Miss Lucy Lancester was in love with a rake. It was a truth she had accepted long ago, leaving her no reason to question it. Roman Alexander, Lord Montborne, had been a twinkle-eyed lad. He was now a handsome, libidinous charmer. Lucy’s father had been exactly such a man, and if she knew nothing else, she knew she was exactly like her mother.
With a wistful sigh for what should never be—and a shudder for what she feared was very much out of her control—Lucy turned on her heel and marched across the small bedchamber she’d been assigned.
The town house that her brother Ashlin, Lord Trestin, had let for her and her sister’s come-out in London wasn’t quite wide enough to give her real satisfaction. She required at least twice as much space to pace properly, but seeing as Trestin was taking his lessons at Gentleman Jackson’s, there was nowhere else she could go. Without Trestin to escort her through the city—streets he termed dangerous and frightening—she could do nothing more than slowly go mad, trapped inside these Chinese-papered walls.
Trapped with her thoughts of Roman.
Which were sure to drive her mad.
As mad as her mother had been?
Lucy grimaced. No, she couldn’t think of that. She had plenty to worry about without wondering if her mother’s tainted blood lurked in her veins.
Lucy’s fingers grazed her stomach; a foreboding sense of futility had put her off her luncheon. Maintaining her optimism was always most difficult when she had recently seen Roman. Though the intervening hours since Lady Ainsworth’s dinner party should have afforded her plenty of time to come to terms with what had occurred there—or not occurred, as better described last evening—the distressing fact was, she could never forget the hopeless sensation of being entirely invisible to the man she adored.
Oh, he’d nodded politely at her. For that heartbeat when his eyes had locked with hers, she’d been swept into a heady fantasy wherein Roman Alexander, the man she’d loved since she’d been a girl of fifteen, had actually seen her.
But he hadn’t really looked at her. His attention had barely slid away from the pretty young thing at his side. With shaking hands, Lucy had gripped the ivory silk of her new ball gown and bobbed him a curtsey in return. That slight movement had been enough to break the moment. He’d turned to the comely miss at his side and that had been that. He hadn’t approached Lucy later, not even to remark on the fine crush of people, and she hadn’t gone to him. When it came to her brother’s best friend, short of lifting her skirt and offering Roman a peek up it, she couldn’t expect more than a passing acknowledgment of her presence.
As she crossed her bedchamber a third time, she reminded herself that she was relieved to know Roman had no interest in her. At least she needn’t worry she’d find herself leg-shackled to a man who would show more interest in other men’s wives than his own!
Not that she ought to so much as think of Roman as husband material. Hers or anyone’s. She couldn’t fool herself into believing that Roman Alexander had any interest in settling into marriage. For if she had one iota of hope, she might set her cap at him.
She might try to marry him.
No. Roman was like her father. A rakehell, in every sense of the word. Quick to smile, quick to tease, curving his lips with some amusing secret he couldn’t be trusted to keep. A man who could turn a woman’s head at twenty paces, then dash her hopes before he even reached her. That was the man she knew. A marquis without a useful thought in his head, without a coin in his pocket that wasn’t owed.
And yet, nothing could dissuade her from wanting Roman to take notice of her. Even the fact that he was nine years her senior, faithless as a scoundrel, foppish as a popinjay and hardly aware of her existence, didn’t deter her heart.
Love was problematic that way.
And yet, that didn’t mean she didn’t crave the feeling of being seen. To be gazed at the same way Roman looked at other women…
To feel that he saw her, inside and out…
If just once he would look at her that way…If she could believe for one precious second that he knew what agony was in her heart…If she could feel him brush his hand against her waist and see the proof in his pale blue eyes that he knew she was a woman, and not just Trestin’s baby sister…
To put it bluntly, she could accept being a spinster forever after that.
But such heavenly contact required him to look at her for more than an instant. For that, she needed an occasion to be near him. Those opportunities had been few and far between—much fewer and farther between than she’d expected when she’d grudgingly agreed to make her debut in Society.
Drawing Roman’s notice had been a foolish hope. She saw that now. But sheltered on her brother’s estate in Devon, she’d naïvely believed that simply being in London at the same time as Roman would present her with plenty of occasion to turn his head.
As she’d almost managed to do not long ago, on a windswept beach near their home in Brixcombe-on-the-Bay.
Lucy curled her fingers into fists. So close. She’d been so close to making him see her. Then they’d all tromped to London and scattered to the four winds. The occasional glance across the punch bowl wasn’t going to be enough to change Roman’s view of her as a fatuous little girl.
She needed to speak with him. Challenge his opinion of her. There was more to seduction than simply staring at him across the room and hoping he’d take notice of her new gown—there must be more. Roman had his choice of pretty girls, and while Lucy didn’t consider herself ugly, she was undeniably unremarkable. With her rail-thin frame, black hair, slanting eyes and sharp nose, she was realistic enough to know she would never be mistaken for an English rose.
To set herself apart, she must get under his skin. But she couldn’t needle him if she couldn’t come within arm’s length of him. She braced her hands on the window frame and stared down into the quiet street. If only her brother had shown any interest in escorting her and Delilah about! Trestin and Roman had been the closest of friends since boyhood. Roman would surely grace his old chum with his presence, should they find themselves trapped at the same entertainments. And though Lucy and Trestin were rarely in accord, she could hold her tongue while Roman was present, if it meant seeing the marquis.
If it meant him seeing her.
But Trestin almost never attended the balls and soirees her sponsor and second cousin, Lady Ditsworth, chose for her and Delilah. Lucy glared at the unknown couple walking arm in arm down the cobbled street below her. After all the years her brother had harped on the importance of marriage, she’d finally agreed to make her debut, solely because she’d come to realize if she didn’t at least pretend to search for a husband, Trestin would never search for a wife.
And he must marry, or she’d go mad. He needed someone to distract him from his perceived responsibility of caring for his two adult sisters. Yet since their arrival, he’d steadfastly declined to partake of the Season, and he wasn’t likely to find a fiancée at the bottom of a brandy snifter.
