The man glanced about the room, as if suddenly uncertain. Rose waited for him to release her hand. His long fingers were folded around her palm, his thumb resting on the back of her ring finger. His grip was light yet secure; a gentleman well accustomed to introductions to the fairer sex. Yet she could feel the calluses on his palm and on the tips of his fingers.
Soft, olive green eyes met hers and held her captive for a seemingly endless moment. She was vaguely aware her breathing had quickened. Good Lord, he had long lashes. Not only long but thick, a full shade darker than his neatly cropped chestnut brown hair, and so unexpected for such a rugged face. There wasn't a hint of nobility in his features, only strength and a confidence that matched his impressive frame. His gaze dropped, lingering on her mouth before venturing lower. Heat blossomed across her chest, the tips of her breasts tightening into hard buds under the intensity of his regard.
"Come. Have a seat." Was that her voice? It sounded hoarse even to her own ears.
When he didn't immediately respond, she gave his hand a brief, light squeeze. His head snapped up and his arm dropped to his side as he relinquished his hold.
"My apologies." The deep, low murmur was more a rumble from his broad chest than actual words.
"No apologies are necessary, I assure you." She smiled to emphasize her point. "Come, you needn't stand by the door all evening."
Turning, she crossed the room, letting her hips sway the slightest bit with each step. She hadn't missed the single finger Rubicon had held up behind the man's back as she had slipped out the door. James was a new client, at least to Rubicon's. This was his first visit to the house, and it was on Rose's shoulders to make certain he would leave tonight with a strong desire to return. A man wealthy enough to afford her was a valuable commodity, one Rubicon would not want to lose.
Though judging by his hesitation, he likely was not a regular patron of any similar establishment in London. Once he recovered his bearings, he'd either pounce on her, eager to see the deed done, or continue to hold back, uncertain how to proceed. If he held back, she would need to prod him along, hold his hand, so to speak. Reassure him she welcomed his advances. Give him the cues he needed to take the evening to its eventual conclusion.
A conclusion that strangely enough did not inspire the usual stirrings of dread.
"Brandy, whisky, or port?" she asked.
She indicated the crystal decanters. "To drink. Would you care for a glass of brandy, whisky, or port?"
"No, thank you."
The man certainly could use one. Spine straight and shoulders stiff, he did not look at all at ease. He at least had moved from his spot by the door, now standing before the settee, but had yet to sit.
"If you'd care for something else, I can ring for a maid."
He shook his head.
She selected a tumbler and poured a healthy splash of whisky. Port was too potent for her tastes, and brandy . . . he didn't look like the brandy sort. If he refused the offer on her account, then she would show him he needn't bother. Turning from the cabinet, she brought the glass to her lips and took a delicate sip, the well-aged whisky flowing down her throat.
The moment after she settled on the settee, he sat as well. His timing took her aback. He hadn't remained standing out of hesitation, but out of respect for her. Well, considering the purpose of the evening, respect was too strong a word. More a mere polite gesture. One likely ingrained in him since his youth.
Not just a man who would call himself a gentleman, but a true gentleman. One whose manners did not fall aside the moment the situation no longer demanded them. Yet she doubted he was an aristocrat. There wasn't a hint of arrogance, of superiority about him.
She set the whisky on the spindly-legged side table and turned her shoulders to him. The settee was sized to fit the limited dimensions of the room, and even with his elbow resting on the cream silk arm, her skirt touched his thigh. But it was more than the conveniently sized furniture. James would have dwarfed one of the comfortable leather couches in the receiving room. And it wasn't only his height. She knew without touching that his tailor had not needed to employ a bit of padding to accentuate his frame. There was nothing but solid muscle beneath the bottle green coat and tan trousers. From his impossibly broad shoulders to his strong, capable hands, this was a man who understood the value of an honest day's work and had the body to prove it.
With a small start, she realized she was staring, and quite boldly. Clasping her hands on her lap, she swallowed to moisten her dry mouth and recalled herself to the task at hand. No matter how appealing the view, he would expect her to do far more than stare at him.
"Do you reside in London, James, or are you a guest to the city?" she asked, in an effort to engage him in conversation.
"No, not a guest."
A response that consisted of more than three words. Not much more, but a move in the right direction. "And how do you fill your days?"
