...Guilt burned Mariotte’s cheeks. So Cedric smelled her desire, kindled by their meeting and fostered by her recent fantasy.
“Your music’s excellent—your technique wants polish but you’ve exceptional skill. In my home I’ll send a proper instructor to further your talents and you’ll play pianoforte for us.”
“Your home, sir?” How far did this harebrained scheme go? Gentlemen normally kept their lightskirts in separate residences.
“Alannah tells me you’re a colonial. I take it you don’t know anybody in town, nor do you wish to be known given your pains to hide your identity. I expect you’ve your reasons.” A new shrug communicated monumental indifference. “Since no one knows you, and you’ve not bothered to garner any popularity for yourself in this illustrious establishment, there’s no reason you shouldn’t live in my house indefinitely. Say as my ward. You may enjoy our lifestyle and we’ll enjoy you far better at home than if we have to travel to some other house should we desire your company.”
Absolutely brazen! “And where shall I live once you’re prepared to give me my congé?” What use lay in cutting the man since he imagined his proposition flattered her?
“M’dear, living in my household as part of my family shall secure your standing among the better circles in town. I don’t doubt we’ll be plagued by callers seeking to court you, and we’ll muddle along well as we can. You’ll receive an income through my household and, should we decide the situation doesn’t suit us after all, I’ll provide you with a severance settlement, funds sufficient to see you through your immediate expenses and to secure you a comfortable retirement, either singly or through marriage to your chosen candidate.”
Too far… Mariotte huffed. “What do you consider satisfactory severance, milord?”
“What do you regard as adequate, ma’am?”
She widened her eyes at his complacency. A droll smile playing along his lips and eyes, he cleared his throat to disguise laughter. Mariotte tamped down resentment at what he must think of her. Evidently her demurring prostitution at the Rowan didn’t earn Cedric’s respects; he considered her a bauble, eligible for purchase like any London streetwalker.
“A hundred thousand pounds,” she began.
“Done. Your home with us, your services at our disposal, your musical talents. You’ll receive your pin money and anything you wish through the household accounts. Upon ending our association, I’ll draw you a draft for one hundred thousand pounds.” Cedric’s smile broadened.
“You misunderstood me, sir. Permit me to complete what I meant to tell you. One hundred thousand pounds is a suitable dowry for me to contract an advantageous marriage, despite any unwholesome rumors connecting me to female frailty. A most generous settlement for a woman leaving an illicit alliance once her patron wearied of her.”
He nodded, unblinking. “I’ve stated I’ll match that sum.”
“And that would be agreeable in an alliance between us two. However, you are not offering me your sole protection; you require me to fulfill a woman’s obligation to two additional gentlemen. If I’m expected to provide thrice the services and attentions—endure thrice the risk to my health and to my reputation—in all fairness the settlement itself ought triple.”
Dukes married off daughters with more meager marriage portions. Mariotte met his eyes and waited for his conceit to fade.
“I confess I’m embarrassed for not taking your extra labors into account.” His mouth quirked over labors; he wanted to laugh at her! Certainty drove scorching heat up her neck and face. “Three hundred thousand it is. I admire decisiveness, Mariotte. You’ll come home with us this night, please, and might I see your face now?”
“That’s terribly short notice for my employer.”
“Commendable trait, loyalty. Tomorrow, then, once you’ve spoken with her.”
Angry red blades clawed under Mariotte’s skull and she shook her head to force them away. Her knife weighed heavy in her clenching fist. “Wait. A moment.” Cedric paused in the step he took toward her. “I need to be sure I understand everything.”
“You want me to live with you. Like a relation. Only I would be your mistress. And the other gentlemen’s.”
“Yes. None need know that aspect of our relationship. Best for your prospects that way.”
“And who else?”
“Do we three not suffice for you, madam?” Bland mockery offset his ascending brow. His voice dropped an octave, fondled her body through her hearing. “I assure you we’ve ample talent and experience to sate you.”
“And the three of you… How…”
Cedric’s chuckle mellowed with promise, deepening as Mariotte’s cheeks burned hotter. “We may enjoy you together, singly, whatever combination we choose. You’ll not be disappointed nor damaged in any way.”
Bargain with the devil, indeed...