The widow Russell apparently took her at-home retirement so far as to abstain from receiving guests in the formal parlors: Theo was shown to a pink-papered upstairs room where she sat in an armchair whose chintz upholstery featured roses twining daintily on a white ground. She was head-to-toe in black, of course, and for a moment he had the very odd impression of a spider lurking in a rose bouquet. But she could not be blamed for the black, one must recall. She would probably make a fine ornament to this room, in some other color, and at all events, to be decorative was surely no widow's first concern.
She rose from the chair to shake his hand. Her eyes skimmed across his before settling somewhere near the level of his collarbone, and when the greeting was done she turned away altogether, gesturing at a small rosewood table on which sat a pot of tea and a plate holding two kinds of cake. "I was having tea when you were announced," she said, sitting again and arranging her skirts. "May I offer you a cup?"
"That would be most pleasant, thank you." Rather forward of her, offering to share her refreshment. But maybe things were done that way in the country. And the cake looked very fine. He sat in a second chintz chair, at an angle to hers.
The footman brought another cup and plate and she picked up the pot to pour. Did he imagine, or was she avoiding his gaze?
He cleared his throat. "I'm told your loss was very recent." Maybe he ought to have said that sooner. "I'm sorry to hear of it."
"Recent indeed, and sudden as well." She poured, watching the level of tea in his cup. "Your condolences are kind. Do you take milk or sugar?"
"Neither, thank you." Well, this was interesting. Granville hadn't evinced much grief, either, in speaking of the affair. But people didn't always wear those things on their sleeves. If she felt grief's opposite, she wasn't showing that either.
"You've come from London, I hear." She looked up to hand him his tea, and finally fixed her eyes full upon him.
For the barest instant he felt confusion. It scrambled over his skin and all about his innards. Such eyes she had! Dark and wary as some woodland creature's; he remembered that from church. And she looked at him now as though... well, he really had no idea what.
"London, indeed." He took the cup with a bow. An interruption came—a maid appeared at the door with temporary need of the footman, and they both went away—and he swallowed some tea, using the moment to reclaim his self-possession. "Have you spent much time in the city yourself?" he said when the servants had gone.
"Only part of one Season, when I met my husband." Behind her composure was a concentrated attention, and beyond this... Secrets. Many, many secrets churned and simmered at the back of that bittersweet-chocolate stare. "I fear Sussex may seem rather dull in comparison to what you must be used to." Slowly she raised her teacup to her lips and drank, her eyes never leaving his.
Good Lord. Did she have any idea how that looked, to a man? Well, obviously she didn't. If she'd meant it that way there'd be invitation in her posture; sweet insinuation curling round the edges of her voice. And besides, she was respectable. And a widow. Whatever her secrets, they weren't for him.
"A bit more sedate than London, to be sure." He shifted in his chair, angling slightly away from her. "But I've occupations enough."
"You're studying some of the responsibilities of a baronet, you mean. So I've heard." Her hands, so starkly pale where they emerged from the black sleeves, set down her tea and arranged two cake slices on a plate. She had deft, delicate fingers. Slightly chilly, though—he'd noticed that when she shook his hand. A man could warm those hands between his own and then -
And then nothing. He wouldn't let his mind roam there. He was better than that, surely. "Land management, yes, and things of that nature." He accepted the plate, and the silver fork she held out with it. "Keeping the fences in repair. Seeing to the windows. Window-tax. Assuring that things are optimal in that regard. In every regard." He crammed a bit of cake into his mouth, chiefly to stop himself talking before he could sound any more of a coxcomb.
She took a forkful of cake from her own plate and chewed it, a grim sort of compression about her lips. That was a shame, because the fullness of her mouth disappeared when she tightened it that way, and also because even a person in fresh mourning ought to be able to give in to the enjoyment of a good piece of cake. "Do you like it?" she said, once swallowing.
"Oh, yes, it's superb cake; thank you." It was. Lemon cake, sweet and bracing both at once.
"No," she said, a slightly pained expression flitting across her face. "Your studies, I mean. Learning what will be your duties one day. Do you find that engaging?"
"Oh, quite. Without a doubt." She could repeat that to Granville the next time she saw him. "I find such studies suit me altogether."
She ate more cake, silently. Her glance switched back and forth between himself and her own plate, causing him to feel a bit like another menu item, and one of dubious provenance at that. "You're to be commended, I'm sure," she finally said, and allowed a hint of a smile. "If I were in your place I don't know but that I'd be scheming to get myself to Brighton."
"To Brighton?" This was... unexpected. And the curve at the corner of her mouth made him hungry to see her smile in earnest.