He hesitated, his brows drawing together the slightest bit. "I work."
Most men did some sort of work, even if it just involved a short discussion with a secretary who saw to their business affairs. She opened her mouth, about to inquire as to the type of work he did, when he spoke.
"How do you spend your days? When you're not"-he tipped his head to indicate the room-"here, that is."
"Ah, I . . ." Track down Dash, to make certain he's taking care of himself. Make arrangements with tradesmen to see to the repairs at Paxton Manor. Wish the sun would never set. "I take walks in the park." The lush expanse of green grass. The gentle murmur of the Serpentine. Quiet, peaceful, a treasured reminder of home.
He passed a hand over his strong jaw. His attention skipped about the room before settling on her. "I can't recall the last time I went to the park during daylight hours. I sometimes take a detour through Hyde Park on my way home, but that's well into the evening. What hour do you prefer for your walks?"
"Late morning. Before the sun is high in the sky." Far before the fashionable hour, and after the gentlemen let their horses stretch their legs along Rotten Row. She shared Hyde Park with the nurses pushing prams and governesses tending their errant charges, not with the elegant ladies of the ton or with gentlemen who were apt to recognize her.
His gaze strayed again to the hidden door. A furrow marred his brow. "Can we be watched?" he asked, voice pitched low.
"Did you grant Madame Rubicon that liberty?"
"Then no. Guests are not allowed in the servants' areas unless accompanied by Rubicon, and that passageway only leads from this room to her office." She didn't mention how Rubicon herself was apt to check on the room to ensure James was behaving himself, especially considering he was an unknown entity to the brothel. "Though if the thought appeals, you can let her know that you are open to such play. There are guests who gain pleasure from watching another, just as there are guests who gain pleasure from being watched."
She kept the casual, inquiring expression in place, and waited for his response.
"And does the thought appeal to you?"
Did he wish for her to engage in such play with him? On only a small handful of occasions had a gentleman made that request. Tame, really, in comparison to activities that went on elsewhere in the house. Still, the experience had not been comfortable. She had not been able to forget about the eyes upon her, watching her every move. Odd, considering her nights here were always a performance.
But it wouldn't do to stifle James's desires if that was what he truly wanted. She was here to please him, and she must never forget that.
Forcing a sly, teasing smile, she lifted one arm and reached across the short distance separating them to trail her fingertips down his forearm, over the soft wool of his coat sleeve. "It appeals to me if it appeals to you."
The moment she reached the warm skin on the back of his hand, he twisted his wrist, easily capturing her fingers.
"I didn't ask about me. I asked about you."
Was he truly interested in her preferences? Some pretended to care, but it was only a guise, a way to ease their conscience, to reassure themselves they were not taking something against her wishes. As if the exchange of money wasn't enough to placate any concerns on that front. But the conviction in James's steady gaze told her loud and clear he was not one of them.
If he wanted an honest answer then she could give it to him, at least in this. "No. It does not appeal," she said, her voice just above a whisper.
His grip loosened, and she slid her fingers free. She shifted, arranging her skirt about her legs, needing to do . . . something. She felt so oddly exposed, as if she sat bare before not only him, but an entire crowd. The word yes flowed so smoothly off her tongue that it had been difficult to get that no out. She wanted to roll her shoulders, try to throw off the discomposure.
Instead, she gathered herself, pushing that wall to the forefront, distancing herself from her emotions, employing that critical skill she had learned so very long ago. The one that allowed her to get through each and every evening at Rubicon's. In any case, it was time to give James another little nudge.
She reached for the tumbler and took another slow sip. Her gaze dropped from his face, down his chest, lingering on the placket of his trousers before sliding back up to his. Then she offered the glass to him.
"Are you trying to get me foxed?" he asked, a hint of an amused smile playing on his lips.
"Foxed? No. What use is a foxed man to a woman?"
"We can have our uses." His fingers brushed hers as he took the tumbler. Sensation shot up her arm, radiating across her chest. Her breaths stuttered. His coat stretched across the expanse of his back as he leaned down to set the glass on the plush rug by his feet.
When he straightened, she thought for certain he would move closer. Lean in to taste the sheen of whisky she knew lightly coated her lips. But he sat back and merely turned his attention to her.
