Shey – Cos frankly I had to kick your butts into gear.
Shey- it is kind as you’re getting till you get back into line.
‘Had her mind really whispered Lady Margaret this morning? James Flint Blackmoore. Pig. Pig. Complete. Absolute. Pig. Bastard. Now, that’s what she should have thought.’
Her gorge rose even though she had something on him now. A shipload in fact. Rescind the rules? In her dreams. His too. The bastard could take what he got and welcome.
Malmesbury would father the heir to the Beaumont dukedom. Count Vellagio wasn’t a contender. What she’d logged in her book about him this afternoon said it would be a huge mistake anyway. The same for the Duke of Southey—young, certainly, but a drunk with quiffed hair and filthy fingernails.
No, Malmesbury was the best. The only. Intelligent without being painful, fashionable yet not a dandy, and retaining enough of his looks at the age of fifty not to be outright repulsive.
Of course, it would have helped if Thomas could have fathered the Beaumont heir himself. But as he lay dead in a box in the cellar, that wasn’t likely.
“Gentlemen, you know as well as I do, this is an unusual evening.” Shivers ran up and down Lady Fury Shelton’s spine as she stood in the center of her darkened antechamber.
With its festooned corners and gold-scrolled furniture, the carmine-walled room was the best place for such an assignation, although the tiled floor and the cool clang of evening bells snaking in through the parted shutters made it chillier than usual. The candlelight glinting on the pale oval of Messalina’s face on the hanging above the bed, too. Earlier, the air had been hotter than a boiled lobster. She’d had to change twice in the space of an hour because she was too.
“Hear, hear.” Southey raised his crystal glass.
Where else, but to his obviously parched lips. A toast to her? Already it was obviously beyond his capability to sit down facing her as the other men were, with their drinks untouched on the tiny tables beside them, the epitome of good manners.
“My interviews are complete. Shortly, I will make my choice. Then, having done so, I will invite the said gentleman to this bedroom, where he will perform his duty as often as necessary.”
“All in one night. I say, that’s a tall order for a man. Isn’t it, chaps?”
For Southey, yes, it would be. Given the state in which he’d arrived at her door this afternoon, and what he’d sunk of her amaretto and limoncello in the meantime, it was a miracle he could still stand there against the marble fireplace. Never mind anything else.
But she wasn’t about to debate the subject. Maybe she was fit to snap the spine of the tooled leather book she was clutching–a pity it wasn’t his throat—the Moon could not look serener.
“I say, Fury, how the blazes are you going to tell right away?” Southey hiccupped. “Don’t them things take weeks and weeks to find out?”
“The one chosen will be here for weeks. Those not chosen,”—him in other words–“will leave within the hour. I think we may be clear that at any time in the future, should any one of you breathe a word to anyone about this, I will find out. I have sufficient information in this book here to ruin each and every one of you. Make no mistake, I will use it.”
“By God, Fury, you don’t need to talk like that about any of us, I’m sure,” Malmesbury, who had so far watched the proceedings with an amused smile, muttered. “You want to get one over on Thomas; I, for one, don’t blame you. We all saw him sneaking about with that Porto Antican tart when you first arrived.”
“Yes.” Who hadn’t?
“And do you think we’re unaware what his illness has done to him? The rages? The drinking? The way he keeps you here like a pet poodle?”
That too. Thomas wasn’t who she was getting one over on, but she couldn’t very well say so here.
She held in her hands every dirty little secret concerning these men. All documented in the yellow, dog-eared pages of her book. The leaves also contained letters, bills, testimonies, transactions. She kept it all beneath lock and key. So they obeyed her.
In fact, she kept dirty secrets on every member of the aristocracy she came into contact with, so she was safe for another hour, another day. She was hardly about to lose that balance of control by admitting this wasn’t about Thomas.
No. She could have paid a Porto Antican organ grinder to father her child and walked away, no questions asked. The one at the end of the harbor was handsome enough. But Lady Margaret would smell an organ grinder’s bastard at a hundred paces. Hadn’t the woman scented Fury?
Malmesbury shifted in his chair. “Where is he, by the way?”