"To some more vibrant setting." She dissected the cake with her fork as she spoke, withholding her eyes from him again. "To some place where I might be in company with more... spirited people. With more varied pursuits. Being used to that sort of thing, I imagine that's what I'd prefer. If I were a young man." Poor innocent, imbuing a faddish bathing-place with all the cosmopolitan glamour her own life must lack.
"I'm sure Brighton must be thoroughly delightful." He set his cake down and drank more tea to mask what he knew was an indulgent smile. "To a young lady as well as a young man."
That wasn't the right answer. Her face told him so. But why should there even be a right answer in such a discussion? More things were going on here than he could fathom, quite.
"I'm told the shops are very fine in Brighton." Now she sounded as though she were willing him to levitate from his chair and deposit himself in that town this minute.
"I shouldn't doubt it." He put his cup soundlessly back in its saucer. What in blazes was she about? Was she hinting that he ought to remove himself from this neighborhood? But she'd just met him. Could a single smile in church engender such disfavor?
"Amusements, too." She took up the strainer and leaned over to pour him more tea. "One hears the amusements in Brighton are just those such as young men most enjoy."
He considered her words as she poured. Also, he considered the view down her bodice. Speak of the amusements young men most enjoyed. She wore no fichu or shawl, and he could see just enough to gauge how one breast would fit in his hand. Plenty of hand to spare. Her endowments were modest and his hands were large. Nothing wrong with that.
Not that it mattered, of course. "If I could be of service to you by sampling Brighton's amusements and confirming these reports, I would, gladly." Wonderful what a look down a lady's gown could do for his spirits. "However I'm not likely to get there on this stay."
"Because you lack funds, you mean, now you've no allowance." She said it softly, replacing the strainer on its little dish.
Ah. A gossip. Her early call at his house took on a new cast, unflattering to both of them. Eager to gawk at the London scapegrace, was she, and draw out some new stories to retail among her friends? Well, she must look elsewhere for her satisfaction. "I confess I cannot see how that could be any concern of yours." He made his voice cool as well-water, and took a forkful of the second kind of cake. Walnut, merely serviceable. It did not increase his charity.
"Pardon me." She sat very still, her hands in her lap. "I should never introduce the subject of money but that this time, it does happen to concern me."
What sort of nonsensical guessing-game was this? "I'm not a subtle man, Mrs. Russell. Whatever you've got to say to me, you'd do better to put it plainly." He abandoned the cake and took up his replenished tea.
"Plainly, then. Plainly." She took a deep, deliberate breath and leveled all her attention on him. "I can get you funds, Mr. Mirkwood, in exchange for something from you. I need to conceive a child."
Only by heroic will and quick use of his napkin did he prevent a mouthful of tea from spewing straight into his lap. He choked and sputtered, and groped for the fresh napkin she held out to him as his teacup met its saucer all clumsy and percussive.
"I'm prepared to pay five hundred pounds for your assistance regardless of the issue, and fifteen hundred more if it should result in the birth of a son."
"Stop. Stop." He mopped at his mouth. "Do I understand you aright?"
Her brows drew together. "I really have no way of knowing that. I hope so."
"I understand you to have just proposed to engage me as your whore." He gave one last cough. "Is that correct?"
Disapproval thinned her lips again. "The better analogy is to a stud animal. My concern is only with the issue. I have no expectation of pleasure."
"Fine distinction." He stared at her, hard. "You mean to pay me to bed you."
"Unless you know some other way of getting me with a child, yes, that will be necessary," she said, clearly displeased with his slow grasp of the situation.
Slowly or not, though, it was all coming clear. The private room. The vanished footman. Her keen attention. Probably even the fichu omitted, and that glimpse down her bodice. Good God. How had he not seen it?
He had to laugh, then. He brought the napkin to his eyes and shook his head, and finally abandoned his chair to go to the end of the room and back. "Forgive my loss of composure," he said. "It's not often one finds oneself a player in such a ripe sort of melodrama." He took up a place behind his armchair, leaning his elbows on its back. "Shouldn't you have seduced me first? Or drugged my tea, and let me wake up chained to a bed?"
She colored, and looked more disapproving yet. "This is a business arrangement. I should like to conduct it accordingly."
"Business arrangement. That's the name you give to circumventing your husband's last wishes with a fraudulent heir?" If she thought he wouldn't catch on to that, she could think again.
"Yes." She lifted her chin to look steadily up at him. "Much depends on my circumventing them."
