The inside of Chantrel’s was quiet as a tomb as Sebastian Rockwood, Earl of Melton stepped through the establishment’s front door. Popular among men of the peerage, the exclusive brothel’s unique offerings were well known. Chantrel, the establishment’s sole proprietor, trained her girls to speak and act like a woman of nobility except in the bedroom. There, her pupils performed with an enthusiasm that was often lacking in the lives of most noblemen.
Sebastian handed his top hat and cane to the footman on duty. Beside him, his friend Devin Morehouse, Viscount Westbrook did the same. The servant quickly accepted their belongings then hurried off to fetch Chantrel as Sebastian had instructed. When the man disappeared, Sebastian turned to survey the empty parlor opening off the foyer. It seemed quite odd the brothel would be so quiet at this time of night. His friend cleared his throat.
“Where the devil is everyone?” Devin muttered as he stepped toward the vacant drawing room. “Are you sure this is the place?”
“Yes,” Sebastian said. “Caleb was quite explicit as to the young lady’s whereabouts.”
“What did he say the girl’s name was?”
“Well, if she is here, the next question is whether or not she’s been harmed already.”
Devin’s concern was one Sebastian had already considered. For the girl’s sake, he could only hope she was untouched. With a sharp nod of agreement at his friend’s observation, Sebastian frowned as he studied his surroundings. The occasional mistress easily addressed his needs, and his knowledge of Chantrel’s was by reputation only. In fact, the only reason he’d even agreed to visit the place tonight was to keep his younger brother from doing something rash.
Earlier this afternoon, in typical Rockwood fashion, Caleb had burst into Sebastian’s office like a man possessed. Rash, impetuous behavior was a common family trait. The Rockwoods were well known for their impulsive natures and their daring escapades with the exception of Sebastian. He’d learned a long time ago to control his emotions. He could only wish his siblings would do the same.
“Caleb was quite certain she was here, so let us hope she’s not been compromised,” Sebastian said quietly.
“Couldn’t you have contacted Inspector McBride? As I recall, he resolved Percy’s small problem last year quite admirably.”
“I suggested that, but Caleb said he’d already been to Scotland Yard and the man wasn’t available and the sergeant on duty said they had more serious cases to pursue.”
“The murders in Whitechapel, I’d imagine,” Devin said with a note of disgust in his voice. “Bad business that.”
“Quite.” Sebastian took a couple steps into the empty parlor, his gaze surveying the room for any clue that might explain its barren state. “From the lurid details in the newspaper this morning, the Chapman woman’s body was eviscerated.”
“Bloody hell,” Devin exclaimed quietly. “What sort of bastard would do such a thing?”
“A madman I expect.” Sebastian turned to face his friend. “However, my biggest concern at the moment is Caleb. The last thing I want him to do is complicate matters. I’m fortunate he was willing to listen to reason and allow me the opportunity to investigate the girl’s disappearance. Like the rest of the family, he’s far to impetuous.”
“Unlike his older brother’s controlled, more methodical manner, of course.” Wry amusement threaded his friend’s words, and Sebastian arched his eyebrow in response to the jibe.
“There’s a great deal to be said for exercising restraint in all matters. The girl should have never tried to investigate the matter herself.”
“Headstrong women are quite often the bane of a man’s existence.” There was a rueful note in Devin’s voice that made Sebastian turn his head to eye his friend with curiosity. The Viscount immediately looked away to survey their surroundings. “Why is Caleb convinced his ladylove is here?”
“Apparently, the girl uncovered evidence of brothels kidnapping innocent young women and selling them against their will. Caleb said the last time she was seen, she was entering this establishment.”
With several turns of his head, Sebastian studied his surroundings closely. The silence in the brothel wasn’t just unusual it made him uneasy. Something about this place set his teeth on edge, and for the first time since Caleb had burst into his study, he realized his brother’s worst fears might well be true. It was quite possible his brother’s young lady was in grave danger. Leaning toward his friend, Sebastian tipped his head in the direction of the blue and gold salon adjacent to the foyer.
“At this point, I’m beginning to wonder if we’re even in a brothel given the decidedly nonexistent selection.”
“I agree,” Devin murmured with a nod. “Usually a fellow can expect at least one or two birds available for the unexpected customer. Is it possible the murder in Whitechapel yesterday is affecting business?”
Sebastian considered the possibility. Although the murder of the Nichols woman had been more brutal, he found it unlikely the slaying would threaten Chantrel’s daily business. If this were any other house of ill repute, he might think business was bad, but this wasn’t just any brothel. The exclusivity of it set the house apart from any other of its kind. There had to be another reason why the parlor was empty.
He shrugged then turned his head at the sound of a door opening. A statuesque woman appeared in the hallway and walked toward them with a quick, confident stride. She sailed into the entryway reminding Sebastian of a ship and its figurehead. Swathed in red taffeta, her gown brazenly proclaimed her for the Madame she was with its gold fringe trimming, decadent sleeves and low cut bodice. The gown’s material, draped artfully over her bustle, rustled softly as she moved toward them.
“Lord Melton, you honor me with your presence. What may I do for you this evening?”
Madame Chantrel greeted them with a pleasant smile, but Sebastian saw the guarded look in her eyes. Accepting the hand she extended to him, Sebastian’s lips brush the air over Chantrel’s knuckles.
“My friend and I were hoping for some special entertainment this evening. Naturally, I thought of you and your ability to offer us something…unusual?”
As he straightened, he watched the woman’s face. Hesitation and avarice flitted across her features. Avarice won out as her eyes narrowed slightly. The hesitation was enough to increase his concerns. Damnation, if Caleb were correct, it would not be easy finding the girl or proving the brothel was involved in selling women against their will.
“Actually, my lord, we have a most unusual form of entertainment tonight.” Chantrel smoothed the taffeta wrapped snugly around her waist. “My guests this evening are my most select patrons, but there is always room for fine gentlemen such as the two of you. Won’t you come this way?”
With a practiced sweep of her hand and the skill of any noblewoman, Chantrel ushered them into a large salon. Red and gold couches, divans and chairs littered the room serving as seating for the twenty some men lounging about. Dark cherry walls, trimmed with gold molding, gave the room a heavy, decadent air.
