Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

Lynn Kerstan

November 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-340-5

He treasures her innocence. He will woo her like a lover.

But she will be his mistress, bought and well-paid.

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Bryn, the Earl of Caradoc, uses his wit and arrogance to hide memories of the whispers surrounding his father’s painful, lingering, and scandalous death from a rake’s disease. He longs to meet the woman he can love for the rest of his life, but she has not yet crossed his path. Determined to shield himself from his father’s fate, he chooses virgins as his mistresses, rewarding them with handsome sums.

Clare Easton, the orphaned daughter of a vicar, has two young brothers to raise and very few choices. Indeed, to provide them a good education, she has only herself to sell. Strong-willed, smart, and adaptable, she survived a sadistic stepmother and has the scars to prove it. For a good cause, she is strong enough to weather the loss of her reputation in the embrace of a handsome aristocrat.

And yet . . . neither Clare nor Bryn is prepared for the sparks of desire or the passionate battle of wills that engulf them from the moment they meet. Determined to make her his willing lover, he spends days unlocking the doors between them—but finds himself losing ground as she advances inside his secret vaults as well.

For Bryn, whose world is shuttered in narrow hues, Hell itself is falling in love with a commoner who refuses to stay with him when their contract ends. He is determined to keep Clare in his life, but he cannot put her at risk when he becomes the target of a killer. Nor can she bring herself to abandon the man she has come to love, whatever the danger to herself.


Coming soon!



Wales, 1799

The howling broke into his sleep just after midnight.

Bryn clutched a blanket around his shoulders and buried his head in the pillows, but the sound persisted, ever louder and more tormented. He knew from experience there would be no end to it this night. Nor any other, until his father died.

With a low moan, he swung his feet to the cold floor and lit a branch of candles from the single taper on the bedside table. Sundown to dawn, all responsibility for the earl was his.

Two servants remained at the castle, an elderly couple with nowhere else to go. During the day they attended the sick man as best they could, with Bryn’s help. The other staff had fled when there was no money to pay them. Only Mr. and Mrs. Dafydd remained at the once-flourishing estate of the Earl of Caradoc, along with the earl himself and the boy who would be heir to the ruins and the debts—if the end ever came.

After stuffing his feet into worn hose and slippers, Bryn shrugged into a threadbare robe. He picked up the brace of candles and padded grimly down the long dark hall.

The howling grew louder, echoing against the stone of the fortress that had stood for centuries between England and Wales. Like a great wounded mastiff, the Earl of Caradoc cried his desolation into the night.

As he opened the door to his father’s bedchamber, Bryn was assailed by the stench of putrefying sores and excrement. He took a moment to breathe heavily, knowing he’d soon become accustomed to the smell. After a while, almost anything became tolerable when there was no choice.

He lifted the candleholder. Across the room, the earl rolled back and forth across the bed. He’d flung off the covers, and his skinny, naked body gleamed ghostly in the light. The room was icy cold.

Bryn closed his eyes briefly, gathering strength, and crossed to the fireplace. Wood was stacked, awaiting his arrival. It wasn’t safe to leave the earl alone with a fire, not since the night he had stuck his hand into the flames, seeking warmth, and burned his numb fingers to stubs. Laudanum gave him peace for a few hours, but always, near midnight, he came to life with a vengeance.

Methodically, Bryn stuffed kindling under the logs and lit it with a taper. A stack of linens was set nearby, along with a basin and a kettle of water. He hung the kettle over the hearth and broke the ice that had crusted on top. Moving from habit, he spread towels across the flagstones to warm before lighting a lamp on the mantelpiece and another on a sideboard. It would be several minutes before he could bring himself to approach the bed. Pulling up a footstool, he sat down to wait for the water to heat.

The nightly exercise had become a ritual, no less terrifying for its familiarity. As always, he turned first to the enormous portrait of the earl that hung above the sideboard. In the dancing light of the fire, the Earl of Caradoc was a glorious apparition. Elegant in rich blue velvet, Dresden lace at his throat and wrists, the tall handsome man he had been mocked the shell of a man he’d become.

