SECRET LESSONS WITH THE RAKE
· Harlequin Historicals
The courtesan's courtship
Pursuing a role in Parliament, Christopher Lattimar needs a virtuous marriage to make society overlook his roguish past. When beautiful and disarming Ellie Parmenter offers to reform and refine him, he's too tempted to say no.
Once a courtesan, Ellie knows a thing or two about polishing a diamond in the rough. She has no designs on Christopher—or any man in search of a wife—but their best-laid plans begin to tumble once lessons in respectability turn to seduction…
Four friends united by power, privilege and the daring pursuit of passion!
London, March 26, 1832
Laughing and energized, Christopher Lattimar, Member of Parliament for Wiltshire, led his friends into the small private room at the Quill and Gavel, a tavern on a quiet street near the Houses of Parliament. “Time to celebrate our achievement. I’d say it’s a night for wine, women and song!”
“Or at least wine and women,” Ben Tawney agreed with a grin.
“Two of my favorite things,” Christopher said.
“As we well know,” Ben replied.
“You should,” Christopher tossed back. “Since until recently, you out-did me in enjoying both.”
“Enough, you two,” Giles Hadley, Viscount Lyndlington said with a mock-frown. “Ah, here’s Ransen with some ale. Though, given the momentousness of the achievement, Ben, you might have ordered champagne.”
“Too French!” Ben replied. “To celebrate the first change in four hundred years in the way Parliamentary representatives are chosen, we needed good English ale.”
“We’re not there yet,” David Tanner Smith cautioned as he deposited his tall frame into a chair. “The Third Reform Bill only passed the House today. We’ve still got to get it through the Lords.”
“After all the riots and dissention when the Second Bill failed last fall, the Lords wouldn’t dare oppose it now,” Giles said. “The country won’t stand for any further delay!”
“We’ll see,” Davie replied. “Still, getting it passed in the House was a momentous achievement.” Grabbing a mug from the tray the innkeeper left for them, he lifted it high. “To Lord Grey’s leadership!”
“And to yours,” Ben said, raising his mug to Davie. “We provided the agitation, but you honed the bill’s provisions.”
“I think we should drink to us all,” Christopher said. “Who would have imagined ten years ago that four Oxford misfits would band together, win seats in Parliament, and help bring about the biggest change in British government since the Middle Ages?” He raised his mug. “To my dear colleagues and best friends. To the Hellions!”
“To the Hellions,” the others echoed, and downed a long draught.
“Shall we talk strategy?” Davie proposed. “Draw up a list of which peers are most likely to be persuaded, and decide the best arguments to sway them?”
“We shall—but not tonight,” Giles said. “Let’s just enjoy this first victory. Speaking of which,” he paused to drain his mug and set it on the table, “I’m afraid I must abandon the celebration. Maggie’s increasing, as you know, and hasn’t been feeling well. I should get back to her. Don’t let me break up the party, though! Have several more rounds, and tell Ransen to put it on my tab.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I should go, too,” David said. “I can’t wait to share the news with Faith.”
“She’ll be so proud of you,” Christopher said, admiration for his quiet, determined, brilliant friend filling him. “Through skill and planning, the dowager duchess’s commoner husband has brought a recalcitrant aristocracy to heel.”
Davie waved a deprecating hand. “A joint achievement—for all of us.” Setting down his own mug, he said, “Goodnight, gentlemen! And thank you—for your hard work, and most especially, for your friendship all these years.”
“That goes for all of us,” Ben said. Raising his mug to the company, he said, “To the Hellions.”
Giles and Davie clapped Ben on the shoulder as they walked out. After finishing his own mug, Ben added it to the tray. “I’m off as well.”
“Isn’t Alyssa away on one of her sketching expeditions?” Christopher asked. “You could come out with me. Just a few rounds of ale, for old time’s sake.”
Ben raised his eyebrows. “A few rounds of ale? What about the ‘woman’ part of the celebration? I understand you recently parted company with the Divine Clarissa. Have you replaced her yet?”