Studying the room’s occupants, Sebastian only recognized two or three men. The others were strangers to him. To his disgust, he noticed the Marquess of Templeton standing in one corner of the room. A notorious gambler and womanizer, the man’s luck was exceeded only by his bad temper.
The last time Sebastian had met the man, it had been across the card table. It had been a pleasurable experience beating the man at cards, but he’d made an enemy as the result. The Marquess hated to lose.
“Templeton,” he muttered to Devin who stood at his side. “If he’s here, we can expect something perverted.”
The brothel owner had excused herself and moved to stand at the foot of a small dais shrouded by a burgundy velvet curtain. Clapping her hands, the woman smiled at her patrons.
“Gentlemen, my lords, if you please. I’m delighted you could join us this evening as we have something highly unusual and quite special for your enjoyment.” The woman turned and nodded her head at a tall, slender man standing at a nearby door who immediately tugged on a gold rope. A smile on her face, Chantrel turned back to the men in the room. “Tonight, I’d like to offer up for auction a delectable flower, ripe for the picking.”
As the brothel owner spoke, the curtain behind her slowly parted to reveal a woman seated on a gilded chair of immense proportions. A flowing, white silk chemise barely covered the woman’s lush body. To Sebastian’s surprise, his cock stiffened at the sight of her.
Seated in the chair with her legs slanted to one side, her figure was luxuriant, exotic and tempting. The delicate chemise, deliberately cut to reveal a long expanse of leg, hinted of more treasures beneath. Even from a distance, the woman’s enticing legs looked soft as silk.
Red color heightened the fullness of her mouth, and it tugged at him, filling his head with images of her pleasuring him with those delectable lips. Lustrous locks the color of uncut wheat tumbled down over creamy shoulders in soft curls. The thought of entwining his hand in her hair, while his other hand traced the sensuous curve of her thigh, was more than just a pleasurable thought. It excited him. The prospect of being the first to introduce this siren to the decadent and erotic delights of sex was intoxicating. His thoughts only served to make every muscle in his body taut with need.
He swallowed hard. What the devil was wrong with him? He’d come here in search of Caleb’s woman, and he certainly wasn’t so jaded as to buy a woman simply to be the first to bed her. Despite reminding himself of his reasons for being in the brothel, it was impossible not to notice the succulent fullnes of her breasts.
Barely hidden by the transparency of her white chemise, his palm itched to cup her. The thought of suckling on those dusky peaks produced a knot in his throat, which he immediately tried to swallow. Once again his cock stirred in his trousers. Damnation, he was hard as rock. It had been a long time since he’d been this aroused simply by looking at a woman.
Determined to regain control of his senses and lust, he focused his attention on the woman’s face. He frowned as he studied her lovely features. There was something oddly familiar about her. Mentally, he shook his head in repudiation of the thought.
Sebastian’s gaze moved to her red, sensuous lips and the way they parted in such an inviting manner. The thought of tasting the sweetness of her mouth shot another bolt of desire through him as he focused his full attention on the woman’s eyes. His desire vanished.
The revulsion in her wide green eyes said her participation in tonight’s event wasn’t by choice. The seductive pout she wore was an illusion. Yet she didn’t try to escape. She simply sat on the dais’ throne with a mixture of panic, disgust, and a blazing anger glowing in her luminous eyes.
“Who’ll start the bidding for one night with this rare creature, gentleman? Who will be the first to introduce her to the art of lovemaking? Do I hear a starting bid of twenty-five pounds?”
“Fifty pounds,” a stout gentleman shouted.
“Seventy-five,” another voice called out.
“Good God,” Devin growled beneath his breath. “Caleb was right about the auctions.”
Sebastian’s stomach knotted in anger. The disgust in Devin’s voice matched his own inner turmoil. Thank God, he’d convinced Caleb to let him investigate the matter. The moment this auction had started, his brother would have begun tearing the place apart without any thought to his safety or anyone else’s.
Somehow, he needed to discover whether Caleb’s young woman was still in the brothel. He needed information before he could take any action. There was little doubt in Sebastian’s mind that Chantrel wouldn’t let anything jeopardize her illegal, yet lucrative, side business. If the brothel madame suspected she was on the verge of exposure, she would remove any incriminating evidence, including Caleb’s love interest.
Chantrel wouldn’t be the first madame to hold a woman prisoner and sell her to the highest bidder. But the laws had changed, and this type of crime carried a stiff penalty. Was Chantrel involved with other brothels in this scheme or was she practicing this unsavory business alone? And the woman? His gaze returned to the tempting vision in white. What was her story?
“Two hundred pounds.” Lust and something else filled Lord Templeton’s voice. Sebastian turned his head to study the man as the Marquess licked his lips in a lascivious manner. Sebastian had never cared for the man, and now he understood why. There was something malevolent about Templeton.
“I’ve seen enough. I’m leaving,” Devin muttered in outrage as the bidding continued.
Sebastian didn’t answer as Templeton raised the stakes one more time over another bidder. The way the bidding was going, the Marquess would soon subject another woman to his debauchery. Sebastian’s gaze returned to woman on the dais. Something about her tugged at him—prevented him from leaving. How could he possibly leave here without saving her from a fate worse than death? Templeton’s tastes for sordid sexual acts were well known, and the idea of leaving her to the Marquess’ mercy twisted Sebastian’s insides.
“Five hundred pounds.” The Marquess’ bid drew a gasp from the men, and the room went silent.
“Five hundred pounds, gentlemen. I have five hundred pounds to Lord Templeton. Do I have any other bidders? Five hundred going once, twice—”
Sebastian couldn’t believe his ears. He’d actually placed a bid on the woman. Had he lost his mind? The back of his neck tingled with the weight of censorious eyes. He didn’t have to turn around to know what his friend thought about his behavior. Tightening his mouth, he slid a glance toward Templeton. The man was livid. So he’d managed to unbalance the marquess. He savored the pleasurable sensation. Chantrel, extremely pleased by the renewed competition, smiled broadly at Sebastian.
“Six hundred pounds to Lord Melton, do I hear any other bids? Going once, going twice—”
“Eight hundred,” Templeton snarled.
Silence filled the room at Sebastian’s quiet bid. Slowly, he turned his head toward the marquess. The other man’s face was beet red with fury. Sebastian remained silent, taking care to keep his own features impassive. A moment later, Templeton shook his head at Chantrel.