Bryn had adored his father, the rare times he saw him. Owen Talgarth swept in from his travels for the hunting season, usually with a horde of friends, always with boxes of presents for his lonely wife and child. Between the hunting parties and revelries, he took his son fishing and taught him to tickle trout and tie exotic lures. He told wonderful stories, too, about his exploits, and promised that they would share those adventures when the boy was old enough. Bryn lived for these visits from the man he idolized, but they ceased when he was ten years old.

That year his father had come home alone and ill. He stayed a few months, seemed to recover, and disappeared again. Soon after, his wife drowned in what everyone politely called an accident.

The earl did not return for her funeral. He was in Italy, some said, or Paris. Bryn, left to fend off his father’s creditors, told the estate manager to sell one after another of the castle’s treasures to pay the debts. But there was no money to keep servants, and within a short time even the kindly manager took his leave. In spite of his youth and scanty education, Bryn learned to keep the accounts and strike deals with tradesmen and tenants.

When Caradoc finally returned, his face marked with sores, his mind uncertain, it was to die. So far the process had taken three years. Bryn had begun to expect his blind, maddened father would outlast him.

He dipped his hand into the kettle, found the water acceptably warm, and with a sigh of resignation came to his feet. The earl had begun to sing, his voice remarkably strong and the words of the bawdy ballad clear as daylight. Now and again he spoke, words of flattery and courtship or a challenge, as if he were playing at dice for high stakes.

At such times, Bryn imagined his father’s mind had separated from his body and was living again the glories of the past. He profoundly hoped that was true. No doubt the old man merited hell, but surely he was enduring that now. If there was an afterlife, perhaps he’d be admitted to paradise, all his sins paid for with this terrible agony.

Old man. Bryn glanced again at the portrait across the room. It had been painted when Owen was thirty, a vibrant, lusty, devil-may-care rake. His gaze lowered to what was left of his father. A few straggles of hair sprouted from the blotched scalp. His glazed eyes were sunken above high cheekbones red with fever. He looked eighty years old. He was thirty-four.

As Bryn gently bathed the skeletal body, careful of the open sores, he murmured meaningless words of encouragement. It helped to concentrate on better times. Two years ago, the Earl had still possessed most of his faculties, though by then he had gone blind. Bryn became his father’s eyes, leading him on walks through the overgrown gardens, sometimes coaxing him all the way to the river. They sat in the sweet grass, talking about fishing and the future. About the countess.

The earl never accepted that his wife was dead, even when he was lucid. He spoke of his beloved Mary as though she’d gone away for a time, as he’d so often gone away. Even now he talked to her, long speeches of love and fidelity.

But he’d never been faithful. And that had destroyed them both.

Bryn had long since learned to shut his ears to the ceaseless babble, but suddenly he heard his name.

"Brynmore?” croaked the earl. "Is that you, boy?”

Startled, Bryn dropped the basin. It shattered on the stone floor, and lukewarm water soaked into his slippers. "Yes, Papa.” He stroked the fevered forehead. It had been months since the earl knew who he was.

"Where’s your mama?” His voice sounded oddly strong. "Where’s Mary?”

"She’s... paying calls in the village,” Bryn improvised.

An emaciated hand seized his shoulder. "You’re getting big, son. Like me. What are you now? Nine years old? Ten?”

Bryn swallowed hard. "I’ve fifteen years, sir.”

"All that.” The hand let go. "How did I miss your growing up?”

"You were in Vienna, Papa. And Paris. And Rome. You sent letters.”

"Ah, yes. I met the pope last week. Did I tell you? We drank cognac. Or was that the Duke of Brunswick?”

"It was Brunswick,” Bryn replied, not sure if popes drank spirits other than sacramental wine.

"Let’s go fishing tomorrow, boy. Long time since we’ve cast for salmon, eh? Mayhap your mother will come along with a picnic lunch. Like the old days.”

"I’d like that, Papa.” Bryn felt tears streaming down his cheeks, although he’d thought it impossible to cry any more. "We can catch our dinner.”