“Not yet. There are several matrons of great appetite and small morals who have made their interest quite clear.”
“And Mrs. Anderson recently left the Duke of Portland’s protection. I seem to remember her casting lures in your direction, even while she was with Portland.”
“Can’t help being irresistible,” Christopher said, and ducked his friend’s punch. “Oh, they are all lovely enough. But none of them…quite tempt me.”
The image of a courtesan who had always more than tempted him came to mind. How fast he’d jump to follow, were Ellie Parmenter to crook a finger in his direction!
Shaking his thoughts free, he said, “How about spending the rest of the evening at Madame Aurelie’s? Good wine, lovely women to pour it, and a few hands of cards. Almost as respectable as a gentleman’s club. I don’t think Alyssa would object.”
Ben gave him a wry grin. “She probably wouldn’t. But going to a gaming hell run by a famous former courtesan, with ladies discretely available for select customers who can afford their high fees, isn’t the sort of behavior I want to indulge in.”
Before Christopher could remind him how often he’d indulged in it in the past, his friend quickly added, “I know I could accompany you, share a bottle of wine, a round of cards, and nothing more than conversation with ladies who are as witty as they are beautiful. But…it just doesn’t appeal anymore. Sorry. Don’t let me spoil your pleasure, though! In fact, in honor of our frequent revels in the past, drink twice the wine and beguile twice the ladies, for me.”
He gave Christopher’s hand a pat. “Enjoy yourself—as if I need to tell you that! I’ll take the tray down.” Picking it up, he gave Christopher a wink and headed out the door.
Though Madame Auralie and her charming company beckoned, as Christopher watched his friend leave, he couldn’t stifle a little sinking feeling in his gut…that surely wasn’t loneliness.
Two weeks later
Afternoon sun, diffused to a soft glow by the sheer curtains at the window, cast a flattering light over the face and figure of the voluptuous blonde in the diaphanous dressing gown. As Christopher crossed the sitting room to the couch on which she reclined, the lady stretched out an arm, a diamond bracelet dangling from her fingers. “Christopher, darling, what a pleasant surprise! Fasten this for me, won’t you? The clasp is troublesome.”
With an indulgent smile, Christopher bent to perform that task, tweaking one blond curl after he finished. “Troublesome, like its owner?” he teased.
China-blue eyes widening in reproach, she pursed full pink lips in a pout. “That’s no way to talk to your Mama.”
“Maybe not. But the usual rules of filial behavior don’t apply when your mother is a Beauty who still twists men around her little finger and looks more like a sister than a parent.” A fact that, depending on the day, inspired him alternately with pride, amusement or chagrin. “Where did you get that new bauble? Henderson?” he asked, naming the most assiduous of her current admirers.
She waved a hand. “Yes. Henderson positively begged to be allowed to send me a small token of his esteem, so I at last relented. The bracelet is lovely,” she observed, lifting her arm to admire its sparkle. “However, I think I must dismiss him. He’s becoming quite tiresomely possessive, and you know I can’t tolerate that.”
If she did send him packing, it wouldn’t be because Christopher’s father—or rather, the man who legally filled that role—objected. Lord Vraux and his Lady had gone their separate ways for years, and everyone knew it. Just as they all whispered about the identity of Christopher’s real father and that of his sisters, his elder brother Gregory being the only one of the “Vraux Miscellany” believed to be his lordship’s legitimate offspring.
“Have you already someone in mind to replace him?” he asked as he took the seat beside her. “Chernworth would happily claim his place. Then there’s that new puppy—Lord Rogers?—following you about, writing execrable verse in your honor.”
“He’s just a boy,” his mother said, shaking her head dismissively. “Chernworth’s amusing enough, but Kennington has become quite sharp of late. Really, I’m thinking of giving them all up. Retiring to the country, perhaps.”
“Retiring to the country?” he echoed. “You can’t be serious! Without the shops, theatres and entertainments of London, you’d expire of boredom in a week. And so would Society, without you to sparkle on its stage.”