She eased her grip on the window ledge. She didn’t need to understand men to see her brother was miserable. But he was lonely, and he needed to marry. For seven years he’d dedicated his life to the two girls he’d inherited as wards after the sudden and horrific deaths of their mother and father. But as Lucy approached her twenty-fifth birthday and Delilah reached her majority, it was long past time for them to become their own women.
And for their overbearing brother to take a wife.
Trestin’s nuptials seemed unlikely to come about anytime soon. Not only did he secrete himself away, rather than escort Lucy and Delilah to the parties where eligible young ladies hung on the edges of the room in the hopes a man exactly like him would sweep them off their feet, he wasn’t in a mood to fall in love at all. For Trestin had recently had his hopes for matrimony dashed when the woman he had been courting in Brixcombe had turned out not to be the genteel spinster she’d presented herself as, but a prominent courtesan.
Lucy was still shocked by the revelation. Never in her life had she expected to come face-to-face with a lightskirt, especially not in sleepy Brixcombe. Truth to tell, she was more intrigued by Miss Smythe’s former occupation than appalled. But Trestin…
Trestin was furious. It was little wonder he’d taken up the sport of pugilism upon arriving in London. She’d never seen her brother so angry—or hurt—as he was at Miss Smythe’s deception.
A glance at the sun above her told Lucy it would be hours yet before he returned from his afternoon bout at Gentleman Jackson’s. She dug her nails deeper into the wooden ledge. It was all well and good for him to be—at last—developing pursuits that didn’t include her or Delilah. His obsession with protecting their reputations following their parents’ scandalous demise had nearly driven Lucy to fisticuffs, herself.
But why must his sudden decision to expand his interests coincide with his plan to launch his sisters into Society? Especially when neither girl had wanted to be paraded on the London Marriage Mart in the first place, seeing as both women were already in love with men from Devon.
Unsuitable men, perhaps. But then, love was problematic that way.
That didn’t mean Lucy didn’t want to see the city. They were here, they ought to be about! Taking in the Museum, the parks, Pall Mall, Westminster, Carlton House. Vauxhall, to be sure, though of course she’d rather see that spectacular sight at night.
Trestin would never let her go to such a scandalous place after dark.
She clenched her teeth at the notion. What was the point in him forcing her to London if she wasn’t to see more of it than certain approved matrons’ ballrooms? And what was the chance she’d capture Roman’s interest at any of those insipid and heavily chaperoned events?
None. None at all. And yet, Trestin didn’t concern himself with this fact, as he would never consider his best friend respectable, let alone a suitable prospect for one of his precious sisters.
Certainly the smarter route, she admonished herself. She wasn’t looking for a husband. Especially not one like her father, who would drive even a sane woman to lunacy. No, if she couldn’t have Roman without fearing for her heart and her mind, she’d remain unmarried forever.
A prospect she didn’t shy away from, not exactly, for if she succeeded in establishing a girls’ boarding school as she meant to do, she could happily preside over her own household for the rest of her bluestocking days.
What she wanted…what she needed…was for Roman to need her.
She ran her hands down the length of the white muslin dress marking her debutante status. Roman was drawn to the type of women who wore jewel-toned gowns: widows, wives, courtesans.
Those innocent misses who did manage to gain his attention often ended in ruin; Roman had caused enough scandal that he ought to have traveled the Continent no less than three times, leaving the gossip to cool behind him.
But Roman didn’t go to France when he caused a scandal. He ran to Devon. And so another girl’s misery had always meant Lucy’s joy—however unkind that sounded. For until now, Lucy had never come to London, and Roman rarely went home unless something untoward had occurred.
She stopped suddenly. Dear Zeus, she must cease dithering. This was her chance. If she didn’t succeed in capturing his attention this Season, she never would.
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts and resumed pacing. It must be now. The only way she could move forward with her plan to establish her girls’ school and begin her life as a bookish, respectable headmistress was to sate her illogical and ill-advised longing for Roman’s attentions.
Illogical, but also instructional. Wasn’t it? For how could she think to guide young ladies through womanhood if she’d never experienced it, herself?
Her entire life, she’d lived by Trestin’s rules. Abided by them as closely as she could stomach. How did she purport to teach her girls to think for themselves if she’d never done so? How could she advise her charges to evade the lure of the forbidden, if she didn’t know what was being prohibited?
She pressed her hand to her heart. That day on the beach she’d seen a flash of something lucid in Roman’s eyes. Awareness, she’d thought. It had come and gone quickly, as fleeting as the moment.
But it hadn’t been random. Miss Smythe, the retired courtesan who’d purchased the small cottage abutting Trestin’s estate, had given Lucy a word of advice just before the men had descended upon them. She’d said Lucy must allow Roman to play the gallant. An admonition against Lucy’s bullish assertion of independence, as she usually behaved in his presence.
That simple bit of instruction had caused Roman to treat Lucy as a lady for the first time since she’d come of age. He’d helped her into the rowboat chivalrously, gripping her hands firmly between his, inquiring after her comfort solicitously. He’d made her laugh in spite of her nervousness. Not once had he made a teasing remark about her coltishness, or chided her for her country naïveté.
Lucy leaned over the windowsill in her bedchamber, as if she could see all the way to St James. Miss Smythe, too, had come to the city.
She was just a few streets away.
Lucy gripped the wooden window box, considering. Miss Smythe knew Roman. Everyone, it seemed, knew the marquis. But as a lady of the night, Miss Smythe knew him well. They’d been friends. More importantly, she knew what tricks drew a man’s attention.
Specifically, she knew what drew Roman’s attention.
A thrill bubbled through Lucy. Trestin would never approve of her speaking to Miss Smythe, let alone calling at her house in Town. He certainly wouldn’t approve of Lucy’s harebrained idea to seduce Roman into yearning, or perhaps more.
