Eleanor Palmer is relieved when her fiancé cries off the marry another woman but horrified when he suggests the dissolute Marquess of Grenville as a replacement. Eleanor may claim descent from the lusty King Charles II, but this proper English lady has no interest in the pleasures of the flesh. She’d rather read the Classics.
Nathaniel St. Clair is infamous for his wicked ways–drinking, gambling, and fornicating–but he’s willing to give up all but one of his vices to initiate the lovely Miss Palmer into the joys of lust. Maybe a little dirty Latin poetry will aid his cause.
Note: This novella was originally published by Cobblestone Press in 2007 and again by Kensington Books in 2009 in the anthology titled Behind the Red Door.
London, England—July, 1816
The blank paper, unblemished by so much as an inkblot, mocked him. The page as empty, it seemed, as his soul. Except that where the page was white, his soul was black. Or so his father, the mighty Duke of Hardwyck, was ever fond of reminding him.
Nathaniel St. Clair, sixth Marquess of Grenville, grimaced as he lifted the glass to his lips and took another deep swallow of whiskey. At least there was great amusement to be found in living down to the old man’s expectations.
In fact, given his appalling lack of productivity this morning, Nathaniel could see no reason not to begin his pursuit of profligacy a trifle earlier than usual today. A visit to Brooks’ for an afternoon at hazard, followed by a long night of fucking at the Red Door, appealed a great deal more than waiting for the arrival of the proper English words to capture the lyrical frivolity of Ovid’s Latin.
What stopped him from following through on the impulse was not the sudden sting of conscience or a spontaneous flow of poetic verse, but the unexpected sound of tapping feet and voices in the hall outside his private study.
“I say, miss, I told you the marquess is not to be disturbed. You cannot mean to go in there.” This squeaky protest came from one of the footmen, though Nathaniel would have been hard-pressed to remember the fellow’s name even if he could have seen his face. The Hardwycks went through footmen the way other aristocratic families went through ready cash.
“I most certainly can,” came the reply, calm and crisp and delivered in velvet tones Nathaniel would have recognized from the other side of a wall of granite.
The voice belonged to the Honorable Miss Eleanor Palmer, whose long, slender limbs and small, round breasts could claim no rival, either in his imagination or in reality. The only respectable lady Nathaniel had ever desired, she was also the one he’d always known he could never have.
For what would a proper, sensible Unmarried like Miss Palmer want with an inveterate wastrel like him? He came to his feet. His heart gave an oddly hopeful, arhythmic lurch as the doorknob turned.
He was about to find out.
Heedless of the footman who jabbered incessant objections at her heels, Eleanor marched into the surprisingly bright, airy study. She slapped the note from her former fiancé, the Earl of Holyfield, on the desk in front of the Marquess of Grenville and glared up at him. “What, may I ask, is the meaning of this?”
She cursed the bone-softening, knee-weakening heat that spread outward from her belly as she met his cornflower-blue gaze. No other man of her acquaintance had ever had this curious effect on her. It was most provoking. Straightening her spine, she did her best to adopt her most regal and imperious expression. She was here to dispel any notion that she might be remotely interested in accepting Grenville’s suit, not to melt at his feet into an ignominious puddle of feminine longing.
What could Holyfield have been thinking even to entertain such an idea, much less commit it to paper in this letter to her father? Of all the unsuitable possible husbands for a bookish, reserved lady such as herself, the high-living, wild-loving Marquess of Grenville was surely the most unsuitable of all.
The marquess leaned down and plucked the letter from the desk. His long, elegant fingers bore several blue-black ink stains.
She ought to have known better than to come here. Perhaps she could forgive herself for having forgotten how tall and imposing a figure he cut, for few men had more than a few inches on her unusual height, but she could not excuse her failure to recall how preternaturally handsome he was. And surely it was unnatural for a man as dissolute and disreputable as Grenville to appear the very picture of robust masculine health. From the glossy sheen of his chestnut-brown hair, to the crystal clarity of his eyes, to the tightly corded musculature scarcely concealed by the close fit of his perfectly tailored coat, he exuded youthful vigor. In fact, with that lock of hair falling across his forehead as he scanned the missive, he more resembled a newly formed and wholly innocent Adam than the devil he was reputed to be.
His mouth quirked up on one side, Grenville looked from her to the letter to the footman, who stood behind her babbling incoherent apologies.
“Oh, do leave off fussing, er…” The marquess paused, his dark, straight eyebrows drawing together. “What’s your name again, old chap?”
Eleanor could not suppress a smile at the words old chap. The doughy-faced youth could no more be characterized as old than a freshly baked loaf of bread.
The footman cleared his throat. “Beardsley, my lord.”
Grenville nodded briskly. “You are dismissed then, Beardsley.”
“As you wish, my lord.” Beardsley sounded as though he’d swallowed a particularly sharp fish bone.