He seemed more relaxed, those shoulders no longer held so rigidly straight. His long legs casually spread. A man at his ease. Still . . .
She was going to have to be bolder.
"Yes. I wholeheartedly agree. Men can definitely have their uses." With a calculated lean of her upper body, one designed to display her assets to their best advantage, she rested her hand on his leg. The powerful thigh trembled beneath her touch. Then his entire body went still. He was most assuredly not unaffected by her. She tipped her head in the direction behind him. "My bedchamber is just beyond that door."
He didn't look over his broad shoulder, but instead kept his gaze locked with hers. "Is it?"
She arched a brow, her lips quirking. "Yes. Would you care to have a look?"
His gaze swept over her face; studying, considering. Just when she thought he would not answer, he gave a small shake of his head. "Unnecessary. This is acceptable."
He did not want to move to her bedchamber? It was an almost completely foreign notion. She had heard tales from others in the house of men who only wanted a willing ear, a pretty woman to pay attention to them. Those who wanted companionship and nothing more. But she had never encountered such a specimen.
Perhaps he only wanted . . .
She let her hand slowly drift up his leg, her touch light, teasing yet deliberate in its intent. The heat from his body penetrated the soft wool of his trousers, warming the fabric as if he had been lazing beneath the hot summer sun for hours. The moment her fingertips coasted over the placket of his trousers, the heavy bulk hidden within jumped. A quick thump that sent a bolt of unexpected desire straight to her core.
Then those long fingers captured hers again.
He laced his fingers through hers, resting their joined hands on his thigh. The hoarse scratch as he cleared his throat seemed to fill the room. "What is your favorite spot in Hyde Park?"
She blinked, her wits scrambled from the abrupt return to their previous topic of conversation. "The Serpentine," she heard herself answer, as if from a great distance.
"I shall have to remember to stop there on my next detour."
The desire that had begun to seep into her veins withered and died under the weight of confusion. He wanted to remain in her sitting room, and nothing more? Did he not understand what he had purchased? Oh, that was surely a ridiculous notion. No man paid for the most expensive whore in the house without a firm understanding of the pleasures that awaited him. Rubicon would have seen to that. Yet he did not seem to want them. She cast her mind about, desperately searching for some sort of explanation for his perplexing behavior. His body reacted to her touch, yet he steadfastly refused to take the openings she gave him.
They should be in her bedchamber by now. She should be finding those places on his body, those spots unique unto each man that would ratchet his lust to the heavens. He should be panting for more and not looking at her with an unnerving hint of compassion on his handsome face.
Was it something she said, or had not said? Something she had done to cause him to reconsider? Or was his hesitation not borne of the situation? Perhaps it was simply her he did not want.
Perhaps he had decided he did not wish to follow in so many men's footsteps.
If that were the case, then she certainly could not fault him. Did any man truly want what could so easily be bought?
It made her acutely aware of how many men she had opened her arms to since she had first walked into this house. So many pairs of greedy hands had groped her body, used her, taken their fill of her, only to be followed by yet another. They all blended together, indistinguishable from the next, yet she felt the distinct weight of each individual that made up the whole.
Each one tarnishing her, tainting her, until she had at last been rendered sullied beyond even lust's negligible standards.
"You are beautiful, Rose."
She did not know what caught her off guard more. The sound of her name in his low, rumbling, masculine voice, or the way he had voiced the compliment. Genuine, but as if he believed she needed to hear it. As if she needed the reassurance.
How had he known?
"You are too kind," she demurred, falling back on the expected response. She made to lean back, to put distance between them once again, but his grip on her hand remained light and secure. Holding her to him.
"It's not a kindness, it's the truth. You are beautiful."
Countless men had spoken those words to her. They had waxed eloquently and some
not-so-eloquently on her fine features and the curves of her body. She had smiled and murmured her thanks, but their empty words had slid over her with no effect.
Never had a man made her feel beautiful.
She could only answer with a breathless "Thank you." The tingle building in her belly spread out to her finger and toes in a wave of light, airy sensation. She dipped her chin to her chest, trying but failing to hide the smile she could not keep from her lips.
"I quite like your gown as well."