“I have one thousand, do I hear more?” The brothel madame glee’s was evident as she glanced about the room. “Going once. Going twice. Sold to Lord Melton for one thousand pounds.”
The room erupted into a loud frenzy of conversation. At his side, Devin hissed. “For God’s sake, Sebastian. Do you realize what you’ve just done?”
Devin stared at him in open mouth astonishment, but Sebastian turned away to watch Chantrel approach. Steeling himself for the matter at hand, he bowed as she stopped in front of him.
“My lord, you surprise me. I expected Helen to enchant everyone, but for you to pay so much for her, I never would have guessed it.”
Studying Chantrel’s jaded features he frowned. Something about her reminded him of a well-fed cat expecting to indulge in consuming the mouse once it finished playing with the creature. Forcing himself to smile, he bowed. “Might we discuss our business arrangement in private?”
“But of course, my lord.” The woman laughed, her eyes gleaming with calculation. With a grim smile, he followed her out of the salon. As they walked down a narrow hallway, the train of her gown forced him to stay at least three feet behind her. Entering a private office, he took a seat in front of a large oak desk as Chantrel skirted the furniture to sit before him. The room’s lack of ornamentation was clear indication of the seedier side of the woman’s business.
“Now then, my lord, shall we discuss the matter of payment?”
“Of course, I believe the bid was one thousand?” he said quietly.
“Yes, my lord, and I know you’ll find it money well spent.”
“I’m sure.” He nodded with derision. “Naturally, you’ll allow me to pay another thousand to take the creature off your hands permanently.”
The brothel owner started violently, her eyes narrowing. “I’m not sure I understand, my lord. The auction was for one night with Helen and nothing more.”
“Of course, but no doubt you’re an astute businesswoman, Chantrel. I’m sure you’ll agree that for an additional one thousand pounds, you’ll give—Helen did you say— into my care permanently. I’d hate to see you lose any money over such a lucrative transaction as this.”
“I’m not sure how I could possibly lose any money, my lord.”
“Don’t you? I’m certain a business such as yours relies heavily on the discretion of its clientele when it comes to special events.” Sebastian flicked an imaginary piece of lint from the black broadcloth of his jacket before sending the woman a hard look. “It would be a tragedy if one of your patrons disclosed unsavory information to the authorities.”
He arched his eyebrow as anger twisted the woman’s face into an ugly mask, but there was a glint of fear in her eyes as well. When she didn’t respond, he pulled a wallet from inside his jacket. Removing a calling card, he leaned forward and picked up the quill on Chantrel’s desk. With fluid strokes, he wrote his marker on the back of the card and slid it across the desktop toward her.
“Have Helen and all her possessions placed in my carriage immediately.” He rose to his feet and headed toward the door.
“It appears you leave me with little choice, my lord.” Chantrel snapped.
Ignoring the woman’s bitterness he left the office, the door closing quietly behind him. He moved down the corridor to the front hall at a furious pace. He was acting completely out of character tonight. What was he thinking to buy a woman like a prize mare? Devin was waiting for him in the foyer, and Sebastian quietly demanded his overcoat from the footman at the door. As the servant scurried away, he turned his head to study his friend’s grim features.
“So have you settled your account?” Devin sent him a look of disgusted disappointment.
“Yes.” Sebastian nodded. He chafed at the expression on his friend’s face. It wasn’t as if he intended to bed the woman. An image of her in his bed tantalized his thoughts for only a brief moment before he closed himself off the idea.
“What the hell were you thinking to bid on the woman like that?”
“I couldn’t bloody well let Templeton have her, could I?” Sebastian glared at his friend. Retrieving his favorite watch from his vest pocket, he examined the face of the timepiece then snapped it closed.
“But what happens to her after tonight? I just learned the auction was for only one night with the woman.”
Ignoring his friend’s grim disapproval, Sebastian accepted his hat, cane and gloves from the footman. “The auction might have been for one night, but I bought her freedom.”
His friend stared at him with his mouth agape. Somehow, Devin’s stupor rankled deeper than he thought possible. Did people really think him devoid of compassion? Simply because he was meticulous and methodical didn’t mean he couldn’t feel sympathy for those in need. In all good conscience, he couldn’t have just left the woman for Templeton.
Angry, he scowled at his friend and the footman who was curiously watching their exchange. His behavior in the past hour had been irrational and impulsive—the exact opposite of his usual conduct. It was infuriating.
“And now that you’ve bought her freedom, what to you intend to do with her? You can’t just throw her out onto the street,” Devin snapped.
“Damn it, man, it’s not as though I’m completely without sympathy for the woman’s situation.” He tugged his white evening gloves on in a deliberate fashion and kept his eyes averted. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to see to my newly acquired charge. Although heaven knows what I’ve gotten myself into.”
The last sentence he muttered beneath his breath as strode out the front entrance of the brothel. Descending the steps, he paced the sidewalk as he waited on his carriage. Damnation. What had he been thinking when he’d bid on the woman?
Templeton. He’d been thinking about how pleasurable it would be to steal the man’s coveted prize out from under his nose. And it was quite understandable why the Marquess had wanted the woman. Images of a voluptuous thigh and full breasts teased his thoughts. Christ Jesus. Had he really bought the woman out of pity or because he wanted to rut with her. His body tensed at the erotic images darting through his head. Suppressing a groan, he tried to think about where he could send the woman. A place where she’d have the opportunity to make a respectable living.
The sound of his shoes scraping against the stone walkway grated on Sebastian, much in the way the entire day had. Attending to the woman’s needs was the first order of business, then he needed to formulate a plan to see if Chantrel was holding Caleb’s ladylove hostage. He’d gone into the brothel tonight to find one woman and had come out with a different one. Sebastian released a weary sigh and frowned as the face of the woman he’d just bought filled his head. There was something very familiar about her. Where had he seen her before? He shrugged with exasperation. It was unlikely he’d ever seen her before.
His pacing ceased at the sound of carriage wheels rumbling over cobblestone. What had happened to the self-control he prided himself on? The rest of the Rockwoods were habitual in their irrational behavior, but not him. Not since childhood had he succumbed to such illogical or unexpected deportment. Behind him, the door to the brothel snapped open. Sebastian immediately turned his head to see Devin leaving the establishment. The memory of his friend’s censure still stung. Irritated, Sebastian didn’t look at his friend as the man stopped at Sebastian’s side.
