For Desire Alone, страница 1
For everyone who helped me remember who I am again, especially Michael (who never forgot). Thank you for the love, support and belief that carried me through a very long, dark night.
“Miss Desmond,” the solicitor sniffed as he shuffled the paperwork on his desk. Just as he had all afternoon, he refused to look at her. “I really don’t know what else to tell you. As I’ve explained at length, Lord Heathcote’s final settlements are very clear. He did gift you the sum of one thousand pounds and there are the other details, but beyond that, there is nothing.”
Mariah leaned back in the uncomfortable chair across the desk from the weasel of a man who now held her fate, her future…or rather, her lack thereof…in his fat and sweaty hands. Her ears rang and her vision blurred as what he had been repeating for over half an hour sank into her consciousness.
She had nothing.
“But—but,” she stammered. “Owen and I…” She stopped and corrected herself. “The earl and I had a longstanding relationship. I was led to believe that there were to be arrangements made for me.”
The solicitor pursed his lips. It was evident he knew exactly what kind of “relationship” Mariah and Owen had shared for three years. More evident was how little he approved and thought of her. But that she was accustomed to. Mistresses were hardly seen as human by most in good Society.
Only Owen had never treated her so low. He’d seen her as a partner, almost a spouse…or so he’d always claimed. More to the point, he had promised that she would never again have to find a protector if he were to die before she did.
Those promises had been made in the dark, while they lay in each other’s arms. So in her mind, Owen had been different from all the other men who simply used and discarded their mistresses.
Now she wasn’t so certain and her doubts in him wounded her and made her feel a deep sense of guilt.
“There were arrangements made for you,” the solicitor snapped as he flipped his ledger book shut. “One thousand pounds. And whatever little baubles the earl bought for you are to remain with you. You will be allowed to remain in your townhome for six months without paying for its use, unless you find another…understanding for yourself during that period. Your servants have been paid for their wages through that point as well. Honestly, Miss Desmond, you should be happy the earl made an arrangement for a woman such as you at all.”
Mariah flinched. A woman such as herself. A whore, he meant. But she had never felt like a whore. She had never felt like a mistress with Owen. Until now. Now when it was clear he hadn’t cared enough for her to provide any kind of solid future. Despite everything they had shared.
She sucked in a breath and tried to fight the tears that stung behind her eyes.
Tried and failed, for one trickled down her cheek despite her best efforts.
The solicitor shifted with disgust and discomfort at her emotional display. He lunged to his feet. “There is nothing more to be said about it. The money shall be deposited into your account and be accessible to you today. Now good day.”
He motioned toward the door, his mouth a thin, grim line. With a shudder, Mariah stood and straightened her shoulders in the hopes she could exit with some small shred of dignity intact. With her head held high and tears continuing to stream down her cheeks, she strode past the man and left his office without a goodbye or a glance behind her.
He slammed the door just at her heels and left her standing in the hallway with an equally disgusted servant in wait for her departure.
She made her way to her carriage and found her driver holding the door for her. Potts was such a friendly face after the previous half hour’s unkindness that she could have hugged him. Especially when he seemed so concerned by her demeanor that he wordlessly took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her after he helped her into the vehicle.
She nodded her thanks as she wiped her eyes.
“Home, miss?” Potts asked.
She shook her head. Home. Christ, that place wasn’t home anymore, was it? She would lose it too soon to call it a home.
“No,” she managed past a thick tongue. “I would like to pay a visit to Miss Manning.”
He nodded and closed the door. He didn’t need to ask for more detail than that—after all, Mariah’s best friend was Vivien Manning. They made this trip once a week at minimum. And though she looked forward to seeing her friend during this time of trial, there was also a part of her which dreaded the meeting. Vivien was sure to have a great deal to say on the subject of her future. Her friend was nothing if not opinionated on the subject of mistresses and protectors.
And Mariah wasn’t certain she wanted to hear it all.
“One thousand pounds?” Vivien repeated blankly, setting her tea aside to stare at Mariah. Her shock and her pity were painted across her face.
The heat of humiliation burned Mariah’s cheeks, but she managed to nod.
“Yes,” she whispered. “And the house and servants for six months. And the jewelry, of course.”
“Still…” Vivien shook her head. “That is a pittance. Do you have any savings from what he gave you over your time together?”
Mariah nodded slowly. “I have a bit of savings from my pin money over the years, but it isn’t much.”
Vivien arched a brow. “Not to be indelicate, my dear, but how much is ‘not much’?”
Mariah shifted. “A little more than five hundred pounds.” When Vivien flinched, Mariah rushed to explain herself. “Owen took care of all my needs during our time together and he highly encouraged me to spend my pin money. Since he promised I would be taken care of…” She trailed off. “Well, I never bothered to set much aside in case of this kind of circumstance.”
Vivien nodded, but Mariah could see she was only being placating. “I can understand that. But your troubles remain, don’t they? You cannot survive more than a year or two at most with that sum. Perhaps three if you sell the jewelry.”
