A Gentleman Undone
Bantam / May 29, 2012 / $7.99
Lydia Slaughter understands the games men play—both in and out of the bedroom. Not afraid to bend the rules to suit her needs, she fleeces Will Blackshear outright. The Waterloo hero had his own daring agenda for the gaming tables of London’s gentlemen’s clubs. But now he antes up for a wager of wits and desire with Lydia, the streetwise temptress who keeps him at arm’s length.
A kept woman in desperate straits, Lydia has a sharp mind and a head for numbers. She gambles on the sly, hoping to win enough to claim her independence. An alliance with Will at the tables may be a winning proposition for them both. But the arrangement involves dicey odds with rising stakes, sweetened with unspoken promise of fleshly delights. And any sleight of hand could find their hearts betting on something neither can afford to risk: love.
Our heroine, Lydia Slaughter, is a courtesan. Now, it’s not unusual for an historical romance novel to feature a courtesan, but Lydia is different. She’s a currently employed courtesan and we see her plying her trade with her protector, Roanoke, a man who remains her protector through more than half of the book. Moreover, she is a courtesan who enjoys sex, and her relations with Roanoke are satisfying, though it is strictly business. About the only thing that makes her your typical romance novel heroine courtesan is her sad story that led her into the business and the fact that she would like to get out of it.
Will Blackshear is a bit of a knight-errant, though he would deny it. He feels a great deal of responsibility for a great many people. He is a gentleman. He just can’t help himself. Though he has some very ungentlemanly feelings toward Lydia that conflict with his natural chivalry. How these two become friends and fall in love while Lydia is still under Roanoke’s protection is a delicate balance, which Cecilia Grant handles deftly.
Will and Lydia meet while Roanoke boorishly trumpets Lydia’s attributes at a card table.
“Plucked her out of Mrs. Parrish’s establishment.” Roanoke took his time squaring the edges of all the used cards before putting the stack faceup at the bottom of the deck. “And you may believe they trained her up proper. If there’s a thing she won’t do in bed, I have yet to discover it.”
Temper sent its warning prickle down Will’s spine. She must be hearing this. She must see first one head and then another swiveling to reappraise her. He could mark no change in her countenance, her posture, or the speed at which she played her cards, but with what effort did she keep that composure while hearing herself reduced to an object for the common gratification of a lot of jackals?
“Has she got a name?” That was his own voice, rising above the others. What the devil was he doing?
“Lydia is her name,” he said, and spun out the next card.
Leave it alone, Blackshear. But temper asserted itself again, the cautionary prickle swelling to a ham-fisted glissando played on his vertebrae. “I mean a name by which it would be proper to address her.” Damnation. He would never learn, would he, what was and wasn’t his responsibility?
Later that evening, Will has found refuge in the darkened library when Roanoke and Lydia enter making Will an unwilling witness to their tryst.
He’d been prepared for something sordid, a brute coupling between an importunate book and a harlot who’d learned her trade at Mrs. Parrish’s. And of course it was sordid by its very nature, this retreat to the library, and Square-jaw himself was everything sordid, with his mouth at the juncture of her neck and shoulder and his hands groping here and there.
She, though. She was…Confound him if he could even begin to find the right word. He only knew sordid wasn’t anywhere close.
She stood with her back to the drapery, eyes closed, chin lifted, whole person swaying with pleasure. While he watched she sent her arms—ungloved, he could now see—up the wall behind her where they twisted overheard, wrists crossing with serpentine grace. Like one of those dancers in a story who bewitch men into cutting off other men’s heads. Her naked fingers closed over a fold of the velvet drapery and he knew how that velvet would feel to her, thick and lush-grained, a cat’s purr made tactile. Knew, too, how it would feel to be the velvet, trapped unprotesting in her hand. He found a grip on the bookshelf and held on tight.
Her chin came down, rearranging the composition of shadows and light. And her eyes opened and looked directly into his. … The bookshelf’s edge bit hard into his hand. He couldn’t seem to look away, let alone make an apologetic bow and hasten from the room. He stood, frozen, as she regained her composure and her face hardened into the unmistakable line of defiance: Judge me if you dare.
Not a very promising start. She punishes him by fleecing him at cards the next night. They form a truce, and then a partnership of sorts. They both need money, the kind of money which can only be obtained quickly enough through gambling; she in order to become independent, and he to take care of obligations he believes he incurred to his men during the war. Lydia is a mathematical and card-counting genius; she and Will develop a system of signals and descend into the gaming hells. They make a killing on their first night out and afterwards in the club’s darkened corridor:
He caught her at the waist and lifted her, spinning round with an exuberance that echoed her own. She set her hands on his shoulders, so solid under his coat, and clenched her teeth to forbear laughing aloud. Coins jingled merrily in the reticule that swung from her wrist, and somewhere in his coat-pockets too, a fitting music for this makeshift celebratory dance. Here, unexpectedly, was something new with a man, a chaste congress of body, spirit, and brain, a pleasure she might have dismissed as no worthwhile pleasure at all, had she merely heard it described.
Her skirts twisted round her legs as he spun her, cool and delicious against the few bare inches between stocking-top and chemise, and when he set her on her feet she teetered for a step, hobbled by the skirts that had still to unwind, captive in her own sarcenet snare.
His hands stayed at her waist, steadying. His breaths sounded in the stillness, one breath and two. And of a sudden he crushed her to him: his arm bound her at the waist, his other hand played at the back of her neck, and his mouth came down hot and ravenous on hers.
“What the devil do you think you’re doing?” Had she raised her voice? No. Some dependable corner of her brain stayed mindful of their surroundings, the need for discretion, even as her breaths came shallow from the spinning and the shock.
“One minute.” No part of his hold on her slackened. “Sixty seconds.” His mouth was so near she could taste the words as he said the, “We’ll never refer to it afterward. Nothing will change.”
Was that possible? Could a man and a woman give themselves up to passion, even for sixty seconds, and walk away unsinged? Surely things must change. But maybe she didn’t care.
“Sixty seconds.” She flicked one wrist and her reticule hit the floor. “Make them count.”
And he does.
More important than the sexual attraction is the trust that Lydia and Will develop. They spend a (chaste) night together during which Lydia is plagued by nightmares.
A pack mule on a three-day march could not be so bone-weary as he was. Still, he didn’t go to sleep. And when the third nightmare started he climbed right into the bed and folded her in one arm. “It’s Will.” he said, near her ear. “You’re in my room. Nothing can hurt you here. Go back to sleep.”
She woke, just barely. The twitching and thwarted cries stopped. Her breaths sounded shallow at first and then deeper, slower, as her body went limp in his arm. Against his chest. Lord only knew where she thought she was, or with whom. It didn’t matter. He wanted nothing in the world but this: to be someone’s balm, to have the power of comforting, to know he kept her safe from whatever terrors haunted her sleep.
All this, while Lydia is still with Roanoke. Wait until you see what happens after they separate. Lydia and Will are unique and complicated characters. And Cecilia Grant has written a doozy of a story for them.
Cheryl Sneed reviews for Rakehell.com.