“Without me to scandalize and fuel its gossip, you mean,” she retorted good-naturedly. “Still, it might be better to leave that stage while I’m still sought after. Before my beauty fades, and the admirers drift away.”
His charming, effervescent mother looked almost…sad. Surprised, Christopher said, “What brought on this green melancholy?”
Picking up a mirror from the table beside her, she inspected her face. “See, that wrinkle there?” she pointed. “Kennington teased me about it last night.”
Christopher bent to peer at his mother. “That? It’s barely noticeable. Kennington’s an ass. You’ve more than a few good years left before you’re in your dotage! Besides, the girls still need to be settled.”
“You’d have me attend those dreadful parties full of insipid virgins and their matchmaking mamas?” His mother shuddered. “In any event, I wouldn’t be much help in getting your sisters respectably married. You know all those Society beldames detest me.”
He couldn’t dispute that claim. Lady Vraux was much admired—by the masculine members of the ton. Jealous of her beauty, charm and the mesmerizing effect she had on men, Society’s women were less appreciative. Though her birth and position guaranteed his Mama invitations to most Society entertainments—as well as to others far less respectable—her successful flaunting of the standards of proper feminine behavior had won her few female friends.
She shrugged an elegant shoulder. “If those women devoted a fraction of the time they spend criticizing me to enticing their men, they wouldn’t have to worry about my charms. In any event, I’ll probably call upon your Aunt Augusta to ferry the girls about when the time comes.”
“Gussie would excel at it,” Christopher agreed. “She thrives on keeping track of who’s pursuing whom and who’s the biggest prize on the Marriage Mart.” He paused. “Maybe I ought to enlist her help. I’ve been thinking…” He hesitated, not sure, given her probable reaction, he wanted to divulge his intent. “Perhaps it’s time I found a wife.”
Shocked silence reigned for a moment before his mother burst out laughing. “You, married?” she said when she’d recovered herself. “What nonsense!”
“No, Mama, I’m serious,” he protested.
She fixed him with a penetrating look. “You’re just lonely, with all your closest friends wed now. Which is hardly a good reason to get yourself leg-shackled. But then, you’re well aware of my opinion on marriage.”
“I miss my friends, it’s true,” Christopher admitted. Especially Ben Tawny, who’d been his carousing partner on many occasions--until he met and married his lady. “Despite your view of the institution, all the Hellions have found wives who make marriage look quite attractive.”
His mother waved a dismissive hand. “But they are all virtually newlyweds, aren’t they? If they remain happy, they will be luckier than most.”
Luckier than she’d been, Christopher knew. His beautiful mother had been married off by her financially hard-pressed father to the highest bidder—Lord Vraux. A connoisseur of all things lovely, the years-older baron had been mad to add to his collection the most dazzling girl of her debut Season. Cold, withdrawn, and remote, he had never been able to give his passionate, outgoing, demonstrative wife the affection or companionship she craved.
Whatever the beldames thought of her morals, none could dispute that she’d been a devoted mother. Especially to Christopher, son of the man rumor said had been the love of her life.
“You are serious, then?” his mother demanded, after studying him as he’d sat silent, lost in thought. “Have you a candidate in mind?”
“No. Which is why I need Aunt Augusta. I’m hardly a romantic, Mama. I’m not expecting to discover a woman who inspires me to write bad verse, like Lord Rogers. Even if his friends did seem to have found such joy, he thought, the loneliness that had dogged him of late deepened by a wistful envy. “All I require is a respectable young lady of good birth who can manage my household and give me heirs. Not a chit right from the schoolroom, of course; an older lady, even a young widow would do. Although that’s not absolutely required, someone with an interest in politics would be a plus. As I’ve always avoided parties where respectable virgins gather, besides my sisters, I don’t know any. Hence my need for Aunt Gussie.”
“A respectable young lady of good birth to manage your household and give you heirs? Sounds like a devilish cold arrangement.”
“Come now, Mama, you can’t claim to have been rapturously in love with every one of your…admirers!”
“I was when the liaison began,” she shot back.
