One Wicked Weekend
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-941260-77-7
[ Historical Romance, MF ]
If spending a few days—and nights—at Lord Bruton’s scandalous house party earns Catherine the money she needs to survive, so be it but she also intends to enjoy herself while she’s there. Never does she expect to meet an honorable gentleman.
“Drake, as the neophyte, the first choice is yours.” Lord Bruton sent him a sly look across the drawing room.
This was the first, and last, time Hugh Drake ever planned to attend one of Bruton’s “house parties.” Besides his host, two other men lounged about the opulent red room in gilded armchairs. Philip Jance and Jack Telford rounded out Bruton’s well-known licentious circle. Perhaps not so much well-known as well-rumored.
Until Hugh had arrived at Bruton’s estate, Thornbrooke, the morning before, he’d had no idea if the rumors concerning the viscount were true.
Hugh swept a glance over the four young women displayed on Bruton’s specially built stage. As far as Hugh had ever heard, the females who participated in Bruton’s bawdy retreats did so willingly.
Thank God for small favors.
Hugh wasn’t here for the sensual ladybirds, the naughty games, or Bruton’s fine stash of brandy. His host was in possession of a letter that didn’t belong to him, and Hugh intended to retrieve it and return it to its rightful owner. He would do what needed to be done in order to avoid detection.
At least, that was what the morally upstanding, conscientious grandson of Lady Hartfield told himself. But ever since he’d used a tenuous acquaintance and the knowledge that Bruton was always eager to ensnare new blood for his parties to secure an invitation, Hugh’s mind had raced in an uncharacteristically lascivious direction.
No one, not even his vaunted grandmother, knew he was here. The other three, bound by the same desire for secrecy, wouldn’t tell. Would it be so wrong to enjoy himself, to bring to life those half-formed, always-suppressed salacious fantasies that lingered in the back of his mind?
Yes. His grandmother’s strident voice echoed in his head. Remember what happened to your cousin Sophia.
Right. Well then…
Bruton cleared his throat and tilted his head toward the stage. He was neither a well- nor ill-favored man, at least according to Hugh’s sister. He swept his black hair back instead of forward à la Byron, exposing the crinkled skin—not from laughter but from cynicism—around his blue eyes. Nearly forty, Bruton had never met a vice he didn’t try, and often sought out the ones he wasn’t familiar with. Needless to say, Hugh had never introduced Lord Bruton to his sister. Ever since Cousin Sophia had been ruined by a rake, the Drake family protected their females with a vengeance and chastised their males about the sin of lust until they might as well be eunuchs. Over the next four days, though, Hugh was out from under the vigilant eye of his grandmother.
He raised his glass of brandy in thanks to Bruton and assessed the costumed chits. There was a dimpled housemaid, a thin governess, a sultry milkmaid, and a demure shepherdess. One girl for each of the men, in turn, over four days. The housemaid was full of saucy smiles—too playful for Hugh’s present mood. By contrast the governess was a dour little thing. But then that was her role, wasn’t it? She probably had a nasty leather strap clasped behind that rigid back. The milkmaid kept it simple, turning this way and that to display her huge jugs to advantage, while the shepherdess, complete with staff and lamb, ducked her head shyly.
The very idea of having a different woman each night made his blood run—
Cold. Definitely cold and not hot.
Sexual congress was reserved for marriage. An unwed gentleman might discreetly avail himself of a woman from the demimonde. Occasionally. And did he mention discreetly? These were the tenets of the Drake family.
Did it really matter which one he chose? According to Bruton’s rules, he’d get a day and night to tumble each of them—with restraint, of course. He should be hoping that he discovered what he was looking for sooner rather than later, and then he’d make his excuse and leave before Bruton was any the wiser.
Yes, he’d be much better off leaving before he got himself into trouble. Hugh took a deep breath and banished his wayward thoughts once more.
Jance threw up his hands. “Hurry up then, Drake. You’re wasting precious time.”
Hugh ignored him and ran an indifferent eye over the girls again. To give Bruton credit, each was enthusiastic in her own way. Except for the governess. He studied her more closely.
She looked very unsure of herself. Her light eyes darted around the room, never resting on any particular person or thing. He couldn’t discern if the dark hair scraped into a tight coil was brown or black. She was slender and her face had paled to the same pasty white color of his grandmother’s—except that fine lady used face powder. The governess’s deathly pallor looked unfortunately natural.
