out, Sarah knew that declaration was not quite true. The lawyer had indeed tried to grab inappropriately at her person. The more she pondered on the encounter, the more she realised there had been ambiguity in his conversation too. Had she been a gullible fool not to realise he had an ulterior motive? Fast on the heels of that crushing thought came a yet worse one. Would others follow? Now Edward had gone, would she be seen as fair game?

   Sarah knew she was pretty. From quite a young age her mother had told her she had been blessed with exceptional looks. Her dear mama had had great hopes that her beauty would lure a wealthy suitor and solve all their financial woes. But it wasn’t to be.

   More recently Edward Stone had praised her looks. In the sly eyes of some of the men hereabouts she’d seen reflected Edward’s admiration. Oh, in front of their womenfolk they might purport to dislike her, but she’d sensed that privately they’d coveted Edward’s young paramour.

   And so did his brother.

   Whatever Gavin thought of her as a person—and he had made his opinion of her clear yesterday when roundly attacking her character—it would not dampen his lust. The fact that she had a heart and a soul and a yearning for affection and respect would bother him not one jot. He was here today for the same reason as had been Joseph Pratt…to have her naked beneath him.

   She sensed colour creep to stain her milky neck and a hand moved involuntarily to shield it. Would he still lust after her if he knew that her body was not so pretty as her face?

   ‘Please sit down, if you would like to.’ The words were ejected in little above a whisper.

   Gavin wordlessly declined the polite invitation by moving instead to take up a position by the chimneypiece. Sarah sat down, then wished she had not, for she could sense his pitiless gaze warming the top of her head.

   ‘Joseph Pratt is unlikely to be the only gentleman interested in propositioning you.’

   Sarah’s small teeth sunk into her bottom lip. So he could read her thoughts too. She simply nodded and blinked.

   ‘Is that what you want? A parade of gentlemen callers from which you might choose a wealthy candidate to keep you?’

   Sarah flew to her feet, her fists gripped tight by her side. ‘You know I do not! If that were all I wanted, I would have accepted my fate and settled on you. You will be richer than all of them put together once you have the Stone inheritance.’

   ‘But I have not yet offered my services,’ Gavin reminded quietly.

   ‘You do not need to, sir,’ Sarah replied damningly. ‘You have said you will not forgo your inheritance and neither will you spare me.’

   ‘Your complaints would be better directed at Edward. He engineered this bizarre scheme.’

   

   Sarah could not argue with that. She expelled a sigh, gesturing hopelessly. ‘At least you seem to have absolved me of any guilt in trying to trap you into it. For that I am grateful.’

   ‘My conceit might suffer to admit it, but I know you would rather choose your future, as would I.’ Gavin moved closer to watch her reaction to what he said next. ‘And you? Do you still believe that I am wicked enough to have asked my brother to bequeath me his beautiful mistress?’

   ‘As you say,’ she said carefully, keen to foster the fragile harmony, ‘neither of us wants to be shackled to a stranger.’ Had she not been made of sterner stuff, she might have melted beneath the sultry sapphire gaze that had accompanied his compliment on her looks. But her memory was not so short. She had but recently been the butt of his scorn and insults.

   ‘Perhaps it was Edward’s intention that we no longer be strangers.’

   ‘I would sooner he had introduced you in the normal way whilst he was alive,’ Sarah commented pithily.

   ‘Edward was always careful to keep out of sight anything of his I might have wanted.’

   More subtle praise. She could not deny he was a skilful flirt. Again heat bled in to her cheeks. His rough-velvet voice allied with those steady predatory gazes combined to create quite a heady attack on the senses. Their conversation seemed no longer focused on material considerations, but had become quite intimate.

   

   She felt suffocated, unable to rise to the challenge of playing his sophisticated game. She stepped away. ‘Your reminiscence about your brother is not helping solve our predicament, sir,’ she said briskly.

   ‘But I think it is,’ Gavin quietly begged to differ. ‘We need to ascertain what reasons he might have had for wanting to entwine our lives upon his demise.’ Gavin strolled to the window and looked out into woodland. ‘He must have realised that this would come as a shock to us both. He had little fondness for me, I know, and if it is some sort of bad joke, I allow him his laugh. But you?’ He turned and slanted Sarah a look. ‘Were you at odds over something that might have prompted him to secretly seek revenge?’