A little giggle bubbled up from her chest. "Thank you."
"You're very welcome. The color is nice, too."
"Mauve. Is it a favorite of yours then?" she teased.
"Not in general. I usually prefer blue."
"I have a blue gown. Well, more navy than a true blue. If you'd like, I can change . . . and you can assist me."
His smile transformed his face, erasing the years. With his imposing build and rugged features, she had taken him for a man at least a decade her senior. But she now doubted he was more than a handful of years older than her two and twenty.
"No, that's not necessary," he said with a chuckle that warmed the room.
She read the desire, the need, clear as day, in his eyes. Yet the realization hit her that her body was not the primary commodity he sought. He wanted her time. Regardless of his compliments, she had the distinct impression she could be passably pretty, and he would be equally content with her.
The weight of expectation, of duty, of obligation, lifted from her shoulders. The last lingering bit of tension eased out of her and she shifted, moving closer to him. Drawn to him. With her shoulder pressed against his biceps and her arm draped lightly over his, their hands still entwined, she rested against him. His coat held the cool, crisp scent of the night air and a light, spicy hint of a man. Of James.
"Since you are not a guest, I take it you reside in London. Do you also work in the city?"
"Yes. My office is near the docks."
Not the most pleasant part of town. Surely he could afford to situate himself in a more prosperous area. "By choice?"
"By convenience. My interests are in shipping."
She could well imagine him on the deck of a ship, effortlessly working the rigging. His skin coated in a light sheen of sweat, his muscles bunching and flexing under the hot sun. Though merchants were apt to spend their days behind a desk, his work-roughened hands indicated he was not adverse to a bit of hard labor. "You must be experiencing quite the boom since the trade restrictions were lifted and Bonaparte's ships no longer troll the seas."
"I've seen the benefits, yes."
She paused, waiting for him to elaborate, but he remained silent. Modesty. Not a trait often seen in men. Most grabbed any opportunity to try to impress her with their successes, however large or small.
She tried to discover more about him, but all of her questions led to the same answer. He worked. He did not belong to a club, had a decided preference against the theatre, and judging by the frown at the mention of social functions, he did not care for those either. "Do you spend every waking moment at your office?"
"That is my intention, yes."
"I prefer it there over being at home."
What an odd response. "Do you at least enjoy your time at work?"
He shrugged; the wool sleeve of his coat a soft rub against her bare arm. "Do you enjoy your time here?"
Was that a thinly veiled "no" to her question, or was he merely indifferent? Viewing his work as a nonnegotiable facet of life. Regardless of how luxurious the surroundings, surely he could not believe she would ever go so far as to classify her nights spent on her back as enjoyable. That was the last word she associated with this house.
Well, perhaps that wasn't entirely correct. Her gaze traced his strong profile, from the straight line of his nose to his jaw darkened with a shadow of a day's beard. It wasn't that she had never had a handsome client. A rarity for certain, but not unheard of. It was more . . . him. James. She sensed a quiet kindness in his soul, along with a distinct echo of loneliness that matched her own.
"I enjoy being with you." The truth fell from her lips before she could stop it.
A little smile tugged on his mouth. "Thank you." He rubbed his thumb over the back of her hand. A gentle, almost absent motion that spoke of companionship and nothing more. "Have you tired of the subject of me?"
"Alas, I have. I find you much more interesting. Will you tell me about yourself? Do you have a family?"
"Doesn't everyone? None of us are simply placed on this earth."
He cast her a glance, one eyebrow lifted, at her glib retort. But she found no shade of censure in his expression. Rather, a touch of humor lurked in the depths of his eyes.
And he continued. One question after another. He never pressed too hard, but nor would he be diverted. She parried to the best of her abilities, fortifying each response with just enough truth to keep it from ringing with the hollow note of a lie. For the sum her clients paid Rubicon, they received the use of her body, her expertise in the art of pleasure, and her conversation skills, if so desired. But she never gave them herself. And no matter how enjoyable her time with James, she knew it would not and could not last beyond the dawn. A fact etched in stone.
So she pushed aside the temptation to open even a tiny bit of herself to him, and instead cherished the evening for what it was. The reprieve she had desperately needed when she had entered her sitting room but a handful of hours ago.