“Sebastian, I owe you an apology for questioning your intentions. I should have known better. You did right by the woman.”
“Perhaps,” Sebastian replied gruffly without looking at his friend. “Then again, perhaps not. We both know what sort of man I am, Devin. I’ve never had much patience with women, and I’m too old to start now.”
“Good God, Sebastian.” Devin laughed. “You’re only thirty. Hardly a doddering old man.”
“Then why the hell do I feel so Goddamn old?” Far from feeling humorous about his present situation, he opened the door of his carriage as it halted in front of him. “I’m not equipped to deal with a female guaranteed to wilt at the sound of my voice.”
Without waiting for Devin’s reply, he climbed into the vehicle and threw himself onto the padded leather seat. Across from him sat his high-priced acquisition. He barely cast a glance in her direction before staring out the window. What in the blue blazes was he going to do with her?
He sighed wearily and closed his eyes. With the woman’s addition to his household, his schedule would be in shambles tomorrow. Louisa would no doubt attempt to take his new charge under her wing, which meant explanations. Then there was the problem of seeing to her clothing, determining what skills she possessed, and finding her employment. Why the devil hadn’t he just contacted the police? Then the woman would be someone else’s problem. The answer irritated him. He didn’t want her to be someone else’s problem.
Annoyed with himself, Sebastian clenched his jaw at the thought. No, he’d simply not been thinking clearly at Chantrel’s. Lust, and a desire to thwart Templeton, had driven him to buy her. But he was in his right mind again. Sebastian’s gaze shifted back to the woman opposite him. A veil obscured her features. He clenched his jaw as he acknowledged the fact that it made her even more enticing than when she’d been on display at the private auction.
She hadn’t moved since he’d climbed into the carriage. Come to think of it, she’d not even uttered a sound. What was wrong with her? Something inside him stirred. He wanted to see that succulent figure of hers again. See those wide green eyes. See if she truly was worth the one thousand—no, two thousand pounds he’d paid.
“Lift your veil,” he commanded. When she didn’t move, Sebastian bit the inside of his cheek. Didn’t she realize he was trying to help her? “Helen, is it? I simply want to see your face when I talk to you.”
Still she didn’t stir. She could have been a statue if not for the soft flutter of her veil from her breathing. Outside, the clouds parted and moonlight suddenly streamed through the carriage window. The cape she wore had fallen open to reveal her barely covered voluptuous curves, and he sucked in a sharp breath as the glow of the moon poured over her.
Up close, Helen’s body was every bit as sensuous as he remembered. Sebastian’s gaze lingered on the rose-colored tips of her breasts. They were stiff beneath the sheer fabric, and his fingers itched to touch her. Would those delicious nipples taste hot against his tongue? Instinctively he knew tasting her right now would give him more pleasure than he’d had in a long time. Far too long. It had been months since he’d parted with his last mistress.
That’s why Helen had captured his interest. She intrigued him. Tempted him. Christ Jesus, how she tempted him. Just the sight of her sitting across from him wearing next to nothing made him rock hard. His gaze dropped to the apex of her thighs and the dark curls visible through the sheer white fabric of her chemise. The sudden thought of filling her with his cock made his mouth go dry. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted a woman as badly as he wanted this one.
Mesmerized by the erotic visions flashing through his head, Sebastian stretched out his hand toward her. Lightly, his fingertips brushed across one nipple. A second later, he jerked back. Bloody hell, he’d lost his mind. He’d rescued her from Templeton to spare her this exact behavior. Now he was acting no better than the Marquess. Angered by his lack of control, he gritted his teeth. With a sharp movement, he pulled the veil away from Helen’s face.
A cloud passed over the moon, casting her features into the shadows. When moonlight drifted through the window once more, he stared at her face. Society would never deem her a classic beauty, but there was something compelling about her large, almond-shaped eyes. Familiar eyes. Where the devil had he seen her before? Outrage glistened in the deep green of her eyes, and he waved his hand in a gesture of exasperation.
“I’m not going to eat you.”
Although that was exactly what he wanted to do. He wanted to slide his mouth over every inch her. He longed to suckle her nipples until she cried out with pleasure then stroke that tender nub between her folds until she coated his fingers with hot cream. He swallowed hard at the images flooding his head.
With greater difficulty than he was accustomed too, Sebastian pushed the images out of his mind and waited for her to speak. Frustration evident in her luminous eyes, a single tear trickled down a pale cheek. Bloody hell, she was going to cry. The memory of the auction made him grimace. He supposed it was to be expected.
She reminded him of his sisters when they were upset. How many times had he wiped tears off Louisa’s cheek in particular? Every time a woman cried, he wanted to leave the room until they stopped wailing. It was damned uncomfortable listening to them sob. He abruptly stretched out his hand to wipe the tear away.
Fury and frustration flared in the woman’s eyes, but she didn’t flinch or turn away from him. The expression in her eyes made him frown. If she didn’t want him touching her, why didn’t she simply smack his hand away? Sebastian stared at her for a long minute before he closed his eyes at his stupidity. She’d been drugged. Chantrel had used sweet vitriol or some other narcotic to immobilize her prize. The moment he found a way to rescue Caleb’s beloved, he’d bring the brothel madame to her knees and her business along with her.
Flinging himself back against the black leather seat, he folded his arms. He was struck by the fact that her eyes told him more than he ever thought possible. Outrage remained, but hope flickered in the beautiful eyes fixed on his face.
“Damnation!” Out of habit, he pulled his watch from his white vest and flipped it open. The feel of the gold pocket watch against the pads of his fingers always soothed him. Noting the time, he tucked it back into his pocket. “It appears Chantrel’s drug has rendered you immobile and speechless. Can you possibly blink your eyes?”
Relief lit her gaze and he saw her eyelids blink once. Satisfied they were finally getting somewhere, he nodded sharply. “Excellent. One blink is yes, two is no. Understood?”
Another blink of her eyelids answered his question.