   ‘No,’ Sarah hotly denied. ‘Nothing like that passed between us. I believed we were friends till the end.’

   ‘Friends?’ Gavin echoed drily.

   ‘Yes, friends,’ Sarah repeated with some emphasis. ‘It is possible for a man and a woman to share a friendship as well as a bed.’

   Gavin bowed his head in mock humility. ‘Thank you for that insight, Miss Marchant,’ he drawled. ‘Hard-hearted rakes do not know such things.’

   ‘Neither do they know when to accept a very good deal.’ She came closer to him to make her point. ‘You will be better off having Elm Lodge occupied than empty. You are foolish not to immediately accept my suggestion to housekeep for you. A fortune is almost yours for a tenancy and a paltry annual sum.’

   

   Gavin’s smile deepened to a lazy chuckle. ‘I’m almost persuaded,’ he murmured infuriatingly.

   Sarah flung herself around in a temper and stalked off two paces. ‘I am done with trying to be reasonable.’ She retraced those angry steps to glare up at him with sparking topaz eyes. ‘I do not give a fig what becomes of you or your brother’s inheritance. You may return to London empty-handed and end in the Fleet.’ She sucked in a breath to add, ‘Oh, I know you are a spendthrift, too. I know all about you.’

   ‘And are you going to return the compliment and tell me all about you?’

   Sarah blanched, shrinking back a pace. She had not expected that unwanted question. She parted her soft lips to demand he take his leave, but was silenced by the sight of Maude entering with the tea tray. If the servant noticed her mistress’s flushed cheeks and fiery eyes, or the tension vibrating her neat figure, she gave no sign. ‘Shall I pour, miss?’ she asked placidly.

   ‘No…thank you,’ Sarah added with a hint of apology for her brusqueness.

   The brief interlude whilst Maude settled the tray on the table allowed her wits to curb her temper. She must secure essentials for her and her family. Once Maude had departed she enquired coolly, ‘What has brought you here today, sir?’ A rustle of dimity skirts was the only sound as she paced to and fro, waiting for his response. Suddenly she halted and frowned at his silence. ‘If the answer is nothing in particular, then I must ask you to leave.’

   

   ‘I think you know why I’m here,’ Gavin returned mildly. ‘I want my inheritance and I am prepared to comply with the spirit of Edward’s will to get it. In short, Miss Marchant, I have no objection to protecting you in the way my brother intended I should.’

   ‘You might have no objection, sir, but I do,’ Sarah hissed once she had drawn sufficient breath to do so.

   Chapter Five

   ‘Perhaps if I tell you I am willing to improve on Edward’s terms, that might help you overcome your objections.’

   ‘You do not know what he gave me!’ Sarah cried in muted anger. ‘Besides, it is of no consequence for I want no more. What I had was adequate…I was satisfied.’

   ‘Were you?’

   The insinuation was subtly sensual and made Sarah’s heart pound. But she managed to boldly hold his narrowed gaze as she murmured, ‘I had no complaints.’

   ‘I’ll not disappoint you, either.’

   His dulcet reassurance dried Sarah’s throat.

   In the interminable moment that followed she noticed how vivid blue were his eyes, and how earth-dark his hair. With her vision heightened by her awareness of his virility, she saw that the dissipation in his face was not so pronounced. In fact, he appeared more tired than debauched.

   ‘There was obviously more to Edward than I knew.’

   Her tongue tip wet her lips. ‘Perhaps you didn’t know your brother, sir, but he knew you very well, indeed.’

   The bitterness in her voice caused Gavin to ironically smile. ‘And how perceptive are you, Miss Marchant? Did you know Edward?’

   Sarah’s teeth closed on her ready retort. Gavin had a knack of touching on a very raw nerve. How well had she known Edward? It was a question that constantly tormented her.

   Simply to occupy her fidgety hands, she busied herself with clattering cups on to saucers, forgetful of how inappropriate it was to offer one’s tormentor hospitality. In a daze she set about pouring the tea.