Her stomach dropped as Grenville’s half-smile was replaced with a full grin. “You needn’t fear I’ll mention this lapse to my father. It shall be our little secret.” Though he spoke to the footman, his gaze focused on Eleanor.
“Oh, thank you, my lord.” The servant’s heels clicked against the polished wood floor as he retreated. “And Beardsley?”
The sound of footsteps ceased. “Yes, my lord?”
Silence stretched out for several long, aching seconds as Grenville’s gaze traveled from her face and over the length of her body with a searing intensity that left her breathless. And wanting—something.
“Close the door behind you.”
Nathaniel studied Miss Palmer’s delicate features as the footman beat his hasty retreat. The door clicked shut. She ought to be frightened, or at least alarmed, at the prospect of being trapped alone in a room with the notoriously amoral Marquess of Grenville. She ought to follow Beardsley out of the room as fast the long, slim legs concealed beneath the rose-and-cream-striped muslin of her day dress could carry her.
Instead, she stood her ground, meeting his regard with a steady gaze, her dark blue eyes sparkling with challenge and…was it excitement? The flush rising in her cheeks and the pulse fluttering visibly in her elegant throat suggested not fear, but interest. Perhaps even arousal.
How utterly unexpected.
“Surely, you do not expect me to remain here behind closed doors with you, my lord,” she said at last.
He gave her a negligent grin and wiggled his eyebrows. “I most certainly do.” When she opened her mouth to protest, he added, “What else is a gentleman to do when a young lady accosts him in his private study without benefit of a chaperone but protect her reputation by means of ensuring her privacy?”
“I came only to tell you I would not look favorably upon your suit, in the event your friend Holyfield has given you cause to think otherwise.” The words came out in a rush, forced and a little breathless. She looked over her shoulder at the door. “And now I shall be going.”
She extended her hand, a clear request for him to return the letter. He looked down at it, still clutched in his hand, and reread the passage that had brought Miss Palmer to his lair.
Despite my need to break our betrothal, I continue to hold your daughter in the highest regard and would not wish my perfidy to adversely affect her ability to make an advantageous match. To that end, I observe that the Marquess of Grenville is once again in the pool of Eligibles, and, further, I believe he would make an excellent husband for Miss Palmer. I am aware you do not hold him in high esteem, but I am of the opinion that a lady of Miss Palmer’s faultless character could do much to temper his tendencies toward vice. Moreover, it cannot escape your notice that, should she marry Grenville, your daughter would one day be a duchess, a goodly step above the mere countess I should have made her.
A small smile quirked Nathaniel’s lips. He owed Alistair de Roche, who had absconded to Gretna Green just four days past with Nathaniel’s former intended, a singular debt of gratitude. Lady Louisa Bennett had been his father’s choice, after all, not Nathaniel’s. If Holyfield hadn’t done the ignoble thing and eloped with the girl despite their respective commitments to others, Nathaniel would have been sticking his head into the marital noose tomorrow morning.
Unfortunately, Holyfield’s second act of magnanimity was destined to go to waste. No matter how well he thought Nathaniel and Miss Palmer might suit, her father, Viscount Palmer, would neverconsent to a match between his daughter and a man he referred to as Marquess of the Devil.
But then, Nathaniel wasn’t particularly interested in the sort of union that would require paternal consent. Marriage was not on his agenda. However, she’d claimed it wasn’t on hers, either. And she had come here alone. His cock twitched, stiffening at the thought.
Ambling round to her side of the desk, he crossed one ankle over the other and leaned against the corner, a deliberately indolent pose. Her eyes widened at his proximity, and her chest rose and fell more rapidly than before. Excellent.
When he stretched out his hand to return the letter to her, she stepped backward with a small gasp, then reached out to snatch the paper from him. He pulled it back toward his chest.
“Before I give it to you, tell me: why did you come alone?”
Her eyes narrowed, but her dilated pupils suggested she was more excited than annoyed. “I didn’t. My aunt is waiting for me in the coach.”
He made a mock frown. “I don’t believe the venerable ladies of Almack’s would consider a companion left out of doors to be any sort of chaperone a’tall.”
“Aunt Eppie gossips,” she admitted with a resigned sigh. “So I told her I’d come to return a parasol to Jane, and I’d only be a moment.”
Nathaniel nodded. Jane, his younger sister, and Miss Palmer had become particular friends when they’d met in the queen’s presentation queue two years earlier.
“I simply wanted to be certain you would not attempt to court me now that we are both free.” She held out a hand, her expression pleading. “May I have the letter now? If I don’t return soon, Aunt Eppie will wonder what’s become of me and come after me.”
Ah, but the moment was too delicious, too perfect to allow it to slip through his fingers.
“You must know I wouldn’t dream of courting you, Miss Palmer. To do so would imply that I have honorable intentions toward you, and we both know I am not an honorable man.” A slow smile curved his lips, one he knew was both wicked and beguiling. He turned and placed the letter purposefully on the desk behind him. “Which is why, if you want the letter, you’ll have to come and get it.”