“You’re quick. I like that.” He nodded and bit back a smile at the irritation that flared in her eyes. “I must admit, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a fortunate position before. That is—being in the company of a woman who doesn’t talk, for whatever reason.”
This time he couldn’t keep from smiling at the anger in her eyes. It made her green eyes dark as the thick summer’s grass at Melton Park. Sebastian raised his hands in a gesture of surrender and shook his head. “Fair enough, I’ll restrict my comments until you’ve regained use of your tongue.”
Contempt flashed in her gaze and the moonlight reflected the gold sparks in her eyes. The look she gave him would have been lethal if it had been a weapon. It didn’t matter. He enjoyed watching the entrancing sparks of outrage illuminating her eyes. Sweet Jesus, he’d truly lost his senses if he were comparing her eyes to grass with gold sparks. Maudlin rubbish is what it really was. He needed to remain focused on the business at hand
“Helen. That is your name, correct?” He paused. The affirmative response allowed him to proceed. “Do you have family?”
The fear in her eyes made him frown as her single blink told him she had family. He eyed her with curiosity.
“Mother?” Two blinks. “Father?”
Once more, she blinked twice. Her agitation increased, and Sebastian saw her lips twitch, which told him she was desperately fighting the drug that controlled her. A garbled sound tumbled from her lips.
“What? I don’t understand.” Panic flickered in her eyes as she silently pleaded with him to comprehend. He grimaced. It could be hours before she was coherent. “It’s all right. The drug should wear off by morning. We’ll sort everything out then.”
The coach jerked to a halt and Sebastian climbed out of the vehicle. The lights of Melton House were a soft glow on the side of the carriage as he leaned back inside and lifted Helen into his arms. As Sebastian strode up the steps into the town home, he tried to ignore the way her body warmed his in all the wrong places. The sooner he found a safe haven for Helen, the better. If he waited too long, his prized control might easily slip with this woman. And that was unacceptable.
Helen stirred beneath a warm blanket. A fierce thumping pounded her head with vengeance, and she moaned. Raising a hand to her throbbing brow, she forced herself to sit up. The pain forced her to keep her eyes squeezed shut as she gently massaged her aching temples.
“Oh, miss! You’re awake at last.”
Startled by the unexpected sound of another’s voice, Helen’s eyes flew open to see a young girl at the foot of the bed. Confused, she blinked. Where was she? Strange, jumbled images flooded her head, and she moaned again. Dear lord, but her head hurt almost as much as her back. She moved stiffly to sit on the edge of the bed.
“Where am I?” Her voiced sounded so hoarse. It was almost a croak.
“Melton House, miss. His Lordship asked that you be shown to the library by nine this morning.”
Melton. Where had she heard that name before? Last night. She’d heard it last night when Madame Chantrel— Oh, dear God, it hadn’t been a nightmare. She really had been bought and sold. He’d bought her. Of all the images mixed up in her head, his face was the only one that wasn’t a blur. Tall and broad shouldered, he had stood out amidst the small crowd of men last night. Those black eyes of his, blazing with fire in the darkness. It had been as if he’d wanted to devour her.
She inhaled a sharp breath. He’d touched her. Helen looked down at the transparent night rail she was still wearing from the night before. One hand resting against her throat, a tremor ran through her at the memory of his touch. His thumb had brushed across her nipple. Teasing what little senses she possessed at the time. And she’d enjoyed it. Helen swallowed hard as she remembered exactly why the man had bought her.
“Come along now, miss, his lordship don’t like to be kept waiting.” The petite maid clucked as she urged Helen to her feet.
“Lord Melton…this is his house?”
“That it is, miss. Although the man does have his hands full what with all of his sisters living here with him. It’s a good thing his brothers have their own livings over near Bond Street.”
“Is there a Lady Melton?” The moment she asked the question, she winced. If the man was married, it wouldn’t bring home a prize he’d won in a brothel auction.
“Oh, heavens no, miss. His lordship don’t have the patience for women. He says he’ll never marry.” Busy shaking out a blue silk gown, the maid laughed then draped the dress over a beautifully carved, wood folding screen. “It’s a great pity though. Handsome man he is. And those eyes, mercy me, they’re enough to make a girl melt right where she stands.”
Helen bit her lip. The maid was right. Lord Melton’s eyes were hypnotic. In the carriage last night, his eyes had caressed her the way a lover might. That dark gaze of his had explored every visible part of her body, until the fire in his eyes had threatened to consume her. Then, as if he’d suddenly realized he’d revealed too much, a he’d retreated behind a mask of indifference. But even in those brief moments, she’d seen a glimmer of what she hoped was amusement and kindness.
“The earl is a real stickler for time, miss, so I’ll go get your breakfast while you freshen up. I’ve brought you one of Miss Louisa’s gowns. I’m sure it will fit you since the two of you are about the same size.”
“Miss Louisa?” Helen used the heel of her palm to apply pressure to the spot just above the bridge of her nose. Lord, but her head throbbed like a church bell. It was as if Uncle Warren had beaten her senseless.
“Yes, miss. She’s the youngest of the Rockwoods. And the most mischievous of the lot. His Lordship’s had a devil of a time with her over the last year.” The maid looked at a small watch pinned to her bodice. “Lord, love me. His lordship won’t be happy with me if I don’t have you downstairs in less than an hour. Go on now, freshen up and I’ll be back shortly with your breakfast.”
Helen got out of bed as the girl darted from the room. For the first time since waking, she took in her surroundings. She liked the simplicity of the bedroom. White gauze draped softly from the bed’s canopy, its filmy transparency echoed in the window’s curtains. Next to the dressing screen stood a washstand, while a dressing table with a mirror reflected her image back at her.
She grimaced at her tousled hair. Brushing out the knots would take time. To the right of the bed was a small fireplace with a marble mantle. Except for a small clock, the mantle was devoid of any ornamentation. The sight of the timepiece reminded her of how particular the maid had been about being on time. Clearly, the earl ran a precise household. Her mouth tightened with pessimism. A man who was concerned with time would most likely be devoted to rules. Rules that inflicted pain. It was the reason she’d fled Mayfield with Edward.
“Dear God, Edward.”
Her stomach gave a sickening lurch. Sinking down onto the mattress, she pressed the back of her hand to her mouth as bile rose in her throat. How could she have forgotten her brother until now? Where was he? Had the earl sent for him? She needed to know Edward was safe.