“Who? Thomas? Thomas is visiting his father.”
No lie. Had any of these men facing her in the flickering candlelight known whether Thomas’s father lived or died, she’d never have chosen them.
“Even if he wasn’t, Thomas wants you to know me well. That is why he’s gone.” She hesitated. Thomas would spare her this next lie, although there was more than one grain of truth in it now. “Sadly, it is more than he can do himself these days. Now, I must ask you all to return to your chambers and wait. My mind is almost made up. Susan, here, will call in due course for the chosen one to return. And we’ll begin.”
“Dash it, that’s good to know.” Southey thumped his glass down on the marble mantelpiece.
In addition to his drinking, his casual mistreatment of the Murano goblet, while not worth an entry in her book, made him all the more unsuitable. What careless traits might a child inherit? Besides, his odor as he staggered past her made her stomach heave. It took every ounce of her self-control to remain where she was, inhaling the fragrance of the citrus-scented candle Susan had lit to disperse the gloom.
He paused and turned toward her. “All this cloak and dagger stuff is killing, you know.”
“Yes. Certainly for some.”
“What if you can’t … you know?”
“Oh, I’m sure I can.”
Malmesbury got to his feet. “I shall wait then, Fury.”
There was no doubt his palms itched to touch her, but she shrank from letting him. It didn’t bode well for later, but at least he didn’t smell. There wasn’t a single crease in his immaculate silver frock coat. And his shoe buckles not only shone, they sparkled. His valet must be remarkable, whoever he was.
Count Vellagio was silent as the crypt. Speaking limited English—and not much more Italian—he always was, unless it was absolutely necessary.
It was one mercy at least.
“Oh, I will fetch the chosen one, will I?” Susan folded her arms across her ample bosom, the instant the door closed.
Fury managed two steps and sank down at her dressing table. “Just cover the bruises, will you? I can’t have them on show. It might affect the conception-–or at least it might affect their ability to perform. They see that and God knows what they’ll think. I know I would.” She tossed the book into the open drawer. “So?”
“If I have to take a stick to your back, I will.”
“A stick? That’s fine talk, when I think of all I’ve done for you.”
“I know you mean well,” Fury wheedled, dabbing a little perfume on her wrists. “But I believe it’s important for a woman to look her best, regardless of the situation. So don’t argue. I honestly can’t take arguing tonight. I don’t know if I can take anything more.”
“Look your best? For a bunch of drunken old faggots. Sadistic old faggots. Do you know what I heard about Vellagio today?”
Fury picked up her powder puff. When it came to looking her best, she might as well make a start, if Susan wasn’t going to help. “Whatever it was, you shouldn’t have been listening.”
“It was at the market. How could I help it?”
“By covering your ears. Anyway, I thought you didn’t speak Italian?”
“He uses boys. Young boys. Whether they want to or not. He whips them too.”
For a moment Fury stared at the marbled surface of the table. If she could draw strength from its veins to hers, that would be nice. If she could draw strength from anything, in fact. But she was past that now. All she could do was choose one of these old faggots.
“Really? Well, I heard it was young girls. But whichever it is, while I know you mean well, you’re not in my situation. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone who is. But if anyone was, I’m sure they’d do what I’m doing.”
“We both know it’s this or nothing. I can’t … I won’t be cast off without a penny. Not again. It was bad enough the first time. And anyway, it’s no more than Lady Margaret deserves.” Wincing, she swept the dark fall of hair back from her neck. “Now, please, a little powder—”
“A little powder?” Susan folder her arms tighter. “It will take more than a little powder to cover that mess this time.”
“Just think like Lady Macbeth, will you? And stop arguing. You’ve done it before.” Fury raised her head as a gust of wind blew in through the open shutters. “Anyway, the men aren’t all old. Or faggots.”
“Fine. Have it your own way.” Fury almost ceased breathing as Susan secured the shutters, then bustled across the floor. “You know you always do. Though I’m not thinking of Lady Margaret. Or of what she deserves, either. I’m thinking of you.”
“Then don’t. You know I don’t require it.”
