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Desired

Desired by Nicola Cornick
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London, October 1816

Covent Garden: "Artful ways beguile the implicit rake."—Taken from Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies.

It was the night her luck finally ran out.

Tess Darent knew that the net was closing and that someone was coming to hunt her down. Tonight she could feel him very close behind her. Tonight, she knew instinctively, was the night she was going to get caught.

"Hurry!" Mrs. Tong, owner of the Temple of Venus bawdy house held out the borrowed gown to her with shaking hands and Tess grabbed it and slipped it over her head, feeling the sensuous slide of lavender silk against her skin. It was not a bad fit. She was surprised that Mrs. Tong had anything so tasteful in the wardrobe. Fortunate, because she would not be seen dead in any of the harlot's gowns Mrs. Tong's girls habitually wore. Even if she was currently hiding from the law, Tess had standards to maintain.

The bawd's face was pale beneath her paint and powder, her eyes terrified. Out in the corridor the sounds of pursuit were getting louder—voices snapping orders, the tramp of booted feet, the crash as Mrs. Tong's pieces of erotic statuary were knocked to the marble floor.

"Redcoats!" the bawd said. "Searching the house. If they find you here—"

"They won't," Tess snapped. She spun around, lifting the heavy fall of her red-gold hair so that Mrs. Tong could lace the gown. She could feel the bawd's fingers trembling on the fastenings. Mrs. Tong's fear was feeding her own. The panic filled her chest, stealing her breath. Her pursuer was so close now. He was nipping at her heels.

"Even if they do find me here," she added over her shoulder, marvelling at the calm of her own voice, "what of it? My reputation is so bad no one will think it odd to find me in a whorehouse."

"But the papers?" Mrs. Tong's voice quavered.

"Hidden." Tess patted the lavender reticule that matched the gown. "Never fear, Mrs. T. No one will suspect you of being anything worse than an avaricious old madam."

"There's gratitude." Mrs. Tong sounded irritable. "Sometimes I wonder why I help you."

"You do it because you owe me," Tess said. Some months before she had helped Mrs. Tong's son when he had been arrested at a political rally. Now she was calling in the debt.

"I'm no friend to the radical cause," Mrs. Tong grumbled. She pulled the laces of the gown tight in a small gesture of revenge.

"The gown's too big," Tess wheezed, as the breath was pummelled out of her.

"Which is why you need the laces tight." The madam gave them another sharp tug. She threw Tess a matching cloak of lavender-blue edged with peacock feathers and tiptoed across to the door, opening it a crack, finger to her lips.

Tess raised a brow. Mrs. Tong shook her head, closed the door softly and turned the key. "No chance," she said. "They are all over the house like the pox. You'll have to hide."

"They'll find me." Fear clawed at Tess again. For all her defiant words she knew that it would be disastrous if she were to be caught now in possession of the papers. She would be thrown in prison. Everything she had worked for would be lost. The cold sweat trickled down her spine, prickling her skin.

"Buy me some time, Mrs. Tong," she said. "They are a company of soldiers and this is a bawdy house. Distract them."

She grabbed the jacket of the mannish suit she had been wearing on her arrival, extracted the little silver pistol from the pocket, forced it into the reticule along with the papers and pulled the drawstring tight. She tried on the exquisite pair of lavender slippers that matched the gown and winced. They were made for smaller feet than hers. She would have blisters by the time she reached home.

"There's no way of distracting their captain," Mrs. Tong said. "He don't care for women."

"Send him one of your boys then."

"He doesn't like boys either. War wound, they say. No lead in his pencil. Precious little pencil either, if it comes to that."

"Poor man," Tess said. "That's quite a sacrifice to make for your country. Still, if sex fails, money usually talks. Make him an offer he cannot afford to refuse."

She could hear the voices of the soldiers coming ever closer along the landing and the doors slamming back as they searched the rooms with about as much finesse as a herd of cows in a china shop. Mrs. Tong's girls were screaming. Aristocratic male voices were raised in plaintive protest. A lot of people, Tess thought, were going to have their most private vices exposed tonight. The redcoats' raid on Mrs. Tong's brothel would be all over the scandal sheets by the morning. It would be the talk of the ton.

"Time to make a swift exit," she said. She moved across to the window. "How far is the drop to the street, Mrs. T?"

Mrs. Tong stared. "You'll never be able to make this climb."

"Why not?" Tess said. "There is a balcony, is there not? I don't want to risk them searching me." She grabbed the sheets from the bed and started to fashion a makeshift rope.

"That's my best linen!" Mrs. Tong said. "You'll ruin it!"

"Stick it on my bill," Tess said. "Have I forgotten anything?"

Mrs. Tong shook her head. There was a gleam of appreciation in her eyes. "You're a cool one, and no mistake, madam," she said. "How about we go into business together?"

Tess shook her head. Only the direst emergency had driven her to take refuge in a brothel in the first place. "Forget it, Mrs. T. Selling sex is not my thing. I don't even want it when it is offered for free." She waved. "Thank you for your help."

She pulled back the curtains and slipped the catch on the long window. There was a decorative little stone balcony outside with a carved balustrade. Tess knotted the sheet around one of the stone uprights and pulled it hard. The sheet held, though whether it would do so under her not-inconsiderable weight was quite another thing. But she had no option other than to take the risk. Lavender slippers and reticule in one hand, she climbed over the balcony, gripped the sheet in her other hand and slid down the chute to the ground, the wide skirts of the gown filling out like a bell around her.