With a movement born of fear, she sprang to her feet and hurried to the washstand. The cool water chilled her as it splashed over her skin. It was a vivid reminder of her fear. In short order, she was throwing her night rail over the wooden screen and retrieving the undergarments the maid had provided.
As the silk chemise whispered over her shoulders, she waited for the fire to flare over her back. Despite the soft fabric, it scraped painfully at the fresh, vicious welts on her back. The marks had even appalled Madame Chantrel. At the time, Helen thought the woman was being kind. Now she was certain the woman had only been concerned that the wounds might detract from the price she expected Helen to bring.
Swallowing the urge to cry out from the pain the garment inflicted, Helen clenched her teeth and waited for the fire to subside into a familiar raw throb. A quiet knock on the door made her jump, her pain ebbing slightly as dread slashed through her. Had Lord Melton come for her himself? The anticipation skimming through her body shocked her.
Dear lord, perhaps her uncle had been right about her all along. Helen whirled around to see a young woman step into the room. The girl, her dark brown hair gathered up on top of her head in style that flattered her heart shaped face, tilted her head and smiled.
“I thought I’d come help you dress since I know Mary has gone to fetch you breakfast. It’s Helen, isn’t it?” The young woman didn’t wait for Helen’s nod. Instead, she smiled cheerfully and brushed past Helen, carelessly grabbing the blue dress off the folding screen. “I’m Louisa. Or at least I will be until Sebastian learns I’m here and not at the family estate in Scotland. It won’t surprise me in the least to hear him call me something quite different.”
With a merry laugh, Louisa gathered up the skirt of the gown and moved forward to slip the silk dress over Helen’s head. Before Helen could even object, Louisa spun her around do up the button on the back of the gown. The girl’s audible gasp echoed over her shoulder, causing Helen to grow rigid. Because the whip marks were still so tender, she’d forgone wearing the corset the maid had left her. From the other girl’s shocked outburst, the ugly wounds had to be clearly visible through the thin chemise covering her back.
“Who did this to you,” Louisa exclaimed with suppressed fury.
The question didn’t surprise her. Not looking at the young woman, Helen shook her head. She had no desire to explain the circumstances she and Edward had left. Uncle Warren had contacts among members of London’s society. The slightest bit of information could easily lead him to where she was.
“It is of little consequence,” she said with stoicism.
“Little consequence,” the girl behind her bit out. “I think you should have your head examined. These marks are barely healed. Have you had a doctor look at these?”
“There’s no need,” Helen said quietly as she reached behind her to button the dress
A gentle hand squeezed hers as Louisa pushed Helen’s hands aside and resumed closing the back of the gown. The silence hanging in the air was heavy with Louisa’s unspoken questions, and Helen trembled. She wanted to forget the past. Not relive it. Determined to avoid any further questions, Helen turned to face the other woman.
“Thank you for the loan of your dress, it’s very generous of you.”
“I’m pleased we’re about the same size,” Louisa said. The young woman’s voice reflected a compassion Helen had longed for so often in over the past twelve years. Louisa smiled at her. “Besides, it gave me the excuse to meet you. Everyone is in a dither over your mysterious arrival last night. Polly, my maid, was all agog about how romantic it was.”
“It was far from romantic, I assure you,” Helen said in a stilted voice.
Last night had been a nightmare. Heat burned Helen’s neck and cheeks as she vaguely remembered Lord Melton carrying her into the house.
Even rendered powerless by drugs, her nerve endings had tingled at the man’s touch. Helen swallowed the knot suddenly swelling in her throat and glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantle. It was almost nine. She could not afford to irritate the earl. It was quite unlikely Madame Chantrel would have released Edward as well as herself, and she would need the earl’s help in rescuing her brother.
“Oh dear, I’m awfully sorry. I’m being nosy again. Sebastian dislikes it enormously when I pry into someone else’s affairs,” Louisa said as she moved around to eye Helen with a gleam of speculation in her warm, hazel eyes. “Still, I must say, my brother’s behavior is extremely unusual. I can’t remember the last time he even looked at a woman, let alone brought one home. But then, Sebastian has always worked hard to bury the romantic side of him.”
Another knock echoed in the room, and the maid entered with a breakfast tray. The smell of eggs and kippers drifted into the room, immediately making her feel queasy. The last thing she wanted to do at this moment was eat. It would be impossible to do anything at all until she knew Edward was free of Madame Chantrel’s grasp. Without hesitating, she walked toward the door.
“Where on earth are you going?” Louisa stopped Helen with a gentle tug of her arm. “You haven’t even eaten yet.”
“I’m sorry, but I must speak with his Lordship.”
“Of course, but Sebastian can wait.” Louisa dismissed her brother with a wave of hand, but Helen shook her head firmly.
“His Lordship might be willing to wait, but I cannot.”
“As you wish,” Louisa replied, eyebrows arched in curiosity. “But I must warn you, Sebastian is not someone you want to face on an empty stomach.”
The sincerity in Louisa’s voice her hesitate. The earl was most certainly intimidating, but she’d faced far more daunting inquisitions from her uncle than anything the Earl of Melton could inflict on her. Edward’s visage entered her mind’s eye once more, and she responded with another firm shake of her head.
“No, I must speak with his Lordship now.”
“Very well,” Louisa nodded with a perplexed smile. “Beth, will you show Miss…”
“Rivenall,” Helen said when Louisa sent a questioning look in Helen’s direction.
“Show Miss Rivenall to the library, where I’m certain my brother is enjoying his morning paper.” As Helen followed the maid out of the room and down the hall, Louisa’s voice rang out behind her. “And remember, his bark is worse than his bite.”
Despite her deep concern for Edward’s safety, the earl’s sister puckish remark made her mouth curled slightly. Following Beth down the hallway, Helen heard the soft whisper of her dress against the carpet. The blue dress was lovelier than anything she’d ever worn. The two dresses she owned were threadbare and marked with darning. No. Madame Chantrel had her clothes and Edward. Guilt lashed out at her like the whip her uncle owned. How could she even begin to take pleasure in the dress she wore, while her brother’s fate had yet to be determined. A shiver skimmed down her back. She could only hope the earl would help her a second time.