“I’m thinking you should just tell that old toad where to stuff her money. You could find a protector here in Genoa. A woman like you.”
“A woman like me?” Fury met her green-eyed reflection in the not-yet-paid-for glass. “And what would that be, exactly?” Long ago she’d stopped wondering, buffeted by fortune’s changing winds. Forced to snatch what she could to survive. Always knowing one false foot-fall would bring her down. “Anyway, why would I want a protector? Thomas was that, at the start. Now look at me, without a penny to my name again. No. I’ve had my fill of protectors. I want to guarantee my future. The future of … Well …” Her eyes dulled in the glass. “You know as well as I do the things that are dear.”
“But madam, if you didn’t have the money to pay certain bills, my sister wouldn’t—”
“That’s what you say, when we all know money is the most important thing on the planet.” She dabbed a little rouge on her cheeks. “You know the dire nature of my predicament, what I must guarantee and why. That damned old bag hated me from the first. Don’t tell me she doesn’t lie awake at nights just thinking of new ways to torture and humiliate me. But poisoning Thomas’s father against me? Cajoling him on his death bed into insisting Thomas must provide an heir before succeeding to the dukedom? What kind of new low was that? One I would never stoop to. In fact, now I think about it, I don’t know anyone else who would. Well, it’s one blessing at least that Lady Margaret lives in England and I’m here. Even if, in other ways, that’s a torture to me.”
Susan sprinkled a dusting of powder onto the dressing table as if she were measuring the ingredients for a cake, and then wiped her hands down her apron. “Indeed I do, madam, I just think, in fact I know—”
Despite herself, Fury touched what glittered around her neck. The single midnight-blue pendant Thomas had given her two Christmases ago. The copy of it, rather. Because that, like this, was also burning necessity. Her Hatton Garden jewel-maker had served her well, though. Thomas had never once suspected a thing of her need for that kind of money, and how it ran to far more than blackmail.
“Before you say another word on the subject, Susan–-as I know you’re going to and you should know I don’t want to hear–-even this jewel here wouldn’t pay for what I need to guarantee for Storm. It’s like me. Fake.”
“Undervalued is what I’d say. What about blackmail, then? That book—”
“Blackmail is messy, which is why I’m locking the book away again.”
“It’s not my business, but when I think of all the years you’ve bribed dressmakers and housemaids and coachmen to get what’s in it …”
“Out of necessity only. Knowing that at any time, this could all tumble down. No. This is the best way. Besides, think how good it will feel, finally outfoxing Lady Margaret. She insists on an heir. She gets one. Do you really think I’m going to care if the old bat coos over some child that’s not Thomas’s? When that’s going to be the very best feeling in the world? Well?”
“You might not say that in nine months time.”
“I can’t think of a reason why not.”
“So, who are you considering, madam? Southey? He’s certainly the youngest.”
“Well, now I can’t possibly lower myself to having Vellagio, I’m thinking Malmesbury, actually.”
“Malmesbury?” Susan’s fingers didn’t falter, but Fury sensed her start of surprise. Not in admiration of her sense of judgment either.
“Oh, I do admit that Southey would probably be less trouble and far more malleable. But Malmesbury’s hardly one-legged and toothless. I’m sure he knows how to treat a woman properly. Besides, so long as he’s—not like Thomas—what does it matter?”
Truth to tell, if anyone could understand her predicament, Thomas would have. For her sake, he’d tried ensuring an heir. But these last six months, as what pressed on his brain swelled, well … she certainly didn’t want any man treating her like Thomas had.
“That would be hard, madam, given the things His Grace did to you.”
“Well, we must remember, he wasn’t always like that. No. I think I’ve decided, Malmesbury, and I … Well, I think I should just go along there and get it over with. The sooner the better, don’t you think?” She smoothed a smoky curl into place on her forehead. “Besides, my reckoning is, he positively expects it.”
“What? Malmesbury? That old–”
“Oh, yes.” She reached toward the open trinket chest. “Now, what do you think? Sapphire earrings or plain gold?”
“I don’t see either matters, since they’re not going to be on very long.”