“A prudent match doesn’t have to be cold,” he argued, not surprised she resisted the idea, after having been disposed of herself in a completely dispassionate manner. “I know better than to wed someone to whom I am indifferent, or who feels nothing for me. There’s no reason I couldn’t share a mutual respect and affection with a more…traditional woman.”
“’Mutual respect’ with a ‘traditional’ woman?” She shook her head. “Christopher, darling, you’re much too like me for such a match to ever work! After a decade of liaisons with the most beautiful, witty and seductive of females, a dutiful, respectable virgin would bore you to flinders. And what of passion?”
“Just because a female is respectable doesn’t mean she must lack passion.”
She sniffed. “If that were true, I’d have far few married admirers.”
Giving up on that tack, Christopher continued, “I’ve reached the age where the idea of returning home to tranquility and peace in the arms of a friend sounds more attractive than a night of drinking and debauchery in the bed of a courtesan.”
He wouldn’t admit to her—or even to himself-- that the idea of possessing an eminently respectable wife did sound a bit dull. Or how much the loss of the camaraderie of the three now-married men who’d been closer than family to him for a decade was driving this new-found resolve to take a wife. Once he, too, married, their intimate circle would once again be complete.
But above all, he couldn’t confess he felt compelled to wed that eminently respectable female so his own children would never have to wonder who their father was, endure the sniggers and whispers of their peers about their mother—or bear the cold disinterest of the man who was legally their father.
Such a confession would sound too much like an indictment. And despite all the turmoil, slights and indignities he’d endured growing up, he truly did love his volatile mother.
The disapproving expression on her face told him she wasn’t convinced. Before he could think of another argument to persuade her, a knock sounded at the door, followed by the entrance of a tall, dark-haired woman.
Seeing him sitting beside his mother, the lady halted, her smile fading. “I’m sorry, Felicia! I don’t mean to intrude. Billings told me you were free.”
“Ellie!” Lady Vraux cried, jumping up from the couch in a swirl of silken draperies to go meet the newcomer. “Of course, you’re not interrupting—I got your note, and was expecting you! How are you, my dear? I haven’t seen you this age!”
Gladness warming him, Christopher stood and drank in the pleasure of watching the quiet elegance that was Ellie Parmenter walk across the room. Though it must be ten years now since they’d met, each time he saw her he felt the same sense of awe—and sharp pull of sensual attraction—he’d felt the first time he’d beheld her in his mother’s drawing room, when he’d returned from Oxford on a term break. Her figure lush and well-formed, her movements grace personified, her pale face perfection beneath a curly mass of dark hair, she had huge violet eyes with an air of mystery about them that he’d immediately lost himself in. The young collegian had been first mesmerized, then dismayed and disappointed to discover that this beauty a few years younger than himself was in keeping to a dissolute, much-older peer.
Though neither she nor his Mama had ever volunteered the details, he knew there’d been something havey-cavey about the way she’d come to be Summerville’s mistress. He’d been happy for her when the man died last fall, freeing her from that relationship.
Had he not been entangled at the time with the Divine Clarissa, he might have pursued her himself.
“I’m quite well,” Ellie was saying as she returned his mother’s embrace. “I can wait in the drawing room until you finish your chat with Christopher.”
“Nonsense! I’m sure he’d be interested in hearing your news, too. Wouldn’t you, my dear?”
“I would indeed. Although, since I’m the one who turned up unexpectedly, if you ladies would prefer to have a comfortable coze, I could leave.”
“No, please, stay, Christopher,” Ellie said, echoing his mother’s request.
That matter disposed of, his mother rang for tea and, arm-in-arm with her visitor, proceeded to the settee. He waved Ellie to the seat he’d just vacated and she took it, her dark beauty a perfect foil to his mother’s blond loveliness.
“So, what have you been doing to occupy yourself since Summerville’s demise, when you left the social scene?” his mother demanded. “Not mourning, surely. More like celebrating, I’d expect.”
“I was…ready to move on,” Ellie allowed, her expression unreadable.