With the petite maid in the lead, they turned the corner of the hallway and moved down an impressive staircase. Melton House had a completely different air from Mayfield. The creamy colored walls were starkly different from the dark, oppressive interior of Uncle Warren’s house.
Even the ancestral portraits didn’t stare down at her with stern, critical eyes as they did at Mayfield. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Beth had reached the foot of the stairs, and she moved quickly to catch up with the girl. If the earl was as rigid as her uncle was, she had no wish to be late for their appointment. She needed his help and that meant being as conciliatory as she could be.
Sebastian tossed his morning newspaper aside, and leaned back in his chair. Fingers rubbing against his chin, he considered Caleb’s visit bright and early this morning. His brother was forcing his hand in how to deal with Chantrel’s establishment. Sebastian had intended to report his suspicions about the woman’s illegal actions to McBride this morning and go with the Inspector to the establishment this afternoon in his efforts to find Serena.
While his brother agreed to give McBride until midday to answer Sebastian’s summons, Caleb had made it quite clear that he wouldn’t wait much past the noon hour to launch a rescue. Worse, Caleb had bluntly declared he would do whatever was necessary with or without Sebastian’s help. It left Sebastian no choice but to agree to his brother’s demands.
Sebastian understood his brother’s concern for Serena. If they waited too long the girl could easily be hurt, perhaps worse. God help him if McBride didn’t arrive soon. Without the inspector, Sebastian’s only recourse would be to plan the woman’s rescue and inform the police after the fact. Damnation. Why couldn’t his family control their emotions like him?
He’d learned at an early age how to hold himself in check when it came to his impulsive nature. Unintentionally, his gaze swung to his mother’s portrait above the fireplace. Pain lanced its way through him as he remembered the sound of her laughter. If only he hadn’t— He buried the memory deep in his head as he picked up his discarded newspaper.
Frowning, he read the sensational headline Terror in the East End. The brutal second murder in Whitechapel had been fodder for the scandal sheets all week. They fed off this type of tragedy. He skimmed the article and frowned. Considering the barbaric manner the madman had butchered Annie Chapman, he needed to arrange for a few precautions.
Louisa would have to be told not to go anywhere without one of the footmen, and Sebastian would see to it the men were armed. Although the murdered woman had been a prostitute in an area far removed from Mayfair, Sebastian wasn’t willing to take chances with any of the women in his care. And that included Helen. The thought of his newly acquired charge made him close his eyes for a moment.
He’d slept little last night, and when he had finally fallen asleep, wild, erotic images of Helen entwined in his arms and riding him with wanton abandon had filled his dreams. With a groan, Sebastian leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk and clutch at his head.
Deeply ingrained, his self-control was a trait he valued and took great pride in. It was something he’d learned at an early age, it had been years since anything had challenged his self-discipline with such intensity. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
The impulsive nature of his siblings was something he’d learned to avoid at all costs. To find his self-imposed restraint tested so easily was troubling. How could one woman drive him to such distraction without having spoken one word to him? It was the most frustrating experience he’d encountered in a very long time.
God help him, but he needed to find a way out of this mess he’d gotten himself into. Focus, he needed to focus on where he could send her. He should have done something other than bring the woman here. But he’d not even considered the possibility last night. He’d been too intrigued by her to think of anything else. And if he were being honest, he didn’t want to send her anywhere. He wasn’t ready to give her up just yet. The confession tugged a dark groan from him.
Determined to send his thoughts in a new direction, Sebastian gritted his teeth and turned his attention to the mail lying on the table. Opening the envelope from the dressmaker, he grimaced at the total. Louisa had gone shopping again. He needed to give serious consideration to finding her a husband or he’d be in debtor’s prison before he was forty. With a sigh, he set the bill aside for his secretary to handle. The next envelope knotted his stomach as he recognized the familiar handwriting. Aunt Matilda.
With great reluctance, he opened the letter. Seconds later, he winced at his aunt’s announcement that she and his sisters would be returning to London sooner than expected. He thought he had another two months before she barreled through the front door intent on seeing him married off to one of the American heiresses so popular with the Prince of Wales.
Sebastian tossed the letter down onto the desk with a weary groan and slouched backward in his chair once more. There had to be some way to keep his aunt from hounding him on the subject of marriage. Of all the women he’d ever met, Aunt Matilda was the most logical and serene of creatures. She should understand his reasons for not marrying. He grimaced. She’d understand, but it wouldn’t stop her from parading potential brides in front of him.
Perhaps a lengthy stay on the continent would give him some respite from her badgering. No, that wouldn’t work. There’d be no one to ensure his siblings didn’t get into trouble during his absence. And knowing Aunt Matilda, she’d have a bride waiting for him at the dock the moment he returned. He frowned.
If there was any woman in the world who could manipulate him, it was Aunt Matilda. She could do so without him even recognizing it until it was too late. Whatever he intended to do to ward off her matchmaking schemes, he needed to do it quickly. The soft click of the library door opening jerked his head up.
She was here.
“Miss Rivenall, your lordship,” the maid announced.
Inhaling a deep breath, Sebastian rose from his chair, but remained silent as Helen entered the room. The blue dress she wore accented her curvaceous figure and full breasts. The memory of a dusky rose nipple made him dig his fingers into his palms. He had one of two choices. He could find somewhere else for Helen to live or he needed to find himself a mistress—quickly. One or the other. No, that wasn’t quite true. He had a third choice—but he wasn’t Templeton.
Content to watch her approach in silence, he noted the amazement flitting across her face as she studied the books lining the walls. Preoccupied with the shelves stocked with all manner of literature, she walked toward the fireplace as she surveyed the room. As he watched her, Sebastian noted the way her hand caressed the leather binding of a book on top of a stack he’d let pile up on a nearby table. The sudden overwhelming desire for that hand to touch him in the same way made him stiffen and clear his throat.
“Since you’re walking, I can assume the sweet vitriol has worn off, or are you still unable to speak?”
Helen immediately jerked around to face him, and he grimaced at the immediate regret he experienced. Determined to regain his self-control, Sebastian reached for the pocket watch he always carried. He barely glanced at it before he snapped it shut and tucked it back into his waistcoat. Sebastian’s gaze returned to Helen’s face as he studied her for a long moment.