A pea-sized lump materialized in Hugh’s throat. Something was wrong here.
Damnation, he didn’t need a complication. But he’d dredged up that image of his grandmother and he heard her again too: Hugh, do not disappoint me.
No one willingly disappointed the Dowager Countess of Hartfield.
A gentleman always assists a lady in distress.
“Drake?” A note of impatience tinged Bruton’s query.
Hugh sighed and waved his hand toward the governess, indicating she should come closer. With obvious hesitation, she walked to the steps of the stage and descended. He attempted to keep his expression open and non-threatening, though he could only do so much before the other men thought him a drooling idiot.
Hands clutching the skirts of her grey dress—not the leather strap he’d imagined—in a death grip, she made her way to Hugh. He felt like a cat watching its prey offer itself up. The brandy soured in his stomach. What the hell was Bruton about? These women were supposed to be here of their own accord.
Hugh took a surreptitious look at the viscount. Bruton watched the governess approach with a keen eye. As soon as she stopped in front of Hugh, Bruton reluctantly turned to Jance.
“Your turn, my dear fellow.”
Jance, his jowls quivering, announced, “The milkmaid! I want her.”
With the others diverted, Hugh stood and gave his full attention to the trembling governess. “I beg your pardon, we’ve not been introduced.”
Her eyes, a light blue, cut to his. “I’m Catherine T—Trent, sir.” Her voice was as thin as her body and not at all what Hugh had expected. She spoke like a lady.
Impossible. He must have heard wrong.
She shook from head to toe and Hugh hoped she wouldn’t faint. Not that she didn’t have a right to be afraid. Well, not of him, but of the others. If she was as innocent as he thought. Perhaps he was mistaken and she was simply a skilled actress.
God, he was babbling inside his head.
“Please, call me Hugh.” He grabbed her hand. She snatched it back, her eyes as round as tea dishes, and Hugh took a deep breath. One of them had to remain calm. He lowered his voice even further. “Do you want to be here?”
She stared at him with those fathomless eyes and he saw the exact moment the pupils contracted. He slipped his hand beneath her elbow just as her knees gave way. This time she didn’t recoil from his touch but reached a hand out to his chest and steadied herself, dragging in two deep breaths.
Hugh ducked his head to her level. “Are you well?”
She nodded. She was older than he’d thought from afar, closer to five and twenty he would guess, though her skin was smooth and unlined. The near-faint had turned her cheeks a chalky white. She withdrew her hand from his waistcoat and swallowed thickly.
“I will go wherever you like, sir. Hugh.”
He had heard correctly the first time—she spoke like a lady. She also hadn’t meant a word she said. But if he badgered her too much about her willingness to be here and she really was just acting, Bruton might begin to suspect Hugh’s presence. That, he could not have.
Somewhere private would be just the thing. He moved his hand to the small of her back and guided her toward the nearest door.
As the gentleman herded her out of the drawing room, Catherine willed her heartbeat back to a normal rhythm. She must remain steady. She was here, and she would do what was required of her in order to receive Lord Bruton’s payment. And she would enjoy it.
The man named Hugh dropped his hand from her back and let her cross the threshold first. She was surprised to miss the warmth of his touch.
She shook such fanciful thoughts from her head. This was a business arrangement. Not one she’d anticipated, but not one she could walk away from either. Not now that her reputation had caught up with her and her prospects of future employment in this part of the country had been ruined.
She must remember to answer to that name. She turned to Hugh and shivered. Because she was cold, not because he was the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Plenty of men were handsome—Mr. Telford in the other room, for one, and her former employer, Lord Sherborne, for another. It mattered not one whit that Hugh had warm brown eyes and nutmeg-colored hair with enough waves running through it to make an ocean jealous. What mattered was the character of the man.
“Are you going to faint again? You are looking at me but not seeing me.”
“I did not faint.” Though she had come close. She hadn’t eaten all day or really much at all in the last week, so of course she wasn’t at her best.
She looked him in the eye. He smiled at her bravado, and her knees trembled at the gentleness and comfort within its curves. Men of Bruton’s ilk, who were deceitful and exploitative, usually had smiles that were harsh. For once she intended to do exactly the same to them. Starting with the well-formed Hugh Drake would be no hardship at all. She had, after all, stopped making apologies for her unladylike appetites long ago.