Vivien had just voiced Mariah’s deepest terrors and her throat seemed to close with panic. “Yes,” she whispered. “That is my assessment as well.”
Vivien’s eyes narrowed and she slapped her palm on the low table between them. “Dear God, you gave that man three years of your life. I know you would have given him twenty more if he asked.”
She could bear no more. Mariah put her hands over her face and began to cry. Vivien tsked softly but moved to the settee beside her friend and wrapped an arm around her. Mariah pressed her face into Vivien’s shoulder and sobbed out all her pain and betrayal for a few moments. Finally, she pulled herself back together and sat up straighter.
“I’m sorry,” she said with a shake of her head. “Everything is just so discombobulated. First, Owen dies in that awful fire.”
She hesitated as a burst of sharp, horrible pain gripped her. She hated to think of Owen trapped by flame. In terrible pain and equal fear in his last moments. Every time she did, she felt sick.
She swallowed back bile and continued, “Then to discover that everything he told me about his arrangements wasn’t done. It is all such a shock.”
Vivien shook her head. “Poor Owen did not deserve to die so terribly, I agree. But as for the arrangements, I can spare him no sympathy. He clearly never intended to fulfill his promises to you.”
“No!” Mariah burst out. She might believe a great many things, but not this. “That cannot be true. He had no idea he would die so young. He must have merely been putting off the protections he promised me during our affair without realizing he would be taken so soon.”
Vivien bit back a bark of humorless laughter. “If he had made no arrangement whatsoever, I could believe that to be true, but he did make some rather pitiful
Mariah squeezed her eyes shut. Vivien was only voicing the very thoughts that had been in her own head since she left the solicitor’s office. But hearing them out loud still made her want to defend Owen. Somehow.
“But he could have simply thought he had more time,” she said. “He could have—”
Vivien grasped both her hands and squeezed them gently. “Why do you insist on protecting him when you know how miserly he was in his treatment of you?”
Mariah let out a long sigh. “Because I loved him.”
Vivien shook her head, though she didn’t seem surprised by this revelation. Mariah supposed she wasn’t. Mariah had always spoken highly of her lover. She had never looked for a bigger or better man to protect her and had assumed that they would be together all their lives. It wasn’t an unheard of possibility. Several men in Society had stayed with their mistresses for the entire span of their lives, giving them an almost equal respect and security as they did their wives.
She and Owen had talked about long-term arrangements for her comfort, of course, but she had never assumed those plans would come into play for decades to come.
“Falling in love with him was your first mistake,” Vivien said softly. “A mistress doesn’t love her protector, nor does she expect or believe he loves her in return, no matter what he says in the height of passion. We’ve seen too many of our kind be hurt by such lofty expectations and wild emotions.”
“Like me,” Mariah said with a shuddering sigh.
Vivien gave her a sympathetic gaze but did not deny that Mariah had suddenly been deposited into the ranks of young women she and Vivien had often pitied for their foolish choices.
“So, tell me, now that you know the facts of what has been laid out for you, regardless of the reason behind them, what shall you do?” Vivien asked.
Mariah pondered that for a moment. She had never considered what her future would hold if Owen was gone. Now she was forced to do so.
“I don’t know,” she began, but Vivien clucked her tongue.
“Yes, you do.” Her friend met her eyes and held there. Mariah dipped her chin. Of course there was only one option remaining.
“I suppose my best and only chance is to re-enter the field and hope to find a new protector,” she said, though her heart wasn’t in the words she spoke. “I must start over.”
Vivien nodded. “Good, I’m glad you are seeing this through wide-open and reasonable eyes. Though you have a good head on your shoulders, so I never expected anything less.”
“Thank you,” Mariah murmured. “At some point that will be a comfort, I’m certain.”
“I could assist you, you know,” Vivien offered.
Mariah jerked her gaze to her friend and laughed, the first since Owen’s death. “You mean put your mistress matchmaker skills to work for me?”
Vivien nodded. “Why does such a suggestion make you chuckle?” she asked. “I have been known for positive matches of this kind for some time now.”
“Yes,” Mariah conceded. “Very positive. Your last resulted in a marriage.”
Vivien pursed her lips and looked both a little perturbed and slightly proud. After all, the recent marriage of Viscount Andrew Callis and his former mistress Lysandra Keates had caused a romantic scandal that seemed to rock Society to its very core. It remained a foremost topic of gossip.
“Well, it is a happy marriage, at least,” Vivien offered weakly.
Mariah shrugged. That was true. The couple in question did, indeed, seem blissfully happy together. No unkind word could keep them from glowing whenever they entered a room together.
“A marriage,” she repeated. “And rule one of being a mistress is never to fall in love with one’s protector, yes?”
Vivien gave a conciliatory nod. “Yes, yes. Andrew and Lysandra were obviously the exception that proves that rule.”
“I don’t know. I think your matches might be a bit too dangerous for me, my dear.”