When she was still some distance from the ground she ran out of her impromptu rope and swung gently backwards and forwards in the autumn breeze. She could see Mrs. Tong peering over the balcony above her, still grumbling about the damage to her sheets. Below, there was a drop of at least four feet to the darkened street. For a moment Tess hung there, trying to decide whether to shin back up the rope or risk the jump to the ground. The sheet creaked and slipped a notch. The laces of the gown groaned as well, cutting into Tess's back as the seams strained.

Then, abruptly, the reticule and slippers were plucked from her hand and a moment later she was seized about the waist and placed gently on her feet.

"Splendid as the view was," a lazy masculine voice murmured in her ear, "I thought you might appreciate some help." caught.

Panic fluttered in her throat. So she had been right all along. There was no escape.

Stay calm. Give nothing away.

She tried to steady her breath. Something in the man's touch unsettled her, but deeper than that, deeper and more disturbing still, was the sense of recognition. He had come for her and she could not escape. She knew it and it made her tremble.

She did not even know who he was. She could not see his face.

The gas lamps in the square were out and although the shutters had been pulled back again and faint golden light spilled from the brothel windows it was not sufficient to pierce the autumn darkness. Tess had a confused impression of height and breadth—she was a tall woman but this man was taller, a shade over six feet, perhaps. There was something of resilience and strength about him, of hard chiselled edges and cool calculation. It was in his stillness and the way he was watching her. The impressions confused her; she did not know how she could tell so much whilst knowing so little about him. But her awareness of him was shockingly sharp, intensified in some way by the intimate dark. He still held her, not by the waist but lower, his grip firm and strong on her hips. His touch sent an odd shiver rippling through her. He drew her into the pool of light thrown by the window and released her with meticulous courtesy, standing back, sketching a bow.

The laces of the perfidious gown chose that precise moment to snap. It slid from Tess's shoulders and crumpled artistically about her waist before sighing down to the ground like a swooning maiden. As she was left shivering in her bodice and drawers, her companion laughed.

"What a perfect gown," he said.

"It's a little premature," Tess said coldly. "We have only just met."

She knew him now, recognising him with another ripple of disquiet. It was his voice that gave him away, so low and mellow. It was very different from the clipped British accents she was accustomed to hearing every day. Only one man had that languid drawl, as dark and smooth as treacle. Only one man in the ton was an American by birth; a man who was as dangerous and exotic and seductive as he sounded.

Rothbury.

Viscount Rothbury was the man sent to capture her.

Tess knew him a little. He was an old friend of Alex, Lord Grant, her sister Joanna's husband, and of Garrick, Duke of Farne, her other brother-in-law. Until earlier in the year, Rothbury had been plain Owen Purchase, an American sea captain, who had most unexpectedly come into a title. Now that he was a viscount the ton fawned upon him but he seemed as indifferent to society's favour as he had been to their previous disregard. He had visited Alex and Joanna in Bedford Square on several occasions, but Tess had always kept out of his way. She met many handsome men on a daily basis. Almost all of them evoked no emotion in her whatsoever. Occasionally she would feel a faint interest in a man who was witty and intelligent, but the sensation was gone almost as soon as she had felt it. She had long ago assumed that any natural desires she might once have felt had been crushed out of her by the vile experiences of her second marriage. She had assumed she would never feel a physical attraction towards any man. She had grown not to expect it and she did not want it.

Rothbury challenged those assumptions and she did not like it.

It was not merely his physique—tall, broad shouldered, durable, strong. Tess supposed that he was handsome—no, she was obliged to admit that he was handsome—in a rugged manner that was far too physical for her comfort. She preferred men who were no physical threat, men who had spent their morning in company with their barber and their tailor rather than in riding or in swordplay; men who were brushed, pomaded and as au fait with fashion as she was. Rothbury had fought for the British against the French at Trafalgar and later for the Americans against the British at North Point. He had been a sailor, an explorer and an adventurer. Tess preferred men who had never travelled farther than their country estates.

And then there was his manner, incisiveness cloaked in those deceptively silken tones. She was not fooled for a moment. Rothbury pretended to be indolent when he was in fact one of the most intelligent and perceptive men of her acquaintance.

Her awareness of him was as sharp as a whetted blade. It disturbed her.

He was still watching her. Assessing. Unsmiling. Evidently he had recognised her too, for he gave her another immaculate bow.

"Good evening, Lady Darent," he said. "What an original way to exit a brothel."

"Lord Rothbury," Tess said coolly. "Thank you—I never follow the crowd."

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Mrs. Tong gesturing wildly at her. The bawd seemed to be trying to indicate that this—this—was the man responsible for the raid on the brothel, the man she had been talking about as lacking the wherewithal to sow any oats, wild or otherwise. Rothbury had certainly kept that quiet from his friends, Tess thought, but then no doubt he would. She sensed he was a proud man and it was unlikely he would wish to speak of his incapacity, or for it to become common knowledge. It was not the sort of piece of information one simply dropped into polite conversation.

She tried not to stare at his pantaloons. She had far more pressing matters on her mind other than whether Rothbury was capable of continuing his family line. Such as the fact that she was in a state of deshabillee and Rothbury was still holding her shoes in the one hand and her reticule in the other, with the incriminating papers only a rustle away. She was within an inch of being unmasked as well as undressed.

"You might wish to put your gown back on," Rothbury said. "It's optional—" an ironic smile tilted his lips "—but both of us might be more comfortable."

His narrowed gaze had started at her bare toes and was now travelling upwards with unhurried thoroughness, considering the nimbus of red-and-gold hair that fanned about her bare shoulders and finally coming to rest on her face. His green eyes, as cool as a shower of ice, met her blue ones and there was an expression in them that made the breath catch in her chest.

HQN Books; December 2011
384 pages; ISBN 9781459281639
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Title: Desired
Author: Nicola Cornick
 
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ISBNs
9780373775903
9781459281639