Lady Jane St. Clair should be happy. After all, she’s betrothed to the man she adores. But the Earl of Chester is a notorious rake who has dallied with London’s loveliest women, and “Plain Jane” can never hope for his fidelity. Unless she can find another way to compete…
Gerard Nash is resigned to a lustless marriage and, for appearances, has given up his mistress. But celibacy is not for him, and in the weeks before his weeding, he frequents London’s poshest brothel. There, a masked woman with the body of a goddess brings him exquisite pleasure. There’s just one catch.
This harlot must remain a virgin.
Note: This novella was originally released by Kensington Books in 2009 in the anthology titled Behind the Red Door.
London, England—April, 1817
Lady Jane St. Clair had been quietly, desperately in love with Gerard Everett, Earl of Chester, for more than half her life. When she was ten, her dewy-eyed devotion had seemed harmless enough, a childlike, uncomplicated emotion. In the ensuing eleven years, however, her innocent adoration had not dimmed, but instead matured into the full-blooded, full-bodied passion of a grown woman.
All the more reason she must not succumb to temptation and accept his proposal.
A gentle squeeze of her gloved hand brought her back to the present. Gerard—she supposed she ought to think of him as Lord Chester now that he had inherited his uncle’s title, but it was difficult after so many years—sat beside her on the gold-and-mulberry-cushioned settee, his large, thick-lashed brown eyes bearing down on her with all their persuasive weight.
“Please, Jane, say you will make me the happiest of men.”
What a ridiculously clichéd thing for him to say, Jane scoffedto herself, but her heart danced a jig anyway. He sounded so earnest, as though he really believed the words.
If only he weren’t so handsome. So charming.
So utterly incapable of fidelity.
She tore her gaze away from his face, from the sincerity of his expression. “Why?”
“Why?” Even with her eyes averted, she could see his eyebrows draw together and his lips crumple with confusion.
“Why would marrying me make you the happiest of men, my lord?” Her voice caught a little, strangled by thickness of her throat.
He caught her chin between his fingers and turned her head so that she had to look at him. Blast him, he was as practiced an actor as ever lived! Now he appeared not puzzled, but wounded.
“Jane, you are everything a man in my position could possibly want in a wife. It is always a pleasure to be in your company. You are kind, intelligent, well-read, and witty.”
But not beautiful.Even when he intended to flatter her, Gerard couldn’t bring himself to tell her she was beautiful.
He massaged her palm with his thumb. “In fact, I daresay you are my dearest friend,” he continued, heedless of the terrible longing that swelled in her breast and belly at his touch. “There is no woman I admire and esteem more than you, Jane St. Clair, and no other woman I would rather have by my side for the rest of my life.”
What of passion? she wanted to shout. What of love?
But she knew the answer. Aristocratic marriages were seldom based on passion or love. Those that were, like her brother’s, incited more ridicule than respect. In truth, admiration, esteem, and friendship were a better foundation for a successful union than the financial and dynastic concerns that induced many couples to marry. Most would consider themselves lucky to have that much.
She could not blame Gerard for being a product of his station, any more than she could blame him for not loving her as she loved him. For not desiring her as she desired him. Why should he want “plain Jane” when he could have his pick of the loveliest wives and widows of the ton, of the most expensive actresses and courtesans? Like colorful flowers, the beautiful ladies beckoned him and he flitted from one to the next, never satisfied to light in one place for long, always in search of a brighter, prettier blossom.
But he did always come back to her. She washis dearest friend.
Every mistress he took, every light-skirt he slept with, was already a knife in her heart. Marrying him could do naught but deepen the wound. But if he married someone else, she would have no part of him at all, and that would cut her heart out altogether.
A tremulous smile formed on her lips and she nodded. “Yes, Gerard. Yes, I will marry you.”
His beautifully sculpted features lit with pleasure and he pressed his lips, dry and chaste, to her cheek. “Thank you, Jane. You won’t regret it.”