But then, Trestin wasn’t here to disapprove of it, was he?
Oh, Hades take his rules! After the Season ended, she intended to become her own woman, anyhow. If Trestin caught her plotting with a lightskirt, so be it. If he learned of her need for Roman to take notice of her, splendid. She could think of no worse punishment than never feeling the weight of Roman’s regard.
Perhaps Roman would even kiss her.
She let herself imagine pressing her lips to his perfect, masculine mouth for just a fraction too long. Then she straightened her shoulders and pushed the daydream away. Whatever the outcome, whatever the risks, they would be worth everything if afterward, her sanity returned and she could begin her life without the distraction of her bittersweet, unrequited, infuriating infatuation.
Lucy marched to her wardrobe where her carefully considered trousseau hung in neat, orderly lines. Trestin hadn’t been able to afford dozens of dresses for her like some debutantes received, but he’d provided Lucy credit enough to purchase two ball gowns, a walking dress, a carriage dress, and a new morning gown. As chatelaine of his household accounts, she understood what they had cost him, and she appreciated his sacrifice—even if she would have preferred to take the money in the form of an investment in her school, rather than an unnecessary trousseau.
But… She did adore London fashions.
She trailed her fingertips along the silk, muslin and wool dress sleeves and reached for her bonnet. Ringing for her maid was entirely out of the question. For her visit to Miss Smythe, she’d wear the prim morning dress she’d already donned, rather than change into a frock more befitting an audience with a notorious courtesan. After all, the last thing she needed was for her brother to learn she’d stepped out after he’d expressly forbidden her from leaving the house unchaperoned.
Especially considering all the other rules she meant to break.
After tying her freshly re-ribboned bonnet beneath her chin, Lucy tiptoed to peer inside her sister’s bedchamber door.
Delilah, a strikingly pretty miss of almost two and twenty, sat hunched over her writing desk. Her pen flew across the page, leaving crowded, inky lines in its wake. Another letter to Mr. Conley, no doubt. Lucy slipped past the open door, no longer fearing being caught by her sister. Once Delilah began composing a missive to the forbidden beau she’d left behind in Devon, she was lost to the rest of the world.
Without further ado and allowing herself no qualms, Lucy exited the town house and went down the steps to the walk. She turned in the direction of St James.
This wasn’t the first time she’d considered calling on Miss Smythe. Merely the first time she’d found the conviction to do so. After overhearing her brother and Roman discussing the woman’s scandalous origins, Lucy had sneaked into Trestin’s library and hunted for the documents of sale that had transferred ownership of the old dower house to Miss Smythe—Miss Celeste Gray in actuality, for the name she’d given them all was assumed.
Lucy had scribbled the St James address onto a scrap of paper and tucked it into her bodice just in time for Trestin’s return.
She didn’t need the foolscap today. She’d rehearsed the direction of Miss Gray’s house a dozen times in her mind. Just as she’d rehearsed what she meant to say to the famed courtesan once she was inside. She savored the burst of hope that swelled in her breast, for if anyone knew how to draw Roman’s attention, it was Celeste.
And if anyone could understand why Lucy must do it…
It was her brother’s spurned sweetheart.
After a quarter hour’s walk, Lucy reached the smart-looking terraced homes that housed London’s demimondaines. Lucy drew a deep breath and stepped up to rap on the door. Barely a moment passed before it was opened by the most frightening man she’d ever seen. He looked down on her critically, as though assessing the threat she might pose to the mistress of the house.
Lucy braced herself and raised her chin, refusing to be cowed before she’d even begun. The man settled his beefy arms across his chest and continued to regard her mutely. He was colossal even for a prizefighter—not that Lucy was accustomed to measuring up prizefighters, but the manservant blocking the doorway with his massive shoulders could easily have crushed a man’s skull in his fist.
When she opened her school, she must remember to hire a manservant who could scare away a villain with one curled lip.
“’Tis early yet,” he announced without preamble.
Was it? But then she remembered Miss Gray likely kept late hours.
“Please, sir,” she replied in a brisk, efficient tone, “I would like to be received as soon as can be managed. I haven’t the freedom to return at a later hour. Tell your mistress I’ve come, and let her decide whether she will see me or not.”
Without budging, the stone-faced sentry flicked his eyes over Lucy’s person. “Who are you?”
Lucy cleared her throat and stood taller. “Miss Lancester, sir.” She wasn’t entirely certain why she was “sir’ing” a servant, but it seemed appropriate.
Really, she must hire on a man like this for her school.
No sooner had she given her name than the servant pulled himself upright. His barrel-shaped chest puffed as the door opened wider. He stepped back and waved her in. “Miss Lancester! Come in.”
Lucy hid her surprise. Now this was intriguing. The man must be aware of Trestin, or else why would he have snapped to attention at the sound of her surname?
But she said nothing about it as she entered the foyer. It shouldn’t surprise her to learn he was familiar with her brother. Miss Gray’s domestics had returned with her from Devon, leaving her little stone cottage empty. Just because this man hadn’t been in the countryside didn’t mean he didn’t know what had transpired.
Faster than Lucy would have thought possible given his size, the burly man whisked in front of her. He led her into a sitting room done up in a bold saffron yellow, his expression guarded despite the speed with which he settled her on the crimson-colored couch in the center of the room.
He departed, presumably to notify his mistress, and Lucy kept her expression carefully composed as she took in a room that was anything but staid. Two additional red chairs splashed across the space, accenting the yellow walls and the Spanish landscape hanging over the mantel. Wrought iron frames accented the decor, giving the room a distinctly Italian feel.
A deliciously worldly feel. No wonder Trestin was in love with her. Miss Gray was vivid. Alive. Just like Lucy wanted to become.
Finally, the renowned courtesan peeked into the room, as though unsure whether she would really find Lucy sitting in her front parlor.
Lucy sat up straighter. Suddenly, she was nervous. If anyone learned of her call today, she would be ruined. And if Trestin learned of it, she’d be locked up.