The earl frowned. "Too late. We should go to London if you are fifteen. Had a woman already, boy? One of the housemaids?”

Bryn gulped. "Not yet, sir.”

"Past time, then. See to the carriage and pack up your best clothes. I know just the place. Lucinda will still be there. Pretty Lucinda. Not so beautiful as my Mary, but she knows all the French ways.”

Bryn shuddered and took a moment to calm his voice before responding. "Whatever you wish, sir. But you should sleep now.” He tugged the sheet over his father and plumped the pillow under his head. The earl closed his eyes, and for a few moments it appeared that he’d drifted off.

Suddenly he sat upright, jabbing a finger at Bryn’s chest. "Don’t listen to ’em, boy. Do what you want. They tell you not to enjoy yourself, damn their eyes. What do they know?”

"Nothing, Papa.” Bryn gripped his father by the shoulders and lowered him gently to the bed.

The earl released a long sigh. "Be a little careful, though. Careful. Careful. Careful...”

Bryn gritted his teeth. Often the earl fixed on a word and muttered it for hours. Tonight it was the same. Careful careful careful echoed in his ears as he tugged nearer to the hearth the pallet that was kept ready for him. He extinguished all but one of the lamps, unfolded the blanket, and wrapped it around him, settling his long body on the thin mattress. Then he reached into the pocket of his robe and drew out lumps of wax, rolling them between his fingers until they were soft enough to stuff in his ears.

The wax dulled the sound, but he could still hear his father singsonging careful careful careful.

Damn right he’d be careful. If ever he escaped from this nightmare, he would make sure it did not repeat itself. Dully, Bryn gazed into the dying fire, remaking the promises that sustained him. The promises that kept him from despair.

THAT NIGHT THE earl sank into a restless sleep from which he never emerged. Two weeks later he died.

Shrouded in fog, the bleak funeral was attended only by Brynmore Talgarth, now Earl of Caradoc, and the Laceys, a neighboring family. Bryn gazed at them across the open grave as the vicar muttered insincere prayers for the repose of a soul he obviously considered beyond salvation.

The Laceys had sustained him all his life. Robert, his best and only friend, was away at school, but the others were there. The viscount and his wife had provided food and clean linens the last few months. They’d have done more if he’d let them, but the Laceys were not wealthy. Isabella, only ten years of age but wild as an eagle, grinned at him. She knew how relieved he was to be free of his burden.

Even Aunt Ernestine, the most eccentric of the Laceys and the only one with money, had come up from London. It was she who paid for the coffin and the burial. Ernestine Fitzwalter was impervious to protests and did exactly what she wanted. Bryn envied her for that.

They expected him to move into their home because the castle was all but unlivable, and Ernestine had offered to provide for his delayed schooling. He’d refused her offer, with the same pride that had characterized his father, but expected he’d stay with the Laceys long enough to settle what he could of his father’s debts and discover if there was anything remaining of his inheritance to sell.

To keep his vows, he’d need a stake. His wits and determination would do the rest. One day he would be rich, independent, and true heir to the centuries-old name he bore. From almost nothing he would create a legacy for his children and restore the family reputation.

At the vicar’s impatient gesture, he picked up a handful of damp earth and tossed it into the open grave. "I loved you, Papa,” he murmured under his breath, "and I fear that I’m too much like you. But I swear this will never happen to me.”



London, 1819

A devilish nuisance, this business of hiring a mistress.

The Earl of Caradoc had put it off for several weeks, dreading the awkwardness of the first meeting and, worse, the first night. But when he snarled at his valet for no reason and spent too many late hours at the gaming tables, it became clear that he could wait no longer.

By now Florette knew he was on the prowl again. She had an uncanny way of knowing everything. Doubtless she’d already procured a replacement for the fiery Marita Sanchez, whose departure had been as explosive as it was unexpected. Until then, no woman had ever walked out on him, and he didn’t like the experience one bit.

