When Henry De Vere wakes up naked in bed with his longtime friend Claudia Baxter, it is his fondest dream and his worst nightmare come true. Could he truly have compromised one of his dearest friends without even the benefit of remembering it? Plagued by somnambulism his whole life, Henry fears his baser nature has asserted itself, and insists on doing the honorable thing to marry Claudia.
Claudia’s plan to stage her own ruination and escape marriage to the churlish and elderly Sir Saint had seemed foolproof. She was sure the kindly Henry wouldn’t mind helping her out … but somehow she hadn’t counted on him actually proposing.
Their illicit encounter awakens feelings long buried for each. Will this preposterous scheme result in a happier ending than either could have hoped for?
“That’s never happened with a woman before.”
Henry De Vere sat on the edge of the bed, clutching the counterpane to his chest, and aimed this pronouncement over his shoulder to the woman whose gaze was drilling into his bare back.
The weight of her attention was oppressive, and Henry couldn’t get a handle on it. Did she pity him? Hate him? Was she waiting for him to leave the room so she could burst out laughing?
He couldn’t quite bear turning to look at her. It was possible he’d never be able to look at another human being again. “I’m sorry about your slippers.”
There was a pregnant pause from the other side of the bed.
Finally, she broke the silence. “Will you be paying for my shoes, or should I bill your friend?” Her speech, Henry noted, had regained its cultured tones. A few minutes ago, he’d awakened to her screeching at him in a northern dialect he’d had trouble deciphering.
Embarrassment swarmed his skin like bees crawling all over him, itchy and hot, stinging his ears, making them burn. “I’ll pay for them,” he muttered.
When she spoke again after another miserable stretch of quiet, her voice was husky, amused. “You’d be surprised, the things I see in my profession.”
Considering this, Henry frowned. It was the first direct reference she’d made to her line of work. Henry knew what she was, of course, but he hadn’t wanted to think of her as a courtesan who received payment in exchange for her favors. He’d enjoyed fancying himself as a virile stallion, whose potent masculinity she’d been powerless to resist. But maybe … maybe it was better this way. After all, she was a professional, and therefore, probably encountered her fair share of physical impairments. The knot between his shoulder blades eased a fraction.
“So,” he said, watching his toe trace the pattern in the rug, “you’ve seen this before?” Silence again.
How had those blasted bees managed to get behind his eyeballs? Henry blinked against the hot prickles.
“How old are you, Mr. De Vere?” she asked. “Lord Sheridan mentioned it was your birthday.”
“Nineteen,” he whispered, not trusting his voice not to crack.
A few months back, Sheri had written to Henry in his feverishly excited way when he’d first made the acquaintance of Kitty Newman, an exclusive London courtesan whose usual clients included the highest members of Society. Sheri’s warped mind had decided that a glorious night with Kitty would be the ideal birthday present for his younger friend.
Using an intricate machinery of social connections and favors Henry didn’t understand, Sheri had managed to procure Kitty’s services for the occasion. She’d even traveled to Oxford to spend the night with Henry in a little house owned by another of Sheri’s well-heeled friends.
“Nineteen,” Kitty mused aloud. “By my nineteenth birthday, I was already mistress to a minor member of the Swedish royal family. He bought me a pleasure yacht. Now look at me.” She sighed.
The assignation had started well enough. Henry had presented himself at the appointed time, a fistful of flowers clutched in a sweaty palm and stomach cramping with nerves. To his surprise, Kitty had led him not to the bedroom, but to a little sitting room, where they’d chatted over a glass of sherry.
Kitty Newman wasn’t at all what Henry had expected from a courtesan. She’d asked about his studies, and what he liked to do in his free time. They’d discussed books they’d both read, and she’d told him about an art exhibition she’d recently attended. The dress she wore was fashionable, but nothing his admittedly uneducated eye would call risqué.
Altogether, that first hour felt very much like many he’d spent in the company of other ladies, in other sitting rooms. Specifically, he thought of the Baxters, his neighbors back home. Lady Baxter always asked after his studies, too, while insisting he have another biscuit and simultaneously discouraging Claude, her youngest son and two years his junior, from finishing the entire plateful. Meanwhile, Claudia, Claude’s twin, pressed him for tales of the things he’d seen and done in Oxford and London. Her pleasure at his recitations never failed to make him feel worldlier than he really was.
Thinking of Claudia, a sudden pang of homesickness, such as he’d not experienced in a long time, needled through his chest.
“Was I your first, Mr. De Vere?”
Behind him, the bedclothes rustled. “I suspected.”
More silence followed. She didn’t say precisely why she suspected his inexperience, but he must have been too … something … during their copulation. Eager, perhaps. Lacking finesse. And now she’d laid bare the lie in his stupid, stupid statement: That’s never happened with a woman before. Of course not. Nothing had ever happened with a woman before.
A thought, no more than an earthworm of hope, nosed to the surface of his consciousness. “Being the first time, maybe that’s why … it … happened.” He couldn’t bring himself to specifically articulate his disgrace. “Perhaps it wouldn’t happen again.”
“Perhaps,” she said, her dubious tone neatly plucking that lowly worm out of the earth and leaving it to bake in the unforgiving sun. She was being charitable, treating him like a child who needed placating, which only compounded his mortification.
All Henry wanted to do was get away. His clothes lay scattered across the floor. To collect them, he’d have to stand up, expose himself again. He didn’t know if he could do that. Hadn’t he exposed himself enough for one night?
But he couldn’t just continue sitting here, either. If he wasn’t going to get back into bed with Kitty (and he wasn’t), then he had to take action.
Henry tried several mental tricks to motivate himself. First, he imagined his elder brother, Duncan, standing in the corner, his thin upper lip curled in disdain. For God’s sake, he could hear his brother snap, you’re a disgrace to the De Vere name. Act like a man, why don’t you.
Henry’s lip curled. “Act like a man, why don’t you,” he mocked under his breath.
“Shut up, Duncan.”
“Beg your pardon?” said Kitty. “Did you say something?”
“No, no, nothing,” Henry assured her.
Quickly, he thought of The Honorables, his group of close friends. The other four men would offer a variety of responses to his predicament, from good-natured laughter to a sympathetic slap on the back. None of those seemed very comforting right now.
He twisted his shoulders; his skin still felt wrong, and his stomach hurt. That little stab of homesickness he’d felt before returned. It wasn’t his own home, Fairbrook, he missed, but Rudley Court, for which he longed. There had been nothing wrong with his own home, per se, but the happiest times of his childhood had been spent with the Baxters, free and accepted in a way he’d never quite experienced at Fairbrook. A dose of that loving acceptance would be most welcome right now.
While sitting there, on a borrowed bed in a borrowed house with a borrowed woman, Henry thought wistfully of tree forts and foot races, picnics and riding, charades and dancing lessons. And he yearned.
All you have to do is step through that door, he told himself, and you’ll be there. He could picture it now, an endless summer day at Rudley Court spent with Claude and
Claudia, the people he might just love best in the world, alongside The Honorables. In his imagination, they were all children again, and everything was easy and fun.
With his mind’s eye full of lily pads and skipping stones, Henry released the counterpane, instead holding close those feelings of warmth and safety. He made quick work of dressing.
Kitty, he noted, did not protest his impending departure.
“You won’t … you won’t tell anyone, will you?”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
When she isn’t devising new ways to antagonize her characters, Elizabeth Boyce likes to spend her time devising new ways to embarrass her children. She lives in South Carolina.
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