What frightened her most, however, was the thought of Miss Gray rejecting her request for help.
Miss Gray stepped gracefully into the room, her poise almost regal. Lucy rose. She could do this. Asking a favor of another female shouldn’t give her heart palpitations.
Requesting that an illustrious consort advise her in the tricks of lovemaking might justify a small tremor, however.
“Miss Smythe!” Lucy said, bungling the woman’s name in her nervousness. “I mean, Miss Gray.”
Miss Gray faltered, flinching visibly. Lucy felt her cheeks heat. Miss Gray likely needed no additional reminders of the unpleasantness that had been her time in Devon. Foolish, foolish mistake.
“Miss Lancester.” Miss Gray enunciated the syllables slowly, seeming to choose her words with care. “I am pleasantly surprised to see you, but surely you shouldn’t be here.” A frown creased her brow.
The vast understatement gave Lucy hope. Miss Gray might be an Impolite, but she was still too polite to toss Lucy out on her ear.
Lucy walked forward and held out her hands. “He’ll never know,” she reassured Miss Gray, clasping the other woman’s hands. On impulse, she pulled the courtesan in for a quick hug. There had been a time when Lucy, too, had believed their neighbor to be simple Miss Smythe, and they’d become tentative friends of a sorts, until Trestin had learned the truth and separated them. “It’s so nice to see you again.”
Miss Gray didn’t return Lucy’s spontaneous embrace. Rather, she stepped back and pulled Lucy onto the red sofa.
“It’s wonderful to see you, too,” Miss Gray said uneasily, leaving no doubt she’d never expected to see Lucy again after Devon, let alone inside her house of ill repute. The tenuous friendship they’d formed had clearly been tainted by Trestin’s harsh treatment of her.
It might require time for her to warm to and trust Lucy again.
In a way, Lucy was glad of the hesitant, awkward greeting. Miss Gray wasn’t always confident and poised, then. She could be shaken. And if she was not a goddess, but a human woman, surely that meant Lucy, too, could learn the art of sensuality.
Miss Gray patted Lucy’s hand tentatively, visibly acclimating herself to the sudden surprise appearance of her former beau’s younger sister.
“How is your Season faring?” she asked after a time, seeming to decide she would visit with Lucy after all.
The perfect opening for the subject Lucy had come to discuss. “Not my Season, you know. Trestin is the one on the Marriage Mart, though he prefers to pretend it’s Delilah and me. Not that Delilah is husband-hunting, either. My dear sister cannot stop pining for Mr. Conley. She’s quite withdrawn.”
“Poor Trestin,” Miss Gray murmured, her skin turning almost translucent as the color left her cheeks.
Lucy instantly felt contrite, again. What was she blabbering on about? She ought not to have mentioned Trestin, when all she’d meant to explain was that she wasn’t looking for a husband, for she was quite in love with Roman.
She certainly hadn’t intended to cause the other woman misery.
She forced herself to laugh, though she felt gauche for putting her slipper in her mouth. “Poor me! Trestin is a hound with a bone. He has some misguided opinion I would make the perfect cleric’s wife. Where he got that notion, I have no idea. I detest the church. The more left unsaid on that the better, though I vow you will not judge me for it.”
Miss Gray’s brow crinkled. Once again, Lucy winced at her faux pas. Had she truly rehearsed this tête-à-tête before coming? It had all sounded much better in her head.
She leaned forward, squeezing Miss Gray’s frigid hands. She needed to say one right thing before she bungled her visit entirely. “There are only two things I want in this life and I know you can help me with one.”
Miss Gray’s fingers attempted to slip Lucy’s grip, but Lucy held tighter as her former co-conspirator looked at her with skepticism.
Lucy steeled herself, then said, “Teach me how to seduce Roman Alexander.”
Miss Gray’s green eyes went wide with shock. “Your brother would kill me!”
Lucy’s heart pounded in her throat. She wasn’t sure when her objective had changed from a few heated looks to full-on seduction, but now that she’d said the words, her entire being sprang to life. She wanted to feel Roman. To touch him, to taste him, and yes, to see him look at her with naked desire.
Please, Zeus, Miss Gray couldn’t refuse her. If she did, all hope was lost. Lucy would never have another chance to know what pleasures he could bring her.
“He’ll never know,” Lucy assured her coyly, with more confidence than she felt. “Why would I tell him?”
When Miss Gray continued to gawp at her in horror, Lucy smiled as if they shared a lovely secret—as they very much did, now. “I have a dream of starting a girls’ school, you know. All very proper. This shall be my last hurrah. I trust you can do this, Miss Gray.”
Miss Gray stared mutely, clearly dumbfounded by Lucy’s request.
Lucy tried to see herself from Miss Gray’s point of view. She was asking a woman with no reputation to risk one that was unblemished. She must think Lucy mad.
It didn’t hit far from the mark.
Lucy released Miss Gray’s hands and rose. Calmly, appearing far calmer than she felt, she took in the graceful ironwork decorating the room like an Italian palazzo. “You worked magic for me that day on the shore,” she said, referring to the outing that had ended—most unfortunately—in Trestin’s scathing rebuke of the woman he’d come to admire. “Roman had never spared me a glance before and hasn’t since.”
Miss Gray blinked once, as though taken aback.
Before she could cut in with an objection, Lucy continued, “Oh, I know I’m not the type to catch his eye, but that’s where you come in. You were friends once, weren’t you? Until he didn’t approve of your interest in my brother. Well, of course he didn’t.” Lucy decided not to mince words, for the reason that she’d come to Miss Gray rather than anyone else was contained inside one simple statement of fact. “You’re a courtesan.”
Miss Gray’s lips parted. “How old are you again?”
Lucy laughed, this time truthfully. There was indeed something liberating about being with Miss Gray. She possessed an aura of having seen and done everything, an atmosphere that tempted a person to speak openly, even about subjects that would otherwise be forbidden. As if, just because Miss Gray had given herself to licentiousness, Lucy had permission to do so, as well.