She dropped her gaze and looked around. They were in the dining room. A table large enough to seat thirty dominated the space. She made a small sound as she imagined herself laying naked across the mahogany surface with Hugh looming over her, erect and poised to take her. She flicked her tongue over her lower lip in anticipation.
“This is where you want to…?”
His eyes followed her gaze and widened. And then he laughed. A raw-edged laugh that twisted her insides in a dizzying way.
“You are amusing, Miss Trent.” Briefly, something wicked shone in his eyes but it was gone before he blinked. “I can see I was right to assume you aren’t here of your own volition.”
She took a step back at the almost pious look on his face. He’d misread her. But then, how easy that must have been with her shaking and nearly fainting.
Given his thoughts, Hugh Drake must be one of those kinds of men, like former employer, who enjoyed preying on the weak and reveled in his power. That’s why he’d chosen her.
Bile rose in her throat. Perhaps she couldn’t do this, not with men like these, not even if it was her last option.
“You do not look well.” False sincerity rang in his tone. “My reputation will be in danger if all you can manage in my presence is to look ill and faint. Not to mention shiver violently.”
“I’m cold and hungry,” she replied, all too aware how pathetic that sounded.
He took a step nearer and wrapped his hands, his warm hands, around her upper arms. Catherine went rigid.
He rubbed her arms and dipped his head to look her in the eye, the second time he’d pulled that charming move. “I mean you no harm.”
Despite how effective and disconcertingly comforting his hands were, she wrenched away from him. “Don’t!”
How stupid. She was wrong; the character of the man didn’t matter. She was here for the money and the pleasure. She had convinced herself she could partake of the mutual exploitation and feel nothing. She’d steeled herself to feel nothing with Lord Sherborne when he’d forced his attentions on her. How difficult could it be to do so again when the advantage was to her?
Hugh retreated and now eyed her as if she were a pup who’d bared its teeth. Catherine swallowed and braced herself. While she hadn’t intended to land at a bawdy affair such as this, she was here, she was going to be paid, and for once, she could indulge her sensual side without fear of repercussion.
Closing the gap between them, she slipped her arms around Hugh’s neck and pressed her body against his. “I’m sorry.”
Hugh was warm and solid. She inhaled, pleased by the bergamot scent of him. A sprig of desire sprouted low in her belly. This was nothing like the horror of being cornered by Lord Sherborne.
Instead of putting his hands around her waist, he reached up and pulled her arms from his neck. His brow furrowed in frustration. “What are you about? One minute I fear you might faint, the next I fear you might slap me, and now you act as if you want me to toss you on the table and tup you ’til you scream.” He set both hands behind him on the aforementioned table and hung his head. After a moment he said, “My apologies for the coarse language.”
He was confused? One minute he was telling her he chose her because she seemed unwilling and now he was apologizing for his language. “I—”
“No.” He whipped around. “Say nothing until you answer this question: Are you here of your own accord?”
His eyes were dark and intense, his expression earnest, and Catherine—exhausted, hungry, and alone in the world—could not muster the will to lie. “Yes and no.”
Her equivocation won her nothing but more exasperation. “Miss Trent. I cannot help you if I don’t know if you need help. I think you do.” His voice dropped to a mutter. “And my grandmother thinks you do. But you are so here-and-there, I don’t know for certain.”
“Your grandmother?” she asked, more befuddled than ever.
“Never mind. Why are you here? Does Lord Bruton have some hold over you?”
What a curious thing to say. “Why are you here? Are you a crusader for fallen women?”
“No!” He slashed his fingers through his thick hair. “That is to say, I’m not opposed to rehabil— Never mind. Will you please just answer my question in a forthright manner?”
She had no idea how he’d managed it, but she felt sorry for him. He seemed so sincere—a trait Catherine hadn’t encountered in a long while. Not since she’d known Simon. She couldn’t dwell on the memory of Simon now, though.
She thrust her shoulders back. “I came here because—”
The door from the drawing room bounced open and banged against the wall as Mr. Jance and his milkmaid spilled into the room, locked in a most lewd embrace. Hugh stepped in front of her, blocking her view.
Before she could utter another word, his lips captured hers.