As his fingers tightened on the reins, the grays broke stride and the curricle lurched. "Sorry,” he said over his shoulder to the tiger, who grinned cheekily at him. All his staff, including this groom, knew he was out of temper. They endured his frequent bad moods because he paid them well. Money, he had learned, could buy almost anything, even loyalty. And in the next hour it would purchase another woman for his bed.

He found the thought eerily discordant. By now he should be married, with children in the nursery and some purpose to his life. Already he had outlived his father by seven weeks. When had he lost sight of the goal?

Owen Talgarth’s son, he reflected dourly—addicted to pleasure and his own whims. One of these days he’d pull himself together, keep the last of his promises, and close the account. He’d marry, sire an heir, and restore the castle at River’s End. By now it must be a pile of rubble. He’d not been there since the day he buried his father, twenty years ago.

As Bryn pulled up in front of Florette’s Hothouse, the door opened and a woman stepped out. She paused at the top of the wide marble stairs. Aloof and somber, she seemed to be staring at him, although he could not see her eyes.

Not an inch of flesh was visible. Swathed in blue, from the veiled hat obscuring her face and hair to her dark half boots and gloves, she put him in mind of the Sibyl. The prophetess. The seer of all things yet to come. Only her veil moved, fluttering in the early spring breeze. Her stillness unnerved him.

Lord, everything spooked him these days, even a whore on her way to the shops. What else could she be, emerging midday from London’s most fashionable brothel? Probably she was assessing the quality of his clothes and horses, weighing the advantage of doing a little business before going out.

The acute discomfort of being appraised by invisible eyes raked the ashes of his foul mood. He tossed the reins to his tiger, swung from the curricle and advanced up the stairs until he stood directly in front of her. Something about her provoked him, and he never declined a challenge.

All the girls in Florette’s bouquet were named for flowers. This one was tall, slender, and serenely composed. He lofted his hat and flashed his most devastating smile. "Iris?” he guessed. "Or is it Lily?”

Her head lowered slightly, and again he felt her study him like a diamond cutter examining a flawed stone. He heard a coach pull to the curb. Without a word, she swept gracefully down the stairs, deliberately arcing in a smooth curve to avoid him.

Moving swiftly, he beat her to the sidewalk and planted himself in her path. She went utterly still.

"Is the hackney yours?” he asked with a bow.

The veil bobbed.

His smile widened. "I am sorry to hear it. Would you not prefer to stay indoors this afternoon?”

The nod ofyes to his first question turned quickly to a no as the heavy silk swirled around her face and shoulders. "I must go,” she said, in a low, husky voice. "Please.”

"This is no way to make your fortune,” he chided, fingers itching to raise the blue curtain so he could see her face. "I suggest you reconsider.”

The heel of her boot slammed down on his toe.

"Bloody hell!” He lept out of her way.

She darted past him to the cab, but he caught up in time to cover her gloved hand on the door latch with his own. Bryn heard her sigh, as if resigning herself to an obnoxious fate. When he offered his arm to help her mount, a feathery touch at his wrist was all he felt as she lifted with the grace of a seabird riding an updraft. Then, in a singularly swift motion, she yanked the door shut, the hard edge clipping his shoulder as it whizzed by.

Witch. He swore under his breath. Folding his arms across the bar of the open window, he peered into the dim coach. She could see him clearly through that veil, while he could see nothing of her at all. He resented her impertinence. And was annoyed with himself for his bad manners even as he persisted. For no reason he could explain, he wanted to prolong their encounter. "Shall I give the coachman your direction?” he inquired silkily. "Or join your expedition?”

Head tilted slightly, the Blue Lily raised her hand toward his cheek. For a second he thought she was going to touch him, but she reached higher, and with a sharp crackle the window shade snapped down in his face. A rap of her knuckles against the wood panel set the cab in motion, and the great back wheel barely missed rolling over his Hessian boots.

Repique, he thought, watching the hackney lumber down the street. Apparently he was not to her taste.