Miss Gray seemed to have gained control of her thoughts. She sat up straighter and frowned. “Absolutely not. You’re too young, too innocent, and you have far too bright of a future ahead of you. I won’t usher your ruination.”
“I’m four and twenty. Firmly on the shelf. Who will ever know I seduced my brother’s best friend?”
Miss Gray’s eyes widened. “Everyone!”
Lucy tsked, for while there were many risks to her plan, this was not one of them. “Come now, Roman isn’t going to shout it out for all and sundry. That’s the fastest way to the parson’s trap. He’s certainly not going to tell my brother. Trestin is a crack shot. It will be a secret only the three of us know.”
“A ridiculously innocent notion,” Miss Gray replied, rebuking her sharply. “Men talk. Especially him. Look how well he kept my secret.”
The volley hit its mark. Roman had been the only one in Devon who’d known of Miss Gray’s past, and he hadn’t been able to keep it to himself. Lucy had heard him tell Trestin the truth that day on the beach. It was one of the many conversations meant for gentlemen’s ears she’d eavesdropped on over the years, especially when those conversations involved Roman.
He’d meant well, she was sure. He’d had Trestin’s best interests at heart. But Miss Gray had lost the new life she’d begun building in Brixcombe-on-the-Bay, and Trestin had become a maudlin, withdrawn wreck. All because Roman hadn’t understood how easy it was to fall in love with someone unsuitable. A terrible complication Lucy knew only too well.
Yet she couldn’t let Miss Gray’s dashed hopes interfere with her own future. “I’m well aware Roman is a horrible gossip. But I promise you, he will not want to risk it.”
Miss Gray paused before she said, “Much can be deduced from very little.” Then she rose and approached Lucy. “How exactly did you find me?”
Lucy clasped her hands before her in a picture of gentility. “A lady never reveals her sources.” She glanced at her hands demurely, though she couldn’t contain a small, satisfied smile. If Miss Gray knew the extent to which she’d gone to investigate her brother’s would-be wife, she might think Lucy completely without scruples. And she would be correct.
“The answer is no.” Miss Gray’s tone was final.
Lucy relinquished her guiltless expression with a roll of her eyes. “Oh, very well.” Raising her linked hands to her bosom, she spun to face the window. She wouldn’t explain how she’d come to find Miss Gray’s direction, for her methods were devious, even for her. But she did wish to explain how she’d come to learn Miss Gray’s secret. “If you must know, I overheard Trestin and Roman arguing that day on the shore. The pieces came together. Our father was a profligate, as I’m sure you’re aware. Trestin loathes any reminder of Father, and that includes his feelings for you. I’m afraid he doesn’t understand love, Miss Gray, but he will.”
She sighed, feeling terribly sad for her misguided, moral compass of a brother. “For the last seven years, he’s kept the concept pure and perfect in his heart, believing that if my parents had loved each other with a pure, perfect innocence, Father would never have had mistresses and Mother would never have shot him for it. But they did love each other. I remember them clearly.”
A shiver passed through Lucy, unbidden.
She turned, drawing a breath. “I apologize for what I’m about to say, Miss Gray, but you need to understand why I came. After witnessing my brother’s melancholy, I’m even more adamant to have a night in Roman’s arms. I want to live. I fear I will never have another chance.”
Almost imperceptibly, Miss Gray leaned forward. Worry clouded her eyes. “Trestin is hurting?” Her voice sounded strained.
Lucy flinched inwardly. She ought not to have let that slip. What if she’d given Miss Gray hope, when he hadn’t changed his mind, not at all?
“Not anymore,” Lucy hedged. “I am sorry about that.”
Miss Gray glanced away, making Lucy feel terribly for lying. Lucy did wish she could improve her brother’s opinion of the beautiful, fun-loving woman. She’d love nothing more than to see Miss Gray and Trestin carefree and happy again, as they’d been in Brixcombe. But it wasn’t in her power to convince Trestin to return to Miss Gray, and she certainly couldn’t promise her brother was thinking about it. Only he could decide when and if he would admit he’d been a horse’s arse.
Lucy approached Miss Gray and gave her hand a squeeze, wanting to comfort her, yet reluctant to betray assumptions about her brother’s change of heart. “Won’t you help me?”
Miss Gray looked up with wide, sorrowful eyes. After a time, she seemed to set aside her raw emotions for Trestin. She swallowed thickly. “How can I? You wish to seduce my friend. I cannot be a part of that.”
Were she and Roman still friends? Lucy wanted to ask the question, but surely she’d probed enough. Perhaps Miss Gray did still feel some loyalty for the rogue who’d cost her everything. She seemed a kindhearted sort.
“It is nothing less than he deserves,” Lucy said, reminding Miss Gray of the pain he’d caused her and alluding to the many innocents he’d ruined and abandoned. Certainly, Roman had proven he could extricate himself from a sticky situation. He would escape unscathed from her seduction, as well.
Miss Gray rested a fist against her belly and walked to the window. After a moment, she asked, “What if the other young ladies were just as calculating as you’re being? Perhaps he hasn’t ruined anyone at all. Rumors are often unfounded.”
“I don’t know for sure that he’s deflowered any virgins,” Lucy admitted, though if just one third of the accusations were correct, he was guilty of at least one seduction. “But I’m certain he’s raised expectations only to dash them at the last minute. He falls in and out of love like he changes cravats.” She paused. “Roman has a bundle of cravats.”
It was her attempt to lighten the mood, but Miss Gray wasn’t swayed, not yet. She turned back to Lucy. “You’re sure you have no use for your maidenhead? An innocent like you, with a dowry and a brother determined to see you wed?”
And therein lay the problem. The only two people who cared about her maidenhead were her brother and his paramour. In the last few minutes, she’d concluded she was more than willing to trade it for a night in Roman’s arms.
