Romancing the Earl (Distinguished Rogues series #12)
Romancing the Earl (Distinguished Rogues series #12)
To avoid scandal, Lenore needs a new job, quickly. Childhood friend Price Wagstaff accidentally offers one—as his wife. What begins as duty may become a love match after all…if the earl’s past doesn’t kill his chance at romance. Again.
- Friends to Lovers
- Fish Out of Water
- Marriage Pact
On the brink of ruin and disgrace, Miss Lenore Griffin receives a letter offering employment as a companion to an earl’s new wife. Accepting a position in Lord Carmichael’s home in London is simply too good an opportunity to let slip through her fingers as it will remove any chance of being seduced. However, Lenore’s arrival creates confusion as the household staff remains ignorant of the offer, and the earl has not announced any marriage yet.
When Price Wagstaff lost the woman of his dreams, his life fell into an utter shambles. He has spent a restless half-year drinking, avoiding society and not thinking about the future, especially his eventual need for a wife and heir. Lenore Griffin’s arrival is a pleasant but unexpected surprise…until he reads the letter that brought her to his door. There’s only one thing he can do and consider himself a gentleman—make good on his offer to wed her and hope she never learns that Price’s heart can never be won.
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
In Madam Bradshaw’s House of Pleasure, a gentleman could buy practically anything and anybody for the right price. This was no penny amusement. A man paid a premium for the pleasures offered here.
Price only came here to drown his sorrows.
The light was low in his corner, but the footmen knew to freshen his glass with cider brandy as soon as he drained it. His nearby friends indulged their own vices in a different manner. They took lovers, gambled, and argued their points of view vigorously as if the world turned only for them.
Price, however, kept his opinions to himself these days. He took nothing for granted now, when once he would have been in the thick of any debate, freely expressing his opinions as he’d once thought his right to do so as the Earl of Carmichael. He’d risked his fortune on the turn of a dice many a night and offered his heart for the thrill of loving women, especially one in particular.
He knew better now. Money and position did not guarantee happiness. Pleasure was fleeting but not to be forgotten. Every moment he drew breath was precious to him, as was the happiness of others.
But he freely admitted he had no power to make others happy anymore, nor desire to try.
Price appreciated the sanctuary this place offered to someone who did not wish to be jollied into a better mood. His heart was broken—never to feel the indescribable joy of holding the one person who’d meant the world to him ever again. He embraced his solitary existence, relished it in a way he never had before.
But that loss did not decree that he must hide.
Madam Bradshaw prowled through the room, an empress of her decadent domain. Said to have been a duke’s mistress once upon a time, Madam had become infamous since going into business for herself. Past her prime now, she had opened this establishment and employed others to offer a level of attention most gentlemen of the ton craved but said they never found at home. The establishment had thrived these past years, and the waitlist for admittance was said to be long.
Price had applied for membership on a lark years ago, never meaning to come here but once. For the fun of it. Lately, though, he came each night to indulge his current vice—drink.
Madam Bradshaw’s pretty temptresses came by every once in a while, attempting to bolster Price’s ego as they slid onto his knees and purred seductions into his ear. However, he was sure they all knew by now that he wasn’t interested in more than a brief conversation. Madam Bradshaw probably insisted they at least try to flirt with him once a night so he did not look like he was being neglected.
Price didn’t feel neglected. He was happy here. He only came to drink in the company of others who would not criticize or try to reform him. He detested drinking alone at home, and his friends came here, so he did, too. If they thought he drank too much, they kept that opinion to themselves.
He glanced about the room again and squinted at his surroundings. Madam Bradshaw’s was a place quite unlike anywhere he’d visited before. The opulence of the furnishings was a touch overblown for his taste. The women who passed by wearing very little to suggest modesty reminded him of a painting he’d once glimpsed of Roman times—even down to the gold-leaf coronets adorning their heads.
Not that he was at all interested. The only woman he wanted was dead, and he mourned her still.
Price finished his glass, pushing away his despair, and was grateful when a footman instantly appeared by his side balancing a full glass on a small gold tray on his hand. “For you, my lord,” he murmured.
“Thank you,” he murmured with a nod, taking another sip and eying the temptations on display dispassionately.
Of the women Madam employed to give men pleasure, there were currently any number to choose from if he was so inclined. One or a dozen would join him in bed if he wished for it on any night. Their limbs were fleshy and firm, young, their faces artfully painted with cosmetics that emphasized their eyes. If the eye was supposed to be the window to the soul, then those ladies suggested desire when they looked him over.
Price wasn’t the only gentleman in the room watching the pretty parade pass him by in the dim light tonight. To his right, several gentlemen friends reclined on chaise lounges like his, glass in hand, too, jaded eyes lingering on Bradshaw’s offerings. One beckoned a fair lady onto his lap, and when she sat astride him, Price turned his attention back to his glass lest he saw more than he really wanted of their exchange.