“Summerville did leave you that charming little house, as well as an annuity, didn’t he?” his mother asked. “Why don’t you set yourself up with a snug little gaming establishment, like Madame Aurelie? I know you have friends in the demimonde who would be happy to work for you. The gentlemen would certainly flock there, wouldn’t they, Christopher?”
A gaming hell with Ellie as its mistress? There was no doubt. “Absolutely. You’d be a smashing success.”
“Set that up, and you’d never have to worry about running out of money,” his mother said. “As an independent woman, you’d retain control of your own funds and your own establishment—giving you more freedom and security than a married woman ever has.”
“If not the respect of Society,” Ellie murmured.
“No great loss, that,” Lady Vraux said with a shrug. “I would choose independence and control over my fortune any day! But since I take it that option doesn’t appeal, what do you intend to do? Not start that school for wayward females you mentioned when we last met, I hope!”
“Actually, I have started it,” Ellie said, giving his mother an apologetic smile. “I’d been thinking of doing something like that for years, particularly for girls born at fancy houses who don’t want to follow their mothers into the trade. It’s true that courtesans at the highest levels have the independence you so admire, but few females achieve that. Most girls caught up in the life can never leave it, either because they have no other way to support themselves, or because the madame or pimp controlling them won’t permit it. Which is why I was so grateful for Lord Witlow’s assistance in the matter of the girl who trapped Ben Tawny at the Quill and Gavel,” she said, looking over at Christopher.
“It’s Ben and the rest of us Hellions who owe you thanks,” Christopher responded. “Without your sleuthing efforts and your knowledge of the demimonde, we’d never have found her, and Ben might have been facing the ruin of his Parliamentary career. We’ve worked too hard for too long to lose one of our key members now, when the reforms we’ve struggled to advance are so close to being implemented.”
“Yes, I read that your Third Reform Bill passed the Commons. Congratulations!”
Christopher nodded his thanks. “Now we just have to get it through the Lords. Though a few peers, like Lady Maggie’s father, are reasonable, a great many recalcitrants will try to drag their heels. Another reason we’re grateful that, with your help, we’ve still got Ben with us in the fight.”
“I’m so thankful for your Mama and all her kindness over the years, I was only too happy to do what I could.” She gave him that sweet smile that always made his heart lift. “Most women of her class ignore me like an unpleasant odor. No one but Felicia has ever condescended, not just to acknowledge me, but to offer friendship. Still, had Lord Witlow not stepped in to guarantee the girl’s safety, she would have been too afraid of retribution for me to persuade her to come forward. Once he’d been made aware of the situation—and what I hoped to do for other girls—his lordship not only took steps to protect Jane, he invested in the project, allowing me to begin the school at once. I shall be forever indebted.”
“We are all indebted that the two of you worked in concert to clear Ben’s name,” Christopher said.
A knock at the door, followed by the entry of the butler with the tea tray, brought a momentary halt to the conversation. Once they were settled with cups in hand, Ellie yielding to his mother’s request that she pour for them, Christopher turned back to her.
Curious about her unusual endeavor, Christopher asked, “How do you find the girls for your school?”
“Are you sure you want to know more? I can become quite enthused when talking about my project,” she cautioned.
“Yes, I truly want to know,” he assured her.
“Very well. Working girls, or those with a friend or relative who has a daughter who aspires to a different life, send them to me. Or sometimes I find them at the posting inns, where I try to intercept country girls who’ve come to town looking for work, before the bawds can spirit them away.”
Lady Vraux frowned. “Isn’t that dangerous? I imagine the bawds don’t like being robbed of their pigeons!”
“I’m sure they don’t,” Ellie agreed. “When he learned what I intended, Lord Witlow insisted I have a burly man to accompany me. As it turns out, he engaged the bully-boy at the house from which they obtained the girl meant to entrap Mr. Tawny. It seems the man was sweet on her, and after Witlow helped her escape, was ready to trade his current employment for some honest work where he might be able to continue the acquaintance.”
“Well, it’s commendable of you, my dear, setting up the school, but nobility does become rather dull. Surely you leave yourself some time for amusements--concerts, the theatre?”