“Trestin loves me, really, he does, but if he knew anything about me he’d help me charter a school instead of pressing me to marry.” Lucy shook her head, then set her shoulders back and looked at the one person who could help her achieve her every desire. “The trouble is, I’m in love with a man who would make a terrible husband, and yet I don’t want to marry anyone else. I will have him once, because I cannot bear not to have him at all.” Her voice wavered. “It shall have to be enough for a lifetime.”
Miss Gray’s lower lip trembled, mirroring Lucy’s sense of futility. Was she regretting not seducing Trestin, before he’d learned of her past?
Lucy waited, sensing her victory was close, yet too anxious to hope she would receive the answer she longed to hear.
Finally, Miss Gray shook her head. “I’ll teach you how to draw Roman’s interest if you’ll promise two things,” she said softly, her green gaze shuttering.
Lucy could barely hide her thrill of success. She’d done it! She could scarcely believe Miss Gray was capitulating. “Anything, Miss Gray. Name it and it’s done.”
Miss Gray raised her index finger to count off her stipulations. “You will seduce only Roman.”
Lucy nodded eagerly. That much she could easily promise. “I want no other man in my bed.”
Miss Gray smiled wanly. Then she seemed to straighten, as if the thought of her next request buoyed her. She held up a second finger. “Two: You must allow me to be your school’s anonymous benefactress. I want to sponsor ten charity girls each year in addition to shouldering the costs we cannot cover with the paying girls’ tuition.”
Oh! Miss Gray wanted to help with the school? After months of failing to gain support from Trestin, this was more than Lucy had ever dreamed—Miss Gray was one of the wealthiest women in London.
When Lucy’s mouth opened to exclaim over the offer, Miss Gray pressed, “I insist.”
* * *
“I’d like the school to be established by the end of the Season,” Lucy said as they entered Miss Gray’s study. “That way, Trestin cannot twist my arm and wrangle another Season out of me.”
“It will require time to go through the details,” Miss Gray cautioned, causing Lucy to bristle behind her. But then, Miss Gray could have no idea that before Lucy had traveled from Devon she’d tucked two leather-bound volumes of carefully thought-out strategies for managing the school into her valise.
Miss Gray went to a wall of shelves crammed with books of all sizes. Lucy scanned the rows and quickly realized there were no sentimental novels or books of poetry here. Even the Classics were missing. Rather, ledgers and maps and travelogues were wedged together, many with silk strips of ribbon marking their pages.
“Have you been to all these places?” Lucy plucked a book of navigational maps from the shelf and let it fall open. An ocean dotted by softly curving islands caught her attention first. “Hmm, I think not, unless you were a pirate at one time.”
“I haven’t seen half the places I’d like, but yes, most of these I’ve collected along the way.” Miss Gray announced her world travels with the indifference of a woman to whom traveling was commonplace, rather than impossible.
Lucy reluctantly closed the map and pushed the book back into its place on the shelf, her gloved fingertips trailing the spine as she slowly turned to look at the small office with new eyes. Miss Gray wasn’t just a woman who understood the pain of unrequited affection. She was fully independent, a consummate businesswoman who had become outrageously wealthy selling a commodity she had cultivated and marketed herself.
Miss Gray pried a volume from between two larger books and took it to her desk. “The last time I counted, I’ve only been to six countries,” she said with a very Continental shrug.
Lucy suddenly felt as though she were in the presence of greatness. “My goodness! And you came to our little town, too. What could possibly have brought you there?”
Miss Gray slid into her chair and opened the map book across her desk. If she was aware of Lucy’s awe, she didn’t show it. “I’d rather not divulge the reason. Rarely do I act without gain in mind and that is all that needs to be said.” She looked hard at Lucy. “You should know what manner of woman you’ve aligned yourself with.”
Lucy couldn’t have been more pleased with Miss Gray’s direct, sensible response. “Someone exactly like myself?”
Miss Gray’s lips quirked, but to Lucy’s approval, she quickly recovered and righted the map spread open before her so that it lay crisp and straight. “Very well then, Miss Lancester—”
“Please, call me Lucy.” At Miss Gray’s sharp look, she hastened to add, “We are partners now, you and I.”
Miss Gray frowned. Lucy held herself still, refusing to betray her uncertainty. Perhaps she’d pushed too far. They had been acquaintances in Devon, two fiercely independent women who chafed at her brother’s stern sense of propriety. But Lucy couldn’t pretend they’d known each other well.
Finally, Miss Gray nodded. “Lucy, then.”
Miss Gray turned the page mechanically, as if not really seeing it. Not inviting Lucy to do the same and call her Celeste.
Lucy tried not to feel discouraged. In time, surely Miss Gray would realize she did not have the same prejudices as her brother.
Miss Gray set the book aside. “I have one more condition. I will handle the financial part of this arrangement, and you must have a care with your reputation. Your character is the critical element of this scheme and it is on tenterhooks as it is, given the scandal in your parents’ past. Without students we have no income.”
Lucy hadn’t expected that. Again, her estimation of Miss Gray rose. Mayhap Miss Gray did pine for Trestin, but she clearly wasn’t the sort to let her emotions distract her from business.
Fortunately, Lucy had no intention of making her seduction of Roman public. Especially if it would jeopardize her school, which, certainly, such a scandal would. She waved away Miss Gray’s concern. “Fair enough.”
Seemingly mollified, Miss Gray pulled the map book back to the center of the table. “Now, did you have a location in mind for the school?”
For the next hour they debated the merits of Bath over Brighton. Lucy regretted not coming armed with her notes, for Miss Gray was shrewd and asked questions Lucy had already carefully researched, but to which she couldn’t recall the answers. She didn’t like feeling disadvantaged, especially when she believed she was right.
When Miss Gray’s lumbering manservant, Mr. Gordo, summoned them to tea, Miss Gray pointed out the time. “Won’t Trestin be looking for you?”