   Was her trepidation born of anger? Fear? Modesty? Was it a calculated sham? How genuine an ingénue was she? Gavin watched her ruthlessly. His eyes roved the curvaceous lines of her buttoned-up back whilst he pondered the mystery of Sarah’s relationship with Edward.

   His brother had obviously not seduced her with fake promises of marriage. Janet Stone’s name had been mentioned several times during the will reading and Sarah had not displayed any surprise at the existence of her late lover’s wife. So what had propelled such an exquisite beauty into Edward’s bed? He’d had wealth, but from what Gavin saw around him, had not lavished it on his delectable young mistress. Sarah’s home and her clothes looked serviceable rather than stylish, and if all her jewellery was contained within the box on the sofa she owned just a few modest pieces of gold and silver. Gavin was not surprised by his brother’s parsimony. Edward had advocated constraint and his character, like his physical attributes, were at best described as pleasant. All that remained was the possibility that Sarah had been in love with his brother. That conclusion should have brought solace…but it didn’t.

   In a swirl of skirts Sarah turned about and held out his tea, a quantity of which now floated in the saucer. Gavin gripped her wrist to steady the clattering crockery before taking the offering. Having deposited it on a table, he slowly walked back to her. He stood quite still for a moment, gauging her reaction to his closeness. When she made no move to skitter away and her cool allure was too great a challenge to ignore, he raised a single finger, elevating her chin so she must look at him.

   ‘I’m not a monster, Sarah,’ he said softly. ‘Whatever Edward has told you about my wickedness is sure to be exaggerated.’

   Sarah gazed, as though entranced, into eyes grown black with desire. His long fingers had fanned to cradle her jaw in a touch that was gentle yet firm. His extreme proximity brought a scent of sandalwood to tempt her closer to its source. Involuntarily her head swayed forward. A shoulder to lean on would be so very nice.

   Why should she not agree? Would her acceptance of a proposition from notorious Gavin Stone be so very wrong? She had no way of truly knowing the level of this man’s licentiousness. Perhaps a natural jealousy of his handsome sibling might have led Edward to exaggerate Gavin’s faults. There was nobody she might ask about his alleged debts and debauchery. Joseph Pratt might call him a licentious fellow, but how valid was the word of a hypocrite? The more she thought sensibly on it, the more she realised it was highly likely the lawyer had called on her hoping to take advantage of her predicament, not to ease it.

   Sarah had had very little experience with men. She knew nothing about the rakish bachelors who frequented Mayfair. She had lived in London until she was fifteen but, in the latter years, far away from the best locations. She had been gently bred, but after a calamity destroyed her family, a début was out of the question. She had not been launched into society to attend the balls and soirées where she might meet such sophisticates.

   She could recall occasions when she was about twelve and her mama would sit with her friends, sipping tea and talking in whispers. Sarah had been old enough to understand that their hushed gossip concerned illicit liaisons—often those in which her own father was entangled—but was too young to grasp the whole sordid tale.

   Not five years later she had become a gentleman’s mistress. But Edward had not seduced her in the true sense. She had been glad to take the protection he offered, for how much worse might her life have been had she not? She had not loved him and he had known that. He had nevertheless told her that he was fond of her. He had seemed gentle and kind…and accepting of the scars she bore from her traumatic childhood.

   Apprehension crept along her spine. How gentle… how kind would his brother be? The brother who had mocked and insulted her and called her a harlot? How important to him was her physical beauty? Would he settle for a pretty face? She was not perfect…not at all…

   ‘I know you don’t trust me, Sarah,’ Gavin said softly.

   Something akin to alarm jolted through Sarah for again it was as though she had spoken aloud what occupied her mind.

   ‘Did you trust Edward?’

   ‘Of course,’ she breathed.

   ‘Then why do you doubt the provision he has made for you? He wanted me to take over the role he played in your life. He did not intend you become my housekeeper. He intended you become my mistress.’

   ‘And are you happy that your brother has organised your future?’ she scoffed.

   ‘Of course I’m not happy about it,’ Gavin replied bluntly. ‘But I am willing to accept it.’

   ‘Because you want to claim your inheritance.’ The statement was tinged with acrimony.