Ellie smiled faintly, shaking her head. “I don’t go out much anymore.”
“To avoid being pestered by gentlemen hoping to persuade you to let them take Summerville’s place?” his mother guessed. “Lovely as you are, I’m certain you’ve had offers! If you don’t intend to open an establishment that will earn you a reliable income, you must find some other way to secure your future. Are you planning to take another protector?”
“No,” Ellie said flatly, the bleakness that swiftly crossed her face before she masked it suddenly recalling one of Christopher’s earliest memories of her.
It must have been only a few weeks after they’d first met. Answering a summons by his Mama to escort her home from a definitely disrespectable masquerade ball after her nominal escort had fallen into a drunken stupor, he’d encountered Ellie alone in one of the anterooms, weeping. Seeing him, she’d hastily wiped away the tears, insisted there was nothing wrong, and led him to his mother. Not knowing how to get her to confide in him, he’d let it go. But the devastation he’d read on her face then had struck him deeply—as did the glimpse of it he’d just seen.
No more certain now how to ask her about it, before he could speak, his mother continued, “But how are you to live, if you do not allow another gentleman to provide for you? You have the house, and Summerville was certainly generous with gifts, but even if you sell some jewels, it won’t cover your expenses forever. Not with servants to pay, and candles, coal and all manner of victuals to be bought, to say nothing of clothing. To wrap your loveliness in outdated gowns would be a travesty!”
Ellie laughed. “I think I can tolerate the indignity of wearing last year’s fashions. Summerville was generous with his gifts, and thanks to your advice, I obtained that annuity and some other assets that will allow me to remain independent. I can maintain myself for a good long while before I have to worry about where my next meal is coming from.”
“Is it the notoriety of living outside wedlock that holds you back?” his mother persisted. “I can’t believe a lady as young and beautiful as you prefers to exist without…masculine attention.”
Again, Ben caught a glimpse of distress before Ellie could submerge it. “I’ve quite had my fill of ‘masculine attention’ these last few years. Nor does the idea of additional notoriety bother me. I’m not naive enough to think I can erase the past; even were I to live the rest of my life as chastely as a nun, I will always be known as a kept woman.”
“We are all kept women, my dear,” his mother replied, a look of bitterness passing over her face. “Some of us are trapped by wedding lines. You, at least, still have the power to choose your path. Don’t discount that freedom.” Then, her face clearing, she said, “But enough of this sober talk. Let me tell you something that is certain to amuse you. Christopher just announced he has taken it into his head to marry! Is that not the most ridiculous notion you’ve ever heard?”
“I’m so glad my intention to reform myself into a respectable gentleman inspires you to hilarity,” Christopher said wryly, as his mother went off into another peal of laughter.
“Come, you must dissuade him of the nonsensical idea, Ellie! You’ve encountered him in enough disreputable places and scandalous company to recognize he’s not sober husband material. Christopher, remaining devoted to a single woman?” She shook her head. “He ought to spare some earnest, virtuous virgin a lifetime of sorrow and abandon the notion forthwith.”
Although she didn’t succumb to mirth like his mother, Ellie’s lovely eyes were definitely dancing when she glanced at him. “I must allow, Christopher, up to now, you’ve shown a preference for ladies more renowned for a…particular kind of skill than for their virtue, and an ever-changing parade of them at that.”
“Indeed!” his mother agreed. “Remember that soprano from the Theatre Royal—was it a vase she threw at you, Christopher? You’ve still got the scar on your chin! And the time you stole Harrington’s doxy out from under his nose, and he threatened to call you out! And then there was—“
“Please, must you list all my indiscretions?” Christopher protested, half-amused, half-embarrassed. “I agree, I’ve not exactly been a…model of punctilious deportment, but a man can change. Can’t he, Ellie?”
Instead of the witty repost he expected, she stared at him—those magnificent violet eyes making his breath hitch, as they always did on the rare occasions when she gave him her full attention. “I don’t know, Christopher. I expect a man can reform, if he wants to badly enough. “ A faint smile touched her lips. “Unlike a female, even a truly notorious man can choose to turn respectable.”