Vivien waved off her teasing with a tiny smile. “Very well, I shall not put my matchmaking skills to use for you if you do not desire them. But you must come to my party tomorrow.”
Mariah drew back as a burst of pain ripped through her at the very thought. “I don’t know. Owen has only been dead for a few weeks. How could I come out so soon? How could I look for a lover so callously?”
Vivien gave her a look of fresh pity. “My dearest, I know you mourn him, despite his many faults. I understand why you do. But Owen himself dictated this path for you, did he not? By providing so little for you, he must have guessed you would be forced back into the path of other protectors if he died.”
Mariah flinched. “I cannot deny the truth of that statement. No matter how much I wish to do so.”
Vivien nodded. “If you wait until your heart has mended, you will be out of money or at least out of a home. And while you would be welcome here, of course, it is not in your best interest to look for a protector from a position of weakness and poverty. It is best to do it now before you are desperate.”
Mariah nodded. “I know you are right. Very well, I will attend your ball tomorrow.”
“Good!” Vivien clapped her hands together with an excitement Mariah couldn’t bring herself to feel. In fact, the only sense she had at the moment was deep anxiety.
“And there will be men there tomorrow seeking new mistresses?” she asked, almost hoping for an answer in the negative.
But Vivien nodded with a grin. “Oh yes. I have had several gentlemen contact me discreetly to say that they were on the prowl. And though I promise not to push you or them toward each other since you do not wish for me to matchmake, I’m certain you will find each other on your own.”
Mariah nodded. “Very well. Then the ball tomorrow it is, I suppose.” She shook her head. “And I shall endeavor to be as charming a potential mistress as I can. Even if my smile pains me and my stomach churns with the thought of having a new man touch me.”
Vivien touched her hand lightly. “In time, those feelings will fade, my dear, I promise you. And with the right man, you will one day enjoy your path again.”
Mariah nodded as if she agreed with Vivien, but in her heart she knew both her statements were a lie. There would never be a time when this path she was on didn’t hurt. And there would never be another man to make her want and care as deeply as Owen had.
It wasn’t possible.
John Rycroft was both utterly bored and pulsating with a desire that never seemed to be fully quenched. The two senses had never meshed well before. In fact, in combination they almost always resulted in trouble with cards, drink or women. Sometimes all three.
All of which were highly available to him in his current location, the London estate of the infamous Vivien Manning. He looked around him with a tiny smile and was punished for his distraction when his hostess lightly slapped his arm with her fan.
“And away you go, you naughty man,” she teased. “Not even paying attention to me in the slightest. Am I so boring to you?”
He glanced at her. “Not at all, Vivien! I apologize, but your ballrooms and parlors always offer such ample diversion and amusements. I cannot help but have my mind stray.”
Vivien shook her head, but it was apparent from her smile that there was no truth to her teasing. “You know, most men come here with the intention of looking for a mistress. And you come looking for a buffet of lovers instead. I hardly know what to do with you.”
“No woman does, at least beyond the obvious.” He chuckled, but his words rang too true for him to find real humor in them.
Vivien frowned slightly. “Have you ever even taken a mistress, John?”
He shrugged. “Why settle for one person in my bed? If I want to do that, I’ll take a wife, God help us both. When it comes to pleasure, I’ve always preferred infinite variety.”
His words were true, of course, and elicited the desired burst of laughter from Vivien and any others standing within earshot. But John could scarcely join in. There were other reasons he did not choose to settle down with any one woman, mistress, wife or anything else.
He could be no one’s rock, no one’s hero, no one’s love. Something had broken in him long ago and since there was no fixing that, he simply avoided situations where someone would or could ask him for more than he could give. In the end, that only resulted in disappointment and pain.
Emotions he had washed his hands of long ago. No, he was here for pleasure. Empty, frivolous, explosive pleasure of all varieties.
“No matter what I’m searching for, this is quite the fete, my dear,” he said with a smile for Vivien.
He had always liked Vivien, though he’d never taken her to his bed. Not even when she was available.
“You know I always throw the best parties,” she said with a wide smile.
John shrugged. “You say that in a teasing fashion, but it is true. You serve the best wine, offer the luckiest card games, the finest company and the loveliest women. No wonder you are the most celebrated woman of your kind.”
He lifted his glass as if his excessive compliments were a toast, but before he could complete his ramblings he looked across the room and stopped dead in his tracks. A woman had just entered the ballroom.
Not just any woman. Mariah Desmond.
“To Vivien,” one of the revelers nearby completed when he would not and the others raised their glass.
John shook off his surprise, though he could not help but continue to stare at Mariah, even as he lifted his glass to Vivien.
Dear God, but she was beautiful. Auburn hair like dark fire swept up in a complicated style that accentuated her long, pale neck and her pink cheeks. And her eyes, those hazel eyes that seemed to change with her mood, with the color of her gown, with the damn season. Witch’s eyes, he had always called them, meant to cast a spell.