The Challenge by Edith Layton
ISBN: 0061014338 HarperTorch
Wealthy, handsome, and devastatingly charming, the expatriate Viscount Hathaway Wycoff could easily win most women's affections. But the lovely Lucy Stone isn't most women. Though the self-respecting beauty is drawn to him, she refuses to give in to passion. Once before Lucy had followed her heart—a journey that took her to America and left her there a penniless young widow and mother.
A rich relative unexpectedly offers Lucy and her son passage back to England, answering her longtime prayer. She doesn't want to leave Wycoff, but given his scandalous reputation, it seems the right choice. Wycoff promises he will change to win her, but Lucy cannot allow herself to believe him. When a devious plot threatens all Lucy holds dear, she must turn to the man she's vowed not to trust. Neither knows what final destination fate has in store—but they are willing to risk everything to find out.
Excerpted from Chapter One
It was a peculiar bordello. The English gentleman was in a position to know. He was well traveled and famous for being broad-minded and so had seen all sorts of brothels: tawdry, exotic, and downright dangerous ones, too. Yet in some ways they were all the same. A man could be aroused simply recognizing their signature scent of heavy perfumes and cigarillo smoke, or by glimpsing peeks of dazzling female flesh in the low light, or from hearing the sultry laughter coming from the shadows. This place smelled of cooking and furniture polish. The lamps were brightly lit. The sound was all guffawing and giggles. And the only female flesh to be seen was on hands and faces.
It seemed too homey to be a house of joy. But it was certainly a successful one.
"Here we are," his American friend Geoff announced, rubbing his hands together after he slipped off his greatcoat and gloves and gave them to the maid who met them in the hall. Geoff raised his head, sighting someone he knew. "Ho! There's my friend Mary!" he said, hurrying to the side of a plump middle-aged woman directing the maidservant where to put the coats.
As Geoff chatted with the mistress of the house, the English gentleman gravitated from the hall to the blazing hearth in the front parlor. He warmed hishands as he eyed the overstuffed settees, the rag rugs on the wooden floors, the porcelain dogs on the mantle, and the framed pictures of England on the flowered walls. The place looked more suited to treating a man to a cozy cup of tea than any kind of carnal ecstasy.
There were seven other men crowded in the room with him, dallying with the four available females he couldsee. Yet none of the men seemed eager to go upstairs, though the hour was growing late and the weather outside was worsening. He couldn't blame them. The women looked like they'd be better at feeding a fellow's appetite for pot pies than his deepest sexual desires.
They weren't much more exciting than the cabbage roses on the wallpaper. They wore simple high-waisted gowns, in the current style. But they didn't rise above it. Such gowns might show high, firm breasts, if the lady dared wear her neckline low enough. A woman who wasn't a lady certainly would.
These women wore their necklines to their chins. Sensible in such weather, but sensibility wasn't what a man looked for in a whorehouse. The shawls round their shoulders hid whatever else might be interesting. Their faces weren't. They were young, plain, and unpainted.
Still, even wrapped in their shawls, buttoned to their noses, as innocent of rouge and powder as they were of enticements, they each had at least one fellow listening to their every utterance and another trying to make them smile. The English gentleman was amused. He'd visited the most glittering cities here and on the Continent, and at home in England. This was only a little town on a mighty river in the New World. A brave new world indeed. He smiled in silent salute to the hardihood of American men, who could be so charmed and titillated by the mere thought of what they'd soon pay to do.
But he'd seen stranger things, and wasn't particularly interested in anything the house had to offer but the simplest bodily comforts. So he availed himself of them. He edged closer to the fire and sighed with pleasure as some of the numbness left his toes. It mightn't be exciting, but it was a good place to be on a miserable night. Icy drizzle had changed to freezing sleet that tapped on the windowpanes and rattled down the chimney, sending up puffs of steam as it hit the glowing hearth. He'd spoken only truth when he'd said he was cold to the bone and weary, and wanted nothing so much as a clean, soft bed for the night.
"But that's simple enough-too simple, in fact!" Geoff had protested when he'd told him that earlier in the evening. "You think we're so provincial here in Virginia? Well, so we are, compared to you. But we've more to offer than that. Today I showed you the best acreage in the district. Tomorrow we'll see the finest horseflesh. Tonight, let me show you the best accommodations-and female company," he added with a wink, "that we have to offer a gentleman of your distinction! Fetching young things well worth making the acquaintance of, that I, promise you.
"So he'd let Geoff drive himthis house at the edge of the quaint little town instead of the inn he'd seen when he'd arrived. The man had been helpful, after all, treating him as a friend on the basis of a written introduction, spending the day showing him properties, promising a look at some of the fine horses the district was most famous for. It wouldn't do to insult him, But they'd spent the raw afternoon in an open carriage, only getting out to pace frozen acres.
Now he found himself in the parlor of a bordello, wanting warmth and rest more than the temporary heat and exertion he'd find in the arms of any of the women he saw entertaining the other men. Getting old, he told himself, and smiled, remembering when he wouldn't have wanted to crawl into any bed by himself-even if it was his deathbed-no matter what his bedmate looked like.
He grew drowsy from the heat. But he wouldn't allow himself the luxury of sleep until he got a room...
© 2005 Edith Layton. All rights reserved.