He chuckled. Nor she to his, of course. Like the other blossoms in Florette’s bouquet, the Blue Lily must long since have been plucked. And if she knew who he was, she had no reason to encourage his feigned advances. The Earl of Caradoc’s requirements were met by special order. This full-blown flower, however lovely she might be under all that rigging, could expect no more from him than flattering male appreciation—from a distance.

He was amazed he’d even touched her.

Bryn mounted the stairs, handed his gloves to the burly footman, and proceeded without ceremony to Florette’s private salon. After that public and rather embarrassing display, no doubt she was fully aware he had arrived.

Seated before a delicate curve-legged table, Flo beamed at him with unconcealed amusement. Steam wafted from the antique Chinese porcelain teapot on the tray, clouding her gold-rimmed spectacles. "As you see,” she greeted him, "there is shortbread.” She held up a blue-and-white plate. "I was expecting you.”

"I daresay.” Lowering himself onto the fragile chair across from her, he gathered several of the buttery sticks in his hand and popped one whole into his mouth. Flo knew all his weaknesses.

She poured him a cup of tea and laced it with thick honey. "How very late you are, chéri.Marita has been gone these last few weeks. Never tell me you’ve been ill?”

The earl stretched his long legs across the Aubusson carpet. "Shall I assume Miss Sanchez reported to you”—he grinned wryly— "everything?”

Florette shook her head. "Ah, my dear, a chamber pot? What did you do, to make her so angry?”

"Devil if I know. She told me she was leaving, I said adiós, and that set her off. Threw everything at me she could get her hands on. The chamber pot was empty, by the way.”

"Tsk-tsk.A quarrel with your mistress, on your birthday. ’Twas a night to celebrate,je crois.

He shrugged. "That was certainly my intention. I’d anticipated a wild Spanish corrida,asonly Marita could stage, but she claimed ears and tail before I got into the ring. Furious because I didn’t take her to the birthday dinner at the Laceys’, I suppose. My back-alley Spanish isn’t what it used to be.” He leaned against the cushion behind him and crossed his ankles. "No mistress, whatever her charms, is welcome at ton affairs, ma fille. I trust you’ll find me a replacement somewhat less encroaching, not to mention volatile. That little chili pepper nearly took my head off with a candlestick.”

Selecting a thin cucumber sandwich, Florette regarded it thoughtfully. "I am afraid,” she said slowly, "there will not be a replacement. Not one I can supply, at any rate.” She nibbled at the soft white bread. "As of Wednesday last, I am retired from the trade.”

The earl gazed at her blankly. "Tell me you don’t mean that,” he said in a dark voice. The consequences, at least for him, were disastrous. When she failed to reply, he levered himself from the spindly chair and aimed for the mahogany sideboard where she stowed his special vintage brandy.

Bryn took his time fixing the drink while the implications sank in. He’d never had a woman Florette didn’t find for him. What the hell was he going to do now?

Florette LaFleur was about as French as the Prince Regent. When her accent slipped he detected a faint Yorkshire drawl, but that was the only clue to her origins he’d deciphered in the years he’d known her. Like everything else between them, his attempts to penetrate her disguise turned into a game they both played for the delight of matching wits.

She must be well into her fifties by now, still attractive although her lush figure had ripened to plumpness. She’d been a spectacular beauty when they first met, to transact the sale of this very house. Lost in memories, he rummaged on the sideboard for a corkscrew and dug the sharp metal point into the cork.

She’d managed to take him royally on that deal. Bribed his solicitor, he suspected, and made off with the only thing of value he owned for half its worth. Smiling, he recalled her dismay when a skinny adolescent showed up to sign the papers. Florette concluded the sale without upping her offer, but her conscience prodded her to invite him to dinner. He jumped at the chance for a rare good meal, and the friendship forged that evening had endured for twenty years.

Swallowing two fingers of brandy in a single gulp, he refilled the glass. What would he do without Florette? She was the best thing that ever happened in his life. The afternoon they’d closed the deal on this house, with a knowing glance at his straining breeches, she’d offered him a night of pleasure to compensate him for a loss he wasn’t downy enough to recognize.