Is that what caused the lingering sadness he saw in her eyes? Christopher wondered. She’d always seemed, and he’s always treated her, as a lady, despite her position as Summerville’s mistress. Had she once been respectable, and been robbed of that reputation by some cruel circumstance? He really must press his mother for more details about her background.
“You’re young enough, you’ve plenty of time to change your mind,” his mother told her. “When you meet a gentleman too charming to resist—or when you’ve run out of the ready.”
Setting down her teacup, Ellie made a face at her. “I hope to avoid both outcomes. But now, I should be getting on. I must check on the school, then discharge some errands before Lady Lydlington meets me there tomorrow.”
“Giles’s wife Maggie has taken an interest in your work?” Ben asked, surprised.
“Yes. Though I’ve been giving Lord Witlow the credit, I’m fairly certain it was his daughter Maggie who encouraged Witlow to provide protection for Mr. Tawny’s accuser, for me on my forays into the posting inns, and prompted him to sponsor the school. I doubt a man of Lord Witlow’s position would have had any notion there might be a need for such things.”
Ellie shook her head, smiling. “The first time Lady Lyndlington visited the school, I told her I couldn’t believe her father would permit her to associate with me—or that her husband would, now that’s she’s in a delicate condition. She laughed, saying that since she’d married a radical, her Papa already knew she wouldn’t let a little thing like Society’s disapproval stop her from helping a good cause. She found it fulfilling, she said, to assist girls who’d been born without the advantages she possesses to achieve a better life. Her courage and graciousness remind me of you, Felicia. Though I don’t mean to suggest she considers me a friend, of course,” Ellie added quickly.
“You did one of her husband’s closest friends a great service. Why shouldn’t she befriend you?” Christopher asked.
A slight flush colored Ellie’s lovely face. “The daughter of an earl, the wife of a viscount and member of Parliament, on intimate terms with… It’s quite impossible, Christopher, and you know it,” she added, an unusual sharpness in her tone.
“Perhaps for Lady Maggie,” his mother inserted with a grin. “She’s far more respectable than I am!”
“Well I, for one, can only be glad you’ve chosen to be slightly scandalous!” Ellie said, leaning over to give Lady Vraux a hug. “Now I must go.”
“Thank you again for the visit,” his mother said. “Please, do come back soon! Even if it’s only to ask for money to support your noble cause.”
Smiling, Ellie shook a finger at her. “Be careful what you wish for. Next time, I might just come begging!” Turning toward him, she said, “It was wonderful to see you, too, Christopher. Good luck getting your Reform Bill through the Lords this session. And with your other project. Despite your Mama’s objections, if you’re set on reforming your rake’s ways, I know you will make a success of it and choose a wife wisely.”
With a graceful curtsey to his bow, she walked out, Christopher unable to pry his gaze from her lovely form until she’d shut the door behind her.
He looked back to see his Mama watching him, a speculative look on her face. He bent over the teapot and poured himself another cup to mask the heat he felt rising in his face at her scrutiny.
However, rather than teasing him about his obvious admiration for Ellie, when he looked back at her, she was frowning. “I worry about her, Christopher,” she said unexpectedly. “Despite what Ellie says, she can’t have extracted enough jewels or blunt out of Summerville to support herself indefinitely. And despite my distaste for the married state, having a husband—even one conspicuous for his absence—does provide a woman with a layer of protection. The unscrupulous are less likely to try to take advantage if they know there is a man about who could hold them accountable for their behavior. With Summerville gone, Ellie has no one. And she’s far too lovely to be without a champion.”
As his mother perhaps intended, her words immediately called up Christopher’s protective instincts. He didn’t need his mother’s warning to know there were many men who would feel a woman in Ellie’s position was fair game. “Is there someone in particular you suspect might be thinking of taking advantage?”