A few other gentlemen on the far side of the room had women sitting over their hips, too, in various stages of making love to them regardless of their audience. They’d go soon, find a room to make love in. They were free with their affections in a way Price could not be anymore.
Price turned his attention to the other side of him, where the door was located. The card room across the hall was better lit and brimming with hardened gamblers, but he knew better than to play a hand when he was so deep in his cups.
He could feel the tension rising in this room, though, smell the scent of arousal in the air, but was not affected by it in the least. He was almost too drunk to feel any discomfort, too. The room, the people also, began to take on a soft glow as if he were seeing them through a dirty window. That made him happy. He saw none of their flaws under the influence of spirits. The world was a beautiful place when he was in this condition. Just as he preferred to imagine it.
He took another drink, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes. He had but one lovely memory to savor during the long hours of the night. He and Angela Berry, the young woman he’d loved and meant to marry, hiding together behind a crimson drape in a room slightly less opulent than this. Hands fumbling, lips meeting, tongues tangling. Breathless with anticipation. Angela had been inexperienced but very eager. He’d been eager, too, but with the experience to enjoy the anticipation of teasing her until aroused, but never going further.
He should have married her after their first kiss. Taken her away to Gretna Green and forgotten about trying to win over her family before they married. He should have—
Hands, soft and gentle, slithered over his shoulders, pulling him from his regrets. “You shouldn’t be alone, my lord,” a sultry voice whispered in his ear before he sensed her moving to sit at his side.
Price opened his eyes slowly. “Not…”
The words in his throat died as he blinked in surprise, and then he came to his senses fully.
The woman in front of him bore a striking resemblance to an old acquaintance. But that was impossible. Lenore Griffin was miles away in the country acting as a lady’s companion, and she would never throw away her good reputation in this sordid place.
He blinked quickly, and that slight confusion disappeared. The whore might have the same abundant chestnut hair spilling around her pretty face, but that was where the similarities thankfully ended. It was just a trick of the weak light and of the drink.
“Not tonight, my dear,” he stated, turning his face away.
The woman took his drink from his hand and out of the corner of his eye, he saw her sample some before speaking again. “Not any night, I hear. Madam is becoming worried about you, my lord. Why do you shun our company?”
He smiled at her as he retrieved his glass. “Madam only worries about money, and what I do shouldn’t be of interest to anyone. I pay her well to be left in peace.”
A faint smile tugged her lips. “If you’re trying not to be noticed, you are failing horribly, my lord. We find your disinterest even more challenging the longer you remain alone.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. I’ve no room in my heart for women.”
“I don’t want your heart, my lord.” She winced. “If I might be entirely honest, I don’t really want you, either. But Madam expects us to entertain someone, and there is a wager worth winning over you. I thought perhaps you’d help me win it by making it seem as if you like me more than the others.”
Whores wagered on him? Price found that sad. Angela had often made ridiculous wagers with her friends. He’d helped her win a few, too. Their laughter when she won seemed so long ago. Price did appreciate the whore’s honesty about her reason for approaching him, though. What could be the harm so long as he only had to pretend? “Join me then, and we’ll pretend together.”
Her smile was utterly delighted. “Gladly, my lord.”
She swung her feet onto the chaise and wiggled around until she was in his arms. He pulled her close against his body but kept her facing away from him. He didn’t want to kiss her or take her to bed. Her company was all he would tolerate.
After a time, the woman stirred in his arms to look back at him. “My lord?”
“What is your name?”
“Angie, my lord.”
He startled. A variation of the name of his true love was not what he had expected to hear. He darted a quick glance beyond Angie, searching for the abbess. Madam Bradshaw was known to go to extraordinary lengths to fulfill her clientele’s unasked desires. He wouldn’t put it past her to have dug into his life a little and found a woman specifically for him. “Is that your real name?”
“Yes, my lord. Madam wanted to change it to Celeste but that were my mother’s name and I thought taking it up disrespectful.”
He calmed himself, believing Angie was telling the truth about her name. Women with daughters of marriageable age had been known to push their offspring at him all his life. Avoiding romantic entanglements was one of the reasons he had avoided many of this year’s parties and amusements. There was no scheme or contrivance here.
He looked at the woman beside him again. Her hair had a dark reddish tone to it, her lips pink and smiling. Her eyes were blue, but cold and calculating in a way that unsettled him as he looked at her longer.
She reminded him of someone. Of an old friend of his. Lenore Griffin had blue eyes but soft, and often sad. She’d hardly ever smiled, which wasn’t surprising given her station in life.
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