   

   ‘Yes, I want my inheritance.’

   Eyes that had become sleepy roved her figure.

   ‘And I want you.’

   Her honey-coloured eyes flowed over the hard planes of his face, hoping to detect something repulsive that might free her from his spell. He had said he wanted her in a voice that was enticingly gruff with need. How much did he want her? Enough to overlook her flaws?

   ‘When first we learned of this madness in the lawyer’s office, you boasted you did not coerce unwilling women to sleep with you.’

   ‘I know,’ he admitted and a corner of his mouth tugged upwards. ‘So you must prove to me how very willing a partner you will be, Sarah, or I will be obliged to reject you simply to protect my integrity.’

   Sarah gave him an exceedingly quizzical look.

   ‘Well…that apart, there’s also my vanity to consider.’

   A spontaneous little laugh bubbled in her throat. It was stifled into the sound of a sob. It was a long while since she had shared a joke and somehow he could make her laugh with his self-deprecating humour. ‘You are a most conceited and arrogant man,’ she said with a half-hearted glower.

   ‘I know…’ His head drooped until barely a finger space separated their skin. ‘But you could soon cure me of it,’ he murmured.

   ‘Please don’t be flippant—’ Sarah managed a mild reproof before further words were stifled by a touch from his lips.

   The light contact between them increased pressure as his mouth slid to mould to hers. She tasted warm and delicate and his male instinct was to immediately part her lips and plunge inside. But he felt the quiver of her uncertainty and knew it was no teasing response to inflame him. His wooing tongue tip began stroking the silky smoothness of her under lip, petitioning for entry.

   Sarah felt blood surge through her veins. Edward had not kissed her in this way. In fact, Edward had not kissed her much at all. A peck on the cheek as a greeting, a perfunctory fusing together of mouths before the act of union; that was Sarah’s experience of being kissed by a man.

   This was so very different. It was pure pleasure that made her limbs feel boneless. His hands were sliding over the undulating contours of her back to her hips, easing them closer to his. They remained there, lightly massaging her flesh, but he didn’t otherwise touch her intimately, although she’d expected he might.

   Edward’s fingers would by now have breached her bodice; he might have fondled and tasted her breasts, for, tender as he’d been with her, he’d always taken his pleasure quickly.

   Gavin seemed to enjoy kissing for kissing’s sake and Sarah realised with a sense of wonder that she did too. Her soft mouth clung to his, tracking its skilful movement until her lips were widely parted. Readily she accepted a caress from his tongue, tentatively she responded with a flick of her own.

   Far from wanting this game to stop, Sarah desired more of the sultry heat that was coiling in her belly, urging her to press her pelvis harder to his. When his mouth became more demanding, she felt her whole being yield in response. Immediately he repositioned, taking advantage of her loosening limbs. A muscled thigh insinuated between hers, chafing lightly against the core of her femininity. Sarah gasped, and instinctively her back arched.

   A dazed corner of her mind recalled that this was simply an experiment. He was testing her willingness to be his bed partner. A feeble moan in the back of her throat was her pride’s protest, but she felt too languid to push him away.

   Slowly he slid his mouth from hers, returning briefly in tender farewell as she tried to recapture the bliss. In consolation his lips touched the sensitive place at her throat, warming the pulse there before he put her from him.

   Gavin had not been prepared for the force of the desire that had swamped him. His loins throbbed hard and thick with blood. It had been just a kiss…a simple, sweet kiss to persuade her to accept his protection. Now he felt like a callow youth unable to control his passion until a more suitable time and place.

   One of Sarah’s hands gripped the nearest chair to steady her balance. She felt oddly cheated. He had put an end to her delight too soon, and knowing how wanton he must think her made her voice querulous. ‘Will I do?’

   Gavin shot her a look from narrowed black eyes. He thought they had got past peevishness. ‘I think you know you’ll do very well.’

   Sarah blinked, moistened her bruised mouth with a nervous flick from her tongue. What was she to do? Tell him now? Better by far to do so and avoid the humiliation of being rejected when stark naked. But the necessary words seemed to stick in her throat.

   ‘Have I your permission to tell Joseph Pratt that we are in agreement on this?’ Gavin asked softly.

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