“She disappeared from the public eye immediately after Summerville’s death, so I can’t say for certain. But Viscount Mountgarcy and Sir Ralph Simonton have been sniffing around her for years, and they are both as dissipated as Summerville. As you well know, the two have vied over women and wagers since they left university. With their wealth and position, I can’t see either of them believing they should take Ellie’s refusal as a final answer.”
Christopher frowned. His mother was correct; neither would believe Summerville’s former mistress would actually reject an offer from a man of their lineage and deep pockets. They’d likely interpret her refusal as a game, her way of bargaining between them to get better terms. “I’ll keep an eye out. Wouldn’t want either of those dissolute characters laying a hand on her.”
His mother gave him another speculative look. “Maybe you ought to do more than just ‘keep an eye out.’ She’s not indifferent to you, Christopher—and you’re certainly attracted to her. Even better, you like her. Were you to offer her carte blanche, I’m almost certain she would accept. It would be a far happier arrangement for you than marriage to some prune-faced virgin.”
He, Ellie’s protector? He couldn’t deny that the mere thought of possessing her sent a blaze of desire through him. In his many amorous liaisons, he’d never met another woman who touched him more deeply on a physical level. He was nearly certain they would make spectacular lovers. And as his mother said, they were already friends. He enjoyed her company, her good sense and intelligent observations, her calm demeanor that was often so in contrast to his emotional, volatile mother.
Protecting her from harm would be a privilege.
But taking a mistress wouldn’t advance his career, nor help him fit in better with his married friends. Indeed, it would distance him further.
He really did need a wife to achieve both those aims. He resisted a sigh. No matter how tedious the idea of marriage sounded. He’d just have to talk himself into liking the idea better. Surely he could reshape his outlook, if he worked at it hard enough.
“I do admire Ellie—and I certainly find her desirable. But I also think it’s time that I moved beyond temporary liaisons and made a permanent choice of companion.”
Could he take Ellie—and then walk away from her? If she were to become his mistress, and they later parted, how could he keep her as a friend?
Though his mother was correct about his tendency to move from one woman to the next, he couldn’t imagine his life without the serene loveliness of Ellie in it.
“So you’ll just leave Ellie to fend for herself?” his mother asked, jolting him from his thoughts. “Because a woman who isn’t chaste and dutiful deserves whatever she gets?” she added bitterly.
“No, of course not,” he flashed back, stung. “How could you accuse me of thinking that? I’ve never treated any of the women with whom I’ve associated with less than courtesy and respect, and you know it! Just because I’m not prepared to make Ellie an offer doesn’t mean I’m not concerned for her well-being. We’re not as close as you and she have become, but I still consider her a friend! You may trust me to make sure she comes to no harm.”
“And just how do you mean to accomplish that, if she is not under your protection?”
“We’re friends. I can stop by her school, and visit her at home.” He gave his mother a smile. “It is possible for a man and a woman to be just friends, you know.”
She shrugged. “Maybe if the man’s a eunuch, or the woman a prune-faced virgin.” She heaved a sigh. “But I shall stop, before you make me cross. Just promise to watch out for Ellie, and I won’t tease you any further. Even though I think your desire to pursue marriage is a mistake.”
“That’s easy enough to promise.” Setting aside his teacup, he rose. “I must get along as well. But to demonstrate the sincerity of my pledge, I’ll stop by Ellie’s school this very afternoon. Check out her circumstances, make sure that bully-boy is providing sufficient protection. I’ll keep my eyes and ears open when I make the rounds of my clubs, too. If someone has disreputable intentions toward her, I’ll put a stop to it.”
His mother opened her lips, then closed them. “I’ll not ask again how you think you can do that without staking a claim to the lady. Just know, I shall hold you responsible if anything untoward happens to her.”
“No more responsible than I’d hold myself,” he retorted. “I watch out for my friends, Mama—even the ones who happen to be female.”
“See that you do. Now, go on with you. Some dreadfully dull committee meeting awaits, I’m sure.”
Chuckling, Christopher dropped a kiss on his mother’s head and left her.
But despite his intent to focus on finding a wife, the enticing vision of Ellie in his arms was difficult to put out of mind.
Copyright © 2017 Julia Justiss
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