He had refused, necessarily, regretting it then as he did now. Just once, he would have liked to make love to Florette LaFleur.

Swirling the amber liquid in his glass, he remembered the first time he tasted brandy. It was in this room, that same evening, when he drank too much too fast and blurted the real reason he couldn’t touch her. After what happened to his father, he did not dare take any lover who’d ever been with another man. He expected Flo to laugh, but she drew him into her arms and hugged him warmly. Now that he thought about it, another first. A good day, all in all. He had immediately acquired a strong taste for hugs and brandy.

The night was even better. Florette obliged him with his first virgin, free of charge, a shy, petite girl only a bit more ignorant than he. She had light curly hair, he recalled fondly, and her name was Polly. Thank the stars she had a sense of humor and few expectations.

There had been three mistresses since, each one provided by Florette. She was the only one he trusted. Virginity was easily faked, and while he was expert enough by now to discern a fraud, the proof was in the taking. By then, too late for safety. He needed Florette! At any cost, he couldn’t afford to lose her.

"Don’t do it, Flo,” he barked over his shoulder. "If this is one of your games, it’s not funny.”

"I have already sold out,” she said calmly. "To Rose.”

"The devil you say!” Pivoting, he glared at her. "I can’t stand that woman. She’d filch pennies off a dead man’s eyes.”

"A good businesswoman, though.” Flo tapped long nails against an ivory-handled fan. "For all purposes but your own, she will do well.”

"And what aboutmy purposes? I’ll have no woman that strumpet dredges from the stews.” He paced the room with one fist clenched behind his back and the other wrapped around a glass of brandy. "Tell me you are staying in London. No reason we can’t do private business.”

"I’m packed, all but gone already, and nothing will change my mind. The fact is, you are to all extents and purposes back on the streets. I’ll provide the names of my competitors, should you require their services, but you’d do better to find yourself a wife.” She flicked open her fan and studied the painted goldfish swimming over crisp folds of heavy parchment. "Indeed, I’ve likely done you a disservice all these years, dealing out one mistress after another while you put off the inevitable. You must marry, Bryn. You’re five-and-thirty years old, you know.”

Groaning, he plucked another hunk of shortbread as he stalked past the tea tray. "Don’t remind me. By now I should be dangling an heir on my knee. But things got out of hand.” He shot her a sideways glance. "The war didn’t help.”

"Five years in the army,” she pointed out, "does not account for three times as many spent catering to your own pleasures. No, no,” she protested, waving her fan when he spun on his heel. "Don’t snap at me. You must do as you wish, and heaven knows you will. The thing is, I shall no longer be here to stock Clouds with a supply of suitable mistresses. It is time you think about settling down. The Season is barely under way, and a fresh crop of debutantes awaits your inspection.”

"You might have given me some warning,” he grumbled. "I can’t look over the field with nothing to go home to at night. Even if I fix on a bride, it will be weeks before the wedding. And the wedding night.”

Did he look as pathetic as he felt? Bryn wondered. He’d come here with the familiar twinge of anticipation and dread he always experienced when replacing a mistress, but never had he imagined the roof was about to cave in. As he bit ferociously into the crisp biscuit, his eyes suddenly narrowed. In fact, Florette would not leave him high and dry. He’d bet everything he owned she had something up her sleeve.

His prowl eased into a languid, graceful stroll around the room, ending at the chair across from her, where he settled with his arms folded across his chest. "A wife,” he mused, gazing at the ornate ceiling. "I’ve done the pretty every season these many years, but each crop of eligible females is more insipid than the last. Don’t think I haven’t tried. Come to think of it, didn’t I offer for the Berrington girl?”

"Fifteen years ago, when you couldn’t afford a decent settlement.” Wickedly, Flo plucked the last chunk of shortbread from the dish. "Now your tastes are too refined. Nothing suits you.”

He grinned. The first three mistresses she’d provided had suited him very well, although Marita Sanchez had been a rare aberration from the type of woman he preferred. While the bed sport had been unparalleled in frequency and variety, her temperament was even worse than his own. Marita was a good argument for finding a demure English bride and settling down, which Florette damn well knew. More than likely, she’d planned it that way.