“Not until it’s time to go calling.” Lucy was too busy trying to remember her notes from memory to worry about Trestin. She leaned over the list of expenses they needed to consider before approaching other investors. “Besides, he’s at Jackson’s now. He won’t notice my absence for another few hours.”
But he would notice, eventually. Which meant she did need to set aside the school for now, if she was to learn how to intrigue Roman before dinner.
The only subject she liked to meditate on more than her school was the marquis.
An hour later, after certain key decisions had been made, Lucy was eager to address the real reason she’d come. “Do you think we’ve done enough honest work for the day? I’d like to begin my introduction to the ways of the demimonde, if you please.”
Miss Gray blinked. “You needn’t be a courtesan to seduce Roman.” Her tone said she hadn’t agreed to that at all.
Well, perhaps that hadn’t been the initial plan, true enough. But now that Lucy had seen Miss Gray’s immense success for herself, she fancied knowing how Miss Gray had accomplished it. It seemed logical that poise, confidence and independence of thought would serve Lucy well as headmistress. Not to mention, she had nary a chance of succeeding with Roman if he didn’t see her as a desirable woman, rather than a child.
“Everyone knows he prefers the company of Cyprians.” Lucy set her quill down. “It’s where he goes after the proper balls have concluded.”
Miss Gray visibly hesitated. Lucy wished she hadn’t pressed. Miss Gray couldn’t renege. There was no one else who could possibly instruct her—certainly, no one else who would do so discreetly.
“I want to know everything!” Lucy burst out, unable to rein in her impatience.
A wry smile touched Miss Gray’s lips. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Lucy sat up straighter, bolstered. “Perhaps if we had wine…” Wine always seemed to loosen her tongue. It might do the same for Miss Gray.
Miss Gray glanced again at the clock. “At one o’clock?”
“Surely it can only help?”
Flashing Lucy an exasperated look, Miss Gray rose and went to the bellpull. Carefully, Lucy kept her feeling of victory to herself.
Miss Gray rang, then beckoned Lucy. Obediently, she stood and followed her teacher from the small office to a large, airy room at the front of the house.
A shocking room.
Floor-to-ceiling red satin covered three of the four walls. Afternoon sunlight caused it to shine, but at night the fabric would catch velvety shadows. The atrium ceiling soared above a second-floor gallery with a wrought iron railing. Chairs were pulled up to the balustrade, a bowl of opera glasses placed on a table, as if inviting onlookers.
“Oh, my,” Lucy said, twirling to take in the entire display. On the far wall, an explicit mural depicted a well-attended saturnalia. “Oh, my, oh, my. This is…” Feeling for a nearby chair with one hand, she sat. “Oh, my.”
Pillows were strewn about the carpets on the floor. Aside from the chair she occupied, there were just a few scattered seats, including a brown fainting couch Lucy could all too easily imagine had been put to carnal use.
It must have been Miss Gray’s intent to scandalize her with the implications of this room.
It had worked.
But she wouldn’t allow herself to be persuaded into thinking she’d fallen in over her head. Especially not when she was intrigued, just as much as her maidenly sensibilities were offended.
A marble statue caught her attention. “She’s beautiful,” Lucy breathed, rising to see the proud woman up close. Even without clothing, the lady’s power was evident. It was there in the brazen, inviting look she cast over her shoulder.
A silent, shadowy movement caused Lucy to turn just as Mr. Gordo set a silver tray on one of the mattress-like cushions covering the floor.
When they were alone again, Miss Gray curled a finger at Lucy. “Come.” The courtesan dropped onto the mattress. A pale hand slid over the fabric of her dress, outlining the shape of her knee as it glided toward her calf. The gown was made of cotton, not silk, yet Miss Gray’s caress made it seem otherwise.
Lucy’s breath caught. As Miss Gray’s fingertips reached her ankle, she very deliberately turned the hem of her gown to show a peek of the white lace lining her underskirt, then flashed a view of her stockinged ankle. Lucy gasped.
“Now you do it,” Miss Gray murmured in a voice that slid down the back of Lucy’s neck.
Instinctively, Lucy wanted to say she couldn’t. Admitting as much, however, would prove Miss Gray right. Instead, she drew a breath and sank to the cushion. Awkwardly, she trailed her hand across her knee and down her leg to the top of her walking boot. Unlike Miss Gray’s slippers, her sturdy boot encased her ankle, but she supposed it was the spirit that mattered. She gave a saucy flip of her skirt, then grinned at Miss Gray. “Next?”
Miss Gray raised a brow. Without a word, she turned and absorbed herself with pouring the wine.
Lucy reached for the block of cheese and a knife. As she jabbed into the cheese, she asked, “Do you really wish to leave all this behind?”
Miss Gray didn’t answer immediately. Again Lucy reminded herself that whatever friendship they’d formed in Devonshire had been tarnished by Trestin’s repudiation. She must be patient and allow Miss Gray to warm to her again.
“I’m not sure I can,” Miss Gray said at last. “I’m not sure I want to. I’m not sure of anything except that something must change.” Her gaze fell to the cup in her hands. Quickly, she raised it to her lips.
As if fortified, she raised one hand to indicate the room. “I’m old,” Miss Gray declared. “Too old for this.”
Lucy stopped sawing at the hard cheese block and looked up. The breathtaking enchantress seated across from her couldn’t have been much more than thirty years of age. “Please do not say such hideous things. If you’re old, then I’m very nearly old, and where does that leave us?”
Miss Gray frowned. She reached for one of the cheese wedges. “I’m not sure. Can a former courtesan become a spinster?”
“Is there a clause saying spinsters must be virgins?”
“Perhaps those are old maids,” Miss Gray said, a twinkle coming into her eye at last.
Lucy half-laughed, half-snorted. When Miss Gray smiled in return, Lucy’s breath caught. It felt like an achievement to have broken through the woman’s reticence. And what a lovely smile, too! This was the carefree, confident woman she remembered from the country.
