One night of fierce passion and unbound pleasure leaves two strangers craving much more in Lavinia Kent’s sumptuous novel of sensual discovery.
The time has come for the widow Louisa, Lady Brookingston, to move on, but she refuses to remarry at the cost of shaming her late husband’s memory. Their six years together were wedded bliss—even if a war injury prevented him from fulfilling his marital duties. Only one woman can help Louisa: Madame Rouge, the discreet proprietress of a club where London’s elite explore their wildest fantasies.
Geoffrey, the Marquess of Swanston, has no intention of agreeing to deflower an anonymous virgin. But when Madame Rouge tempts him with the absolute power he’ll have over a woman who knows nothing of carnal delights, he’s intrigued. Control is the one thing he cannot resist—and control is what he loses during his night with the blindfolded beauty. He longs to take her further, to leave his mark upon her perfect behind, but the mystery woman refuses to see him again. Instead Geoffrey reluctantly agrees to take a wife, the widow of his dear friend, Lord Brookingston—fating them both to a wicked surprise.
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Louisa, Lady Brookingston had loved her husband. In fact she’d loved him her entire life. She’d loved him when she was four and he’d climbed a tree to rescue her kitten. She’d loved him when she was eight and he’d helped her brush the mud off a summer dress after an unfortunate fall. She’d loved him when she was twelve and he was the first boy, besides her father, to tell her that she was pretty despite the spots that marked her chin. She’d loved him at fourteen when he danced with her in the moonlit garden after her father said she was too young to attend the annual harvest ball. And she truly loved him at fifteen when he gave her a first kiss in that same moonlit garden.
And at sixteen he’d told her that he loved her too.
At seventeen he’d asked her father for her hand in marriage.
She’d loved him at eighteen when he told her she had to wait while he went to war. And a year later when he returned missing half a leg—and more.
It hadn’t mattered. He was the only man in the world for her.
At nineteen Louisa married him and promised to love him until death did them part.
And she’d kept her word, until at twenty-four it did.
All of which explained why, at twenty-six, she stood outside the brothel her husband had frequented throughout their marriage—at least it explained it to her. And that was all that mattered.
Louisa glanced down at her glove-clothed hands and wondered if they’d stop shaking. She tightened her hands into fists and then relaxed them, trying to calm the jittering muscles. Her mother had taught her the trick, but it didn’t seem to be working now.
She stared up at the heavy wood door. The paint was so bright a red that it stood out from quite a distance, marking it for all who sought entrance. When Madame Rouge had agreed to see her, she’d offered to meet Louisa someplace far more discreet. Louisa had refused; if she was going to be brave about this, she needed to start now.
Which didn’t mean she needed to be foolish. Pulling the heavy dark veil forward over her face, she tried to find her courage. It was necessary that she do this.
There was no avoiding it.
And when that was the case, one faced it straight on no matter how hard and painful it threatened to be.
She could do it. She’d done it once before.
Only on that occasion Madame Rouge had refused to help her. She didn’t know what she’d do if that happened again.
She had to succeed. She must.
Once this one small thing was accomplished she could go on with her life, have a future. Until then . . .
Blast John for leaving her in this situation.
Only she couldn’t blame John. None of it had been his fault and that was why she was here now.
Staring at her gloves, she willed the trembling to stop and pulling her shoulders back, rapped hard upon the ruby colored door.
* * *
Madame Rouge was not at all what one would expect. Louisa was shocked again at this second encounter by how prim and almost proper the Madame appeared. Yes, her hair was an unlikely shade of crimson, her face lightly shaded with cosmetics, and her gown a trifle low, but in every other way she resembled a proper matron ready for afternoon tea—and, in fact, tea was the beverage on offer. Tea along with the most fabulous tray of pastries Louisa had ever seen.
Madame caught Louisa’s glance and laughed. “I am afraid I am much more used to serving men. Women will take a single cucumber sandwich and pretend that their appetites are satisfied. Men have no such problem. Once they have their first pastry they want another and another. The more exotic the better.”
Was Madame still talking about baked goods? Louisa could not be certain. And it didn’t matter. Not one bit. She was here for a practical matter—not because of any appetite. To prove this point she almost refused the tray as the maid held it out. She didn’t need refreshment. She only needed . . .
And then she hesitated. Why not? Why not indulge herself in such a simple thing? Reaching forward she chose the most fantastic of the tarts, something covered in a mound of white cream with a single candied cherry on top. She’d always had a weakness for cherries and it looked like this might be filled with them under the froth of cream. Lifting it to her mouth she prepared to bite—Oh dear, it looked exactly like a . . . How could she have not realized? Could she really put that in her mouth? Did Madame realize what the tart . . ? Oh rubbish, of course she did.
Staring straight at Madame, Louisa tilted the tart so that she could flick the cherry off with her tongue, bringing it into her mouth to slowly savor. Oh my, it was heavenly, better than anything she could remember tasting. Refusing to think, she bit into the side of the tart and let herself relish the sourness of the cherries combined with the delicate wonder of the heavy sweet cream. Was there lemon in it?
She took another bite, lost in the sensation and taste, and then she gulped, swallowing hard. Hastily she placed the tart on the small porcelain plate at her side. She coughed, trying to clear her throat—and her mind.
“I do wish you hadn’t stopped. I love watching a woman enjoy herself and Cook’s tarts are most exceptional, something to be appreciated.” Madame’s eyes were focused on Louisa lips, her eyes dark.
Did she have cream on her mouth? Her tongue darted out and then back. Seeing Madame’s gaze grow even more focused, she brought the tiny linen napkin to her mouth.
Madame laughed again, a deep, low chuckle. “John always did say that you had unexpected depth and perhaps he was right.”
John had talked about her—here? The thought was horrifying. It had been bad enough to know that her husband came regularly to such a place; it was unbelievably mortifying to think that he might have discussed her. And Madame Rouge called him John? Louisa had always thought she was the only one with that privilege. Everyone called him Brookingston.
“John talked about me?”
“You were the most important thing in his life. It was why it was necessary for me to refuse to help with your last request. Your husband was a good man. He only wanted the best for you.”
Mortifying did not begin to cover the feeling those words evoked. “Then why . . ?” She could not finish the sentence. Her eyes fell to her lap to escape Madame’s knowing look.
“Then why did your husband not wish you to help with his needs? Why did I refuse to help you learn what he required?”
“Yes.” Louisa could barely hear her own answer.
Madame released a long sigh and lifted her delicate cup from the table. Louisa heard her sip at the tea but could not look up. Those two questions had tortured her for years, both during her marriage and after. Why could John not have let her be his wife in all ways? What had been wrong with her, was she so unattractive? So undesirable to a man?
The cup rattled as Madame put it down. “Your husband loved you.”
“I know.” Finally Louisa looked up. “Then why . . .”
About the Author
Lavinia Kent is a former two-term president of the Washington Romance Writers and a four-time Romance Writers of America Golden Heart nominee. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her family and an ever-changing menagerie of pets.