Her smile revealed nothing as she fluttered her fan and regarded him through the spectacles perched on her nose. "You will miss me, sans doute. I expect to be gone within the week.”

Recognizing a lure, he swam past. "Off to France, are you? The Loire Valley, as I recall. Near Blois.”

Flo acknowledged his swift dodge with a wink. "Exactement, chéri. To my family home, in a village so obscure I doubt it can be found on any map.”

And he was Queen of the Nile. Bryn raised an eyebrow. "You’ll provide me way to write you, or perhaps find myself in your direction?”

"But of course. When you send word of your nuptials, I’ll ship a case of the best champagne to be had.”

Leaning forward, he propped his elbows on his knees and templed his hands. "And what has all this to do,” he inquired tranquilly, "with the Lady in Blue?”

"Ah.” The fan wagged appreciation. "I knew you would not fail me, Bryn. When did you suspect?”

"Not soon enough. But this is the last place I’d expect to troll for a wife. No wonder she was wrapped up like a mummy.”

"Wife?” Looking startled, Flo shook her head. "Oh, no, mon ami. No woman suitable to become Countess of Caradoc would set foot in this place. When Marita took her leave, I cast about for a young woman to replace her. Not an easy task, considering how very particular you are of late. But... well, you must judge for yourself. This one is on the house, as they say, by way of a parting gift. If she will have you. She insisted on seeing you first.”

"Indeed.” A muscle jumped in his cheek. "Aspiring mistresses don’t vet me, poupée. Rather the other way around.”

"Generally true,” she conceded. "But times change.”

Didn’t he know it. "And what is the name of this gift?”

"Perhaps ‘gift’ is not the right word,” Flo said meditatively. "For myself, there will be no commission, but Clare has requirements of her own.” She cast him a smug look. "Expensive requirements.”

"Clare what?” He winced at the impatience in his voice. "And how much?”

"Clare whatever-she-tells-you. And if she approved of what she saw, which I cannot know until I speak with her again, one night will cost you ten thousand pounds.”

"The devil it will!” Lurching to his feet, Bryn towered over the graceful tea table. "What in hell makes that rapacious female imagine I’d pay out a fortune for one night? And don’t tell me you led her to believe it was possible.”

"You can afford it,” Flo said imperturbably.

"Which is nothing to the point. I hate the first night.” Bryn felt the tips of his ears go hot. "What in blazes does she think I am?”

"Clare reveals nothing of what she is thinking. Not ever. Pray do not loom over me that way. It is most annoying.”

Firing her a look of pure malice, he stomped to the sideboard.

"Bryn, the real point cannot have escaped you. Clare is the last virgin I shall provide. If she agrees to meet you, perhaps you can negotiate better terms for the future. However, her price for the first night is inflexible. As a matter of fact, I don’t expect you to accept her. She is lovely, untouched, and available, but otherwise she’ll not suit you at all.”

He swung around. "And why is that?”

When Flo lifted her eyes, he saw the flash of cunning. "Clare is... not the usual young woman anxious to enter my profession. But she is determined to do so, however briefly. Her innocence fulfills your primary requirement, and your wealth satisfies her own. Beyond that I have little hope. Shall I tell her you are not interested?”

Bryn ran a finger under his starched collar. The mysterious Clare did not sound a suitable mistress, but Florette was deliberately trying to interest him by making the girl sound like forbidden fruit. He was well and truly hooked, he thought savagely, with Flo enjoying every minute of this. She was bent on victory in their last game and knew she held a winning hand.

"I am curious,” he allowed, "as you intended. And less interested than you hope. Now give over. What makes this one special?”

"Why, nothing at all. In bed, is not one woman much like the next? I doubt Clare found any fault in your appearance, for you are too handsome for your own good. But she may reject your offer nonetheless.”

"An offer I’ve not made,” he pointed out. There were wheels within wheels in this plot, and he was as anxious as she knew he’d be to trace it to the center. Damn Florette, and damn Clare, and loneliness, and lust.