Suddenly, Lucy had three goals in life: Seduce Roman, open her school, and bring Miss Gray and Trestin back together.
Lucy reached for the wine decanter. “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that. Now, you’re too old to attract a man? Bosh. My brother fell head over heels for you the minute he saw you.”
Miss Gray allowed her wineglass to be refilled. “Rusticating in the country limited his options. He wouldn’t have looked twice at me in London.”
“Younger men enjoy older women,” Lucy reasoned, refusing to believe her brother would have been swept away as quickly by a proper, eligible miss as he’d been by Miss Gray. Helpfully, and because she couldn’t resist saying his name aloud, she added, “Roman kept a mistress twice his age when he was twenty.”
“Perhaps it’s me,” Miss Gray said, grimacing. “Perhaps I am simply not attracted to young men anymore.”
“Trestin is younger.”
Miss Gray gifted Lucy with another exasperated smile. “Your astuteness is wearing.” Then she placed her wineglass on the tray and brushed crumbs of cheese from her skirt. “If I don’t occupy you one way, you’ll think of other ways to entertain yourself. Why don’t we try something simple? Here, finish up, and we will use the mirror.”
“But I don’t see a mirror—Oh.”
Miss Gray inched over and tugged at a satin sheet covering a large mirror propped against the wall. As it was unveiled, it glinted in the sunlight. The entire room was visible in the reflection, though Lucy suspected it wasn’t placed there to make the room seem larger.
She let Miss Gray grab her hand and pull her onto her knees so that they knelt side-by-side. No two women could look more different: Miss Gray with her luminous, peach-colored complexion, burnished red hair, and generous bosom, looked radiant even with her hair pulled back into a simple knot. Lucy was merely ordinary beside her. Black hair, brown eyes, spindly arms and small breasts that could easily fit into her own palms. It wouldn’t matter if she wore bloodred silk; she would always be plain.
“Lesson one,” Miss Gray said in Lucy’s ear, “unless you have overly displayed your bosom, a man looks at your face first. Then his gaze travels. After he has perused you once, he does so again, this time in reverse. For this reason a woman must be sure her entire body is ready for a man at all times. If only one asset is to his liking, he will generally dismiss the woman. But a woman with many appealing characteristics will receive more notice. It is the sum, rather than the parts, which attracts him.”
Good advice for a woman with plentiful assets to display. Not terribly helpful to Lucy. “I have a plain face,” she pointed out, in case Miss Gray hadn’t realized it.
Miss Gray’s murmur tickled the outer edge of Lucy’s ear. “No woman is entirely plain or entirely beautiful. It is the confidence with which you hold yourself that affects how others see you.”
Intrigued, Lucy arched her back straighter. “You’re saying I have the ability to make myself beautiful?”
Miss Gray’s lips parted. In the reflection, she leaned in. Gently, her eyes heavy with promise, she asked Lucy, “Have you ever been kissed?”
Lucy’s heart skipped. Kit Whitechapel had stolen a kiss after church one Sunday. He wasn’t Roman, of course, but he was tall and had a ready smile. She’d been sixteen.
Her voice barely sounded above a whisper as she said, “Yes.”
Miss Gray cupped Lucy’s elbows and lowered her voice. “Did you enjoy it?”
“Was he gentle?”
Lucy half laughed, half sighed. “No.”
Miss Gray’s velvety chuckle sent gooseflesh down Lucy’s arms. “Thank goodness.” She tipped her head even closer to Lucy’s. “Did he make you feel wanted?”
“Look at yourself.”
The woman in the mirror watched Lucy through thick, dark lashes. Plump lips begged to be kissed. Her bosom heaved just enough to draw the eye. “I look drugged,” Lucy said, amazed.
“No, inviting.” Miss Gray placed her hand on Lucy’s shoulder. “See how your eyes are heavy? Your lips are full and slightly parted. You have a rosy glow.”
Lucy puckered her lips. Rather than silly, as she’d expected to look, she appeared coy. “Are you sure you didn’t apply cosmetics while my eyes were closed?”
Miss Gray chuckled and tugged at Lucy’s coiffure. Black curls fell to frame her face. “A man lives to see a woman’s pleasure,” Miss Gray explained, her voice lulling. “When he believes he can please her, he is attracted. When she laughs, he believes it is because he made her laugh. To attract Roman, you must be open to the pleasure he can bring you. Then you will be beautiful to him.”
Lucy frowned. “But I will not be beautiful.”
Miss Gray’s eyes snapped. “What is beauty? The arrangement of certain facial features in a particular order? No, it is a perception. When you feel beautiful, when you are open to beauty, others will find you beautiful.”
It sounded so obvious coming from Miss Gray, but could it be true? Surely, if it were that simple, others would be sashaying around with the sort of confidence that drew notice.
Others…like all the pretty girls drawing Roman’s attention.
It could be true, then. What a brilliant idea on her part, to seek the advice of an expert temptress! “And smart,” she quipped, pleased with herself.
Miss Gray smiled. “We should definitely add ‘humble’ to the list.”
Lucy turned and faced her mentor, coming eye to eye with the more experienced woman. “Is that it, then? All I must do is walk around pretending I’ve just been kissed and men will flock to me?”
“No,” Miss Gray replied, tugging another strand of Lucy’s hair to fall in a fat curl at her shoulder, “but it’s a good first step. Kissing can give a woman confidence, so long as she is the one in control. Later, I will teach you about that. For now, try this: As you go about your day, remember how it felt to be desired by your gentleman. Imagine all the men you meet today feel the same way about you. You need not say anything different. Simply pretend you are allowing each man the honor of a moment of your time, and they will treat you differently.”
Lucy turned back to the mirror. She squared her shoulders, enjoying the sensation of cloaking herself in secret, feminine power—and looking forward with delicious anticipation to wielding it. “I truly need not change?”
Miss Gray smiled. Her eyes seemed to light with pride. “No.”
Lucy’s lips curled up in a sly smile. “What is lesson two?”