She was tall for a woman, but even from where he stood, he knew he towered over her by at least a foot. Helen’s gaze swept over him, and he could see the appraisal in her gaze. Suddenly uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of such a detailed assessment, Sebastian arched an eyebrow at her. Helen immediately blushed as color darkened her cheeks. She looked adorable. He was a fool. Muscles pulled painfully tight in his face, he struggled to keep his expression from revealing his thoughts.
“Is the drug still affecting your tongue?” Sebastian tried not wince at the harshness of his tone. Anger flashed in her blue eyes before she averted her gaze
“I am fully capable of speech this morning, my lord.”
“Excellent. Last night, our conversation was a bit one-sided, but I did manage to learn that your given name is Helen, and from the maid’s announcement a few moments ago, I gather your last name is Rivenall.”
He rounded the desk and walked toward her. The moment she took a quick step backward, he came to an abrupt halt. Damnation, he didn’t mean to scare the woman. But then considering what she’d been through could he really expect her not to be a little afraid? The only thing she knew about him was that he’d bought her in an auction and brought her home with him. Not a good way to build trust. Helen’s eyed him warily, her expression wavering between her desire to keep her distance and something else.
“My lord, I must know what you’ve done about Edward.” The frantic note in Helen’s voice that made Sebastian frown.
“My brother. Edward. I was hoping you’d secured his freedom from Madame Chantrel just as you did me.”
“Since I didn’t even know you had a brother until this moment, how in the blue blazes could I do anything?” Exasperation edged Sebastian’s tension up another notch. What the hell had he gotten himself into? The last thing he needed was for Melton House to become a home for foundlings.
“But last night…in the carriage. I said Edward’s name. It’s one of the few things I do remember.”
“I can assure you, Miss Rivenall, no sane person would have been able to interpret the name Edward out of that garbled noise you made.” Indignation made his answer sharper than he intended, and for a second time regret surged through him as she flinched.
“I can’t leave him there,” she murmured as if speaking her thoughts out loud. “I have to go back for him.”
“That’s one thing you won’t do.” His command made her lift her head in a clear gesture of defiance. Gone was the demure woman who’d entered the library. In her place was a woman filled with determination. He held back a groan. Helen’s expression was a familiar one. Whenever one of his sisters stubbornly refused to give way, he knew a battle was at hand.
“I refuse to leave my brother in the hands of that woman,” she snapped.
“Miss Rivenall, your freedom cost me two thousand pounds last night, and I have no desire to pay for your freedom a second time. You will not go back to that brothel.”
“Two thousand pounds?” Helen stared up at him in shock.
“Yes,” Sebastian bit out with irritation. The woman had no comprehension of the danger she’d be putting herself into if she tried to go back to Chantrel’s for her brother.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered.
“A thank you will do for the moment,” Sebastian said with a dismissive wave of his hand as he contemplated this newest development. In the next instant, his entire body tightened with awareness as Helen closed the distance between them to clutch at his arm.
“Please, I can’t leave my brother there. He’s not quite twelve and if Chantrel…he’s just a boy.”
Her face pale with fear, the pleading look on her lovely features tugged at him to pull her close and reassure that everything would be all right. He crushed the urge, while his irritation with his irrational behavior was growing by the second, If he continued in the vein, his prized self-control would be in shambles, and he refused to let that happen.
“Perhaps you should have been more careful in the selection of your friends.” The hard note in his voice made her jerk away from him.
“Friends,” she spat with vehemence. “That woman wasn’t my friend. She lied to me. She promised me employment and that Edward could stay with me.”
“And yet you trusted her,” he said quietly, and her anger immediately dissolved into despair as she looked away from him.
“Desperation leads one to trust others where in different circumstances that trust would not be so easily given,” she murmured.
“Clearly in this case you should have thought more deeply on the issue.” He clenched his teeth at the pompous sound of his voice.
“Please. I have nowhere else to turn. I can’t leave him there.”
Sebastian closed his eyes for a second at the helpless note running beneath her request. She’d been through hell, and he wasn’t helping things by making her beg for his help. People made mistakes. He knew that from the wild antics of his younger siblings, all of whom were constantly coming to him with this difficulty or that.
Caleb was his latest challenge in problem solving. Based on Helen’s explanations, everything Caleb’s sweetheart had suspected seemed to be true. Chantrel was undoubtedly tricking young women into thinking they would find gainful employment with her. Only when they were at Chantrel’s mercy inside the brothel did the women understand what was really expected of them.
Perhaps it would be a good thing if McBride didn’t answer Sebastian’s summons until later in the day. If he wanted to get the girl and boy out of Chantrel’s grasp, the inspector’s presence might hinder things when it came to coming to an arrangement with the brothel madame.
Somehow, he didn’t think Chantrel would part with Serena or Edward without expecting something in exchange. And McBride could hardly standby when Sebastian paid off the brothel owner. Without McBride present, he could easily report Chantrel for her illegal activities after he’d resolved his current dilemma. Still that didn’t solve the problem of how to stage a rescue.
It would be easy to enter the brothel. The difficult part would be forcing Chantrel to give up the boy and Caleb’s sweetheart. Based on the footmen he’d seen last night at the auction, it could prove to be a sizeable problem. Still, he wasn’t about to stand aside and let the brothel owner do as she liked. With a slight shake of his head, he turned around and strode back to his desk.
“It seems I have little choice but to see to the boy’s rescue,” he muttered as he kept his gaze firmly on the top of his desk. He didn’t want to see the relief and gratitude on her face.
“Thank you. I don’t know how, but I will find a way to repay you,” she said fervently. “I promise you that.”
Sebastian nodded as his fingers toyed with the letter from his aunt. Another problem to solve after he arranged for Serena and Edward’s release. If he could find a way to distract Aunt Matilda…his head snapped up as he fixed his gaze on Helen. It might just work. She was lovely enough, and she was clearly gently bred. Surely, he could make her into a fashionable lady before his aunt arrived from Scotland. The grateful expression on her face changed to one of puzzlement. He immediately focused his attention on the papers on his desk.
“Naturally, I’ll require your agreement to my proposition before I rescue the boy.” Sebastian raised her head and the moment he saw her expression he clenched his jaw at his callous statement. When in the hell had he become such a bastard?