And damned if he’d agree to anything until he’d inspected her the way she inspected him. If she wasn’t the most desirable woman on the planet, he would bloody well discipline his raging body the way he’d done, painfully, the years he’d spent attached to Wellington’s staff. On the Peninsula there were none of Florette’s virgins to ease the lonely nights. Surely it wouldn’t take another five brutal years of celibacy to find himself a wife.

"How much,” he asked acidly, "will it cost me to see her?”

"Why, nothing at all, assuming she agrees. For ten thousand pounds, she will expect to provide an audition. By sight only, of course. She won’t let you touch her until you’ve paid up in cash. As a personal favor, Bryn, I would ask you not to meet her out of trifling curiosity. If you’ve no real interest, let it go.”

His spine tickled a warning. "Just what is she to you?” he asked warily.

Flo tossed her head. "Goods. Wares. I’d market her carefully, with an eye to profit, were I not leaving the trade. As it is, I offer her to you without any charge of my own if you promise to treat her fairly. In honor of our years together.”

"Our friendship,” he corrected with a lopsided smile.

"Exactly.” Florette adjusted her spectacles and gazed fondly at the tall earl. He was combing his long fingers through the thick straight hair that must have defied his valet’s best efforts to control it. One swatch gravitated inevitably over his right eyebrow, giving him a boyish look at odds with the arrogance so natural to him it was more amusing than offensive. In a peculiar way, she thought of him as her son, although he’d be horrified if he knew that. Never had she met a man so determined to avoid emotional entanglements of any sort.

In most ways, he’d grown up too soon. But in others, he’d yet to mature. She had decided it was past time to shake him up, and by good fortune she had found the means to do so. "You have made me a wealthy woman, Bryn,” she said in a complacent voice. "Once you were able to pay, you more than compensated for my generosity in the early days. I could not possibly retire so young if not for your lavish commissions and your advice about how to invest them.”

"Had I anticipated the consequences, pernicious woman, you’d not have done so well by me.” His eyes were shuttered. "I’m going to miss you.”

"I’m retiring,” she assured him tartly, "not sticking my spoon in the wall. When things have settled, I’ll be in touch. Shall I send Clare to you?”

"Tomorrow morning,” he replied gruffly. "Eleven o’clock. Send her to Clouds.” He frowned. "No, better not. The place is a shambles after Marita’s theatrical exit. Make it St. James’s, and have her come in through the servants’ entrance. I won’t bite her, Flo, but for that amount of money I’ll damn well find out what’s under all those veils before making up my mind.”

"Fair enough. I’ll tell her so, and she will come to you if it suits her. Clare is my goodbye gift, or my last mistake, but under no circumstances do I wish to be responsible for anything that happens once you meet.”

"That sounds rather ominous.”

Rising, Flo held out her arms, and he walked straight into them for a last hug. "Ah, you are a beguiling thing, Caradoc,” she whispered against his neck. "Alas that I took my first lover long before I met you.” Setting him back, she brushed the hair from his forehead. "Still, je ne regrette rien. The profession has been kind to me, and I shall retire in comfort with memories of the most delightful sort to keep me young. Along with a dalliance or two, tu comprends, for one is never too old to dance.” Her eyes, which she’d once told him were greener than emeralds, shimmered with tears. "Take care, my friend. And look to the crossroads.”

As he drove away, Florette stood at the door and waved, feeling a tightness in the vicinity of her heart. On instinct alone, she had begun something that might well lead to disaster. Bryn was curious about the mysterious veiled lady, as she’d hoped. And resistant because he could not bear to relinquish control of any situation to someone else. But she knew him, and understood him better than he could imagine. The man needed exactly what she’d given him. All he had to do was realize it.

With a sigh, Flo closed the door. She had gathered the players and dealt out the hand, but the outcome was unpredictable. Clare was the wild card in this game. The Lady in Blue, as Bryn called her, was not what he expected. Nor what she wanted to be.

When they came face-to-face, anything could happen.



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