The secrets danced in her gaze like motes in a shaft of sunlight. Oh, but she was pretty. And she intrigued him. And this was absolutely not how he was meant to be spending his time in Sussex. "Hell and damnation," he muttered, and turned his face away. One finger ran absently over the chair's chintz, tracing where a rose was embroidered in. "Why me? I suppose you've heard I'll rut with anything that moves." He shot her a look. Little call for delicacy now.
"To be quite frank, I have heard you spoken of as a sensualist." The word sounded wicked, delectably wicked, on her prim soft lips. "I presume you were accustomed to keeping a mistress in London. You must know they're thin on the ground here, and even if you could find one, how would you keep her without funds? I offer you the essential benefit of a mistress without the expense. In addition, of course, to the remuneration I mentioned." He could picture her practicing these words. She'd probably even written them out beforehand.
Obviously he ought not to do this. For what reasons, though? He pushed away from the chair and went to stand before a painting on the opposite wall, the better to banish distracting thoughts of her lips. This wasn't one of those rooms with grandiose portraits of dead ancestors cluttering every surface. In fact only the one painting hung here: a study of a sunlit meadow, rolling off toward the horizon. Competently executed, but who would ever look at that when the same thing might be seen out the window, alive with breezes and butterflies? "Your plan depends on a son, I presume." He kept his back to her. "What if I got you with a daughter?"
"You'd be five hundred pounds the wealthier."
"And you that much the poorer, with another mouth to feed." Yes, there were solid grounds for declining her offer. "I cannot like it." With a shake of his head he started back toward the chair. "I've taken care not to spawn any children thus far, that they might not be brought up in circumstances of privation. I surmise your husband's will must have left you in a disadvantageous situation indeed if you're willing to resort to such measures to thwart it."
"But there's no risk of privation." She'd been ready for that objection. "A daughter would be entitled to a portion, and we could live comfortably enough with a brother or sister. Indeed my brother has already offered me a home."
"Then why do this?" He sat down again and reached for what was left of his tea. "Why not go to your brother at once?"
Her hands folded one over the other in her lap and she went perfectly still, all light shuttered behind her dark eyes. "Because that is not what I choose to do." The words had such clean edges, she might have sliced them on a tiny guillotine. "I have reasons beyond personal avarice. I will not speak of them to a stranger, but you may believe I have them."
"Hmm. You'd have done better with me if you'd claimed avarice. I like a woman who takes what she wants." He said it looking into his teacup, though, and his voice sounded unsteady to his own ears. Because somewhere in her last utterance she'd grown rather magnificent, all will and determination behind the tea-table manners. Like some dire, forbidding fairy in a story, letting slip her mild disguise at the crucial moment.
What if she was like that in bed? Stern and exacting, but soft to the touch. Hell. That could be good. That could be interesting, and very very good.
He sat back in his chair, crossing one long leg over the other, and put aside his tea. She remained motionless, as though husbanding her energies to meet his next refusal.
Or his assent. No harm in imagining. He could free that creamy skin from its dour wrappings, if he just said the word. He could discover what those elegant hands had it in them to do. He could get her on top of him—she'd like to be on top, fierce fairy, murmuring her stern commands—with her hair falling like a curtain against his cheek, and... "What color is your hair?" he said, as every last wisp of it had been banished beneath her cap.
Two faint creases came between her brows. "Will that make a difference?"
"It might." Shameful. He ought not to toy with a lady that way. Not when he knew a hundred better ways. He shifted in his seat. What reasons remained to refuse her, exactly? Well, if Granville got wind of this—if his father got wind of it—he'd be bundled off somewhere even more remote, and probably for the remainder of his natural life. But besides that, what reasons?
She raised one hand to her cap-strings and hesitated. He could see her groping after strategy. He could nearly hear the clatter of her thoughts, like all the looms in a Lancashire mill. Her hand lowered again and her head tilted, giving her an air both coquettish and defiant. "You may learn the color of my hair easily enough," she said. "But not by asking."
"Ah. Now you begin to speak a language I understand." A smile rose from somewhere elemental in him, coloring the words. "How often would you expect my services? If I were to agree to this?" If. Because he might not. But Lord, she was lovely with her head so angled and her every resource bent on how to get him into bed.
"Once each day. We'll have nearly a full month." Her speech accelerated with ill-concealed eagerness. "And I had hoped we might begin today."
"As a conclusion to this call, I suppose." Why not? Hell, really, why not?
"If you can contrive it, yes."
He was contriving it even as she spoke, conveniently enough. He'd been contriving it on and off for the whole of the visit. "Well, Mrs. Russell." He uncrossed his legs and edged forward. "You seem to have bought yourself a whore."
© Cecilia Grant