Even reprieves, however, must come to an end. She could not say who had allowed their conversation to lull. Perhaps it had been by mutual design. The silence was only broken by the occasional pop and crack of the logs shifting. The fire in the white marble hearth was in sore need of a prodding, yet she made not one move toward the iron poker. She had passed the point of merely resting against him some time ago, and now leaned into him, her cheek pressed against his shoulder, her legs folded beside her on the settee. The solid weight of his body a comfort she did not want to give up.
He glanced about the room and then over his shoulder. "Do you not have a clock?"
"Not in here, no." As clients rarely lingered in the sitting room, she had never bothered to acquire a clock for the room. And more importantly, with only one client an evening, time was of little importance. The only requirement a departure by dawn.
Shifting, he pulled a plain silver pocket watch from his waistcoat pocket and glanced at the face. "It's quite late," he said, tucking the watch back in his pocket. "I don't want to keep you from your rest, so I will be on my way."
She took the cue for what it was and reluctantly swung her feet to the floor. He stood and, with her hand still in his, helped her to stand. Her skirt was a wrinkled mess but it was the least of her concerns as she led him the short distance to the door.
He stopped and turned to face her. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome." Please, ask for me tomorrow night. She tamped down the words, kept the request hidden within. James would never return. She felt it in her bones. He was not a man who made a habit of spending his evenings with a woman like her.
His gaze dropped down to his shoes and then back up to meet hers. "You must think me quite odd."
He could not be farther from the truth. She thought him wonderful, and she would ever be grateful for whatever had prompted him to enter this house.
"Why must I think you odd?"
"Because I spent an evening with a beautiful woman and didn't once attempt to steal so much as a kiss."
She took a half step toward him. "That can be remedied," she whispered.
His grip on her hand tightened and she swore she felt the tremor race through his body. His eyes darkened. No longer a soft, olive green but banked with an undeniable need. He slowly, ever so slowly, lowered his head. Her free hand coasted up his sleeve to his biceps, the muscles hard as iron beneath her touch. She tipped her chin up, her spine lengthening, reaching for him. Her pulse pounded through her veins. She felt his arm wrap around her waist. Just before her lips brushed his, he ducked his head. Then warm lips pressed against her neck. The lightest of touches. The lightest of kisses.
The short, rapid puffs of his breaths singed her skin, the hint of beard the gentlest of scrapes. The soft strands of his hair tickled her ear. A flush of heat washed over her. Gooseflesh pricked her skin. Breath catching, she rocked on her feet, swaying into him, her eyes drifting closed. A small part of her mind marveled at the intensity of her response to him. Just his lips gliding over the delicate skin of her neck made every nerve in her body hum with a need for more.
A sigh of longing fluttered past her lips. She arched her neck, granting him greater access. His lips slowly whispered up over her jaw, across her cheek. And finally found hers.
His kiss was light, reverent, a soft slow meld of skin against skin that she never wanted to end. At the flick of his tongue against the seam of her lips, she eagerly opened to him, needing more. His hot tongue found hers, twined decadently with hers, and she lost herself in him. Gave herself over to the pure need and longing in his kiss.
She somehow kept the moan of protest from shaking her throat when his lips left hers. He pulled her that last remaining distance toward him, until she was pressed full against him, until she could feel his heart slamming against his chest.
For she didn't know how long, he simply held her. Her cheek resting against his chest, his powerful body folded around her, their hands still entwined.
Then he pressed his lips to the top of her head and took a step back, his arm unwinding from around her waist. His lashes swept down, a harsh wince flickering across his face, tightening his lips into a straight line. But when he opened his eyes an instant later, that desperation was gone. The need was still there, lurking in the olive green depths, but the stark, painful desperation had vanished.
And it struck her. He had needed this evening as badly as she.
His grip on her hand loosened. It took all of her willpower to relinquish her hold on him as his long fingers slipped from hers.
Without another word, he tipped his head to her. In a daze, she reached out to press against the wall. The well-oiled latch made nary a sound as it released, the hidden door swinging open. And he turned on his heel and disappeared down the darkened corridor, leaving her standing there in her elegant little sitting room, her hand, still warmed from his grasp, clenched at her side.
© 2010 Evangeline Collins
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