“Just the same.” She fastened on the sapphire drops. “You obviously didn’t see the way he stared there just now. I very much doubt he can contain himself.”
“The old goat.”
“Well. Who knows? If he’s a randy one, it might even be rather fun.” She marveled at herself for laughing when shadows ringed her eyes. But there, so long as she got through this, what did it matter?
Susan’s hand rested on her shoulder. “Then I’ll get him for you, madam, if this is truly your choice.”
“No.” Fun or not—and she thought not—the notion of admitting him here, to the bed she’d shared with Thomas, didn’t seem quite right somehow, even if she did manage to conceive the Beaumont heir. “I—I’ll do it. I need to calm my nerves. What bedroom is he in again? I confess I’ve forgotten.”
“The Blue Chamber.”
“Well then, think of England, as they say. Wish me luck. And remember to lock the drawer. However I choose to use it, that book is still the world to me. We must see it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.”
She rose, smoothed her dress—indigo silk, a perfect match for her hair and eyes– and took the candlestick.
If she did this, she forfeited forever her claim to be a respectable woman. Who was going to know though? Apart from herself, Susan and Malmesbury. That old coot would marry her in a second, if she gave the word. It was all the more reason to choose him. So why worry when the only thing that could possibly stand in her way was herself?
If she didn’t execute this task, then she faced being in the same position as she had been in seven years ago. It was fine at eighteen. But now, she needed to secure some things. Once she had, think of how free she’d be of men and all their machinations. For the first time ever. Women, too.
The Blue Chamber stood at the far end of the landing near the stairs, and she padded there noiselessly in the arc of the flickering candle, past the disapproving busts of the villa-owner Signor Santa-Rosa’s ancestors and the draped apertures, which she sometimes imagined hid more secrets than she did.
Malmesbury would be surprised to see her. Irresistibly dressed, jeweled, perfumed in a floating cloud of jasmine, and, hopefully, willing—as much as she could make herself, anyway. Who would know that beneath the rustling indigo silk, the heady, intoxicating jasmine she had bathed in earlier, she was like a skittish colt, ready to bolt? Was this how Marie Antoinette felt going to her execution? The queen’s deeds were certainly questionable. But her courage now? That was to be admired.
Besides, surprise could sometimes be the best method of attack. A man was, after all, a man. And, as she’d said to Susan, it might even be rather fun. If it wasn’t, well, in addition to swiftly retiring to her own bedroom, bolting the door and lying with cool lavender scented cloths on her forehead, there was her book, wasn’t there?
If he put a hand on her that was less than seemly, what she’d say to him on the subject of his murkier dealings would certainly ensure it would be fun the next time, if not before. Oh, this was going to be just fine.
Drawing a breath to quell her hammering heart, she raised her hand to tap on the door.
“Hello, sweetheart.” A low, American Southern voice drawled. Not from the other side of the door where she expected to hear something, but almost in her ear.
“Imagine seeing you here.”
Rule One: There will be no kissing. Rule two: You will be fully clothed at all times…
Widowed Lady Fury Shelton hasn’t lost everything—yet. As long as she produces the heir to the Beaumont dukedom, she just might be able to keep her position. And her secrets. But when the callously irresistible Captain James “Flint” Blackmoore sails back into her life, Lady Fury panics. She must find a way to protect herself—and her future—from the man she’d rather see rotting in hell than sleeping in her bed. If she must bed him to keep her secrets, so be it. But she doesn’t have to like it. A set of firm rules for the bedroom will ensure that nothing goes awry. Because above all else, she must stop herself from wanting the one thing that Flint can never give her. His heart.
Ex-privateer Flint Blackmoore has never been good at following the rules. Now, once again embroiled in a situation with the aptly named Lady Fury, he has no idea why he doesn’t simply do the wise thing and walk away. He knows he’s playing with fire, and that getting involved with her again is more dangerous than anything on the high seas. But he can’t understand why she’s so determined to hate him. He isn’t sure if the secret she keeps will make things harder—or easier—for him, but as the battle in the bedroom heats up, he knows at least one thing. Those silly rules of hers will have to go…