Home     Meet Cara Elliott    Books    Diversions    Goodies    Contests    Contact    
 


Join Cara's
Mailing List


Follow Cara
on Facebook


Follow Cara
on Twitter



Blog with Cara at
Word Wenches


Visit Cara's alter ego
Andrea Pickens


E-mail Cara

 

CHAPTER ONE

“Oh, I’m so glad ye stopped by for a visit, sir. The Wolfhound has always said ye have a discerning eye fer art, so I’m anxious to get yer opinion on this.” Sara Hawkins stripped the last of the wrappings from around a gilt-framed watercolor painting and let out an admiring whistle. “Don’t ye think it will look lovely hanging in the Eros Bedchamber?”

Gryffin Owain Dwight, the Marquess of Haddan, shrugged out of his overcoat and came over to take a look. “You intend to hang that in there?” A dark brow shot up. “I wouldn’t advise it.”

“Why not?” Sara sounded a little crestfallen. “Roses are my favorite flower and this one is awfully pretty.”

“Indeed it is. But in the secret language of flowers, red roses symbolize love—a sentiment that would likely make a number of your patrons rather nervous,” said Gryff dryly. Patrons was putting it politely, seeing as Sara’s establishment was one of the most notorious gambling hells and brothels in London. “If you must pick a rose for a decorative touch, make it an orange one.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Fascination.” He curled a wicked smile. “Better yet, find a print of a yellow iris, which means ‘passion.’ Or sweetpea, which means ‘blissful pleasure.’”

She let out a snort of laughter.

“Or a peach blossom, which means ‘I am your captive.’”

“Fancy that.” Setting aside the painting, Sara perched a shapely hip on the sideboard and gave the marquess her full attention. “Now who would have ever guessed that flowers could talk.”

Gryff nodded gravely. “And then there is the grapevine . . .”

“Which means?” Sara leaned forward, her eyes widening in anticipation.

“Which means, ‘I am very thirsty so do you have any more of that expensive Scottish malt stashed away in your private cupboard?’”

A crumpled kidskin glove hit him square in the chest. “Oh, ye horrid man! Here I thought I was learning some fancy bit of knowledge. But ye was just pulling my corset strings.” She gave an aggrieved sniff. “Now that I own this establishment, I can make my own rules. So I don’t know why I let ye through the doors.”

“Because of my beaux yeux, of course,” quipped Gryff.

“Yer bows-yours?”

“That’s French for ‘lovely eyes,’” he explained, batting his raven-dark lashes. With all due modesty, the marquess knew that he was a great favorite with females, aristocratic or otherwise. And not only for his beaux yeux—though the unusual shade of green-flecked hazel did seem to have a mesmerizing effect on the opposite sex.

However, that fact was proving far less satisfying of late . . .

“Hmmph.” Sara tossed her head, interrupting his private musings. “So Frogs have a language of their own too, eh?”

Gryff gave a bark of laughter. “Touché.” Seating himself on the edge of her desk, he loosened his starched cravat, and expelled a long breath. “Now about that malt, Sara.”

The door of the Chinoise curio cabinet opened and shut. Glasses clinked as she passed him a silver tray. “Ye may pour me a taste as well.”

“I take it that business has been good.”

“Aye, very profitable,” she replied. “Especially as I’m putting this bottle on your monthly bill.”

Gryff splashed a measure of the dark amber spirits into two glasses. “I’d gladly pay double for the pleasure of conversing with you,” he murmured, passing one to her.

She exaggerated a leer. “Pay triple and I’ll pleasure ye with far more than words, sweetheart.”

“Tempting.” He eyed her over the rim of his drink. “But I thought you were too busy running the Lair to have private patrons anymore.”

Until recently, the Wolf’s Lair had been owned by Gryff’s good friend Connor Linsley, the Earl of Killingworth. However, Connor had turned over a new leaf in life and had embarked on a new career as a goat farmer after gifting the Lair to his former employee.

Gryff swirled his whisky. His friend had also embarked on a new life as a happily married man, a fact which no doubt had much to do with his own current unsettled mood.

“Lud, I am busy,” responded Sara. “You have no idea how much work it is to run a business.” Despite the bantering tone, Sara was watching him carefully, a shade of concern clouding her gaze. “But fer you, I might make an exception.”

A smile played on his lips. “Tempting,” he repeated. “However, I value the relationship we have now far more than a fleeting tumble in bed.” He turned away, his expression blurred by the soft shadows of the private parlor as he stared at the pale painted wall above the bookcase. “Next time I stop by, I shall bring you a picture of ivy to hang here.”

“Oh? Does ivy have a special meaning, too?” she asked somewhat warily.

“It signifies ‘friendship.’ ‘Affection.’”

Sara slid over and planted a light kiss on his cheek. “That’s sweet, no matter that you’re teasing me with all this talk about roses and such having a language of their own.”

“Actually, I’m not. The bit about the grapevine was a jest, but the rest is all true,” he assured her. “Indeed, the concept has been around for centuries. Lady Mary Wortley Montague, wife of the British ambassador to Constantinople during the early 1700s, brought a Turkish book back to England entitled The Secret Language of Flowers. It’s quite fascinating. If you like, I’ll bring you a copy.”

“Thank you.” Sara twined a lock of his long black hair around her forefinger. “How is it that a rakehell rogue like you knows so much about flowers?”

Gryff felt himself stiffen. Pulling away, he stalked to the hearth and picked up the poker. Coals crackled as he stirred up a flame. “You know better than to ask your patrons about their private lives. And like them, I don’t come here to answer personal questions,” he snapped.

“Ye don’t come here to dip yer wick or to drink yerself senseless anymore either,” retorted Sara, eyeing the very modest amount of whisky he had poured for himself. “Is something wrong? Ye look a little niffy-tiffy. Is something eating at yer insides?”

He stared at the embers, the bits of glowing orange a stark contrast to the surrounding bed of gray-black ashes. Dark and Light. “Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps I’m sick of . . .”

Sick of what
? Seductions and sousing himself in brandy? Of late, neither swiving nor guzzling a barrel of brandy had held much allure. In fact, he had given up drinking heavily several months ago after his fuzz-witted carelessness had almost cost Connor his livelihood. As for women, strangely enough, these days, he was finding far more satisfaction in dedicating his energy to . . . other pursuits.

“Perhaps I’m sick of youthful folly,” said Gryff slowly, thinking of the books on landscape design stacked up by his bedside, and the unfinished essay on his library desk. “With age comes wisdom . . . or so one hopes.” He made a wry face. “My birthday was last week, and when a man turns thirty, he is forced to take stock of his life.”

Folding her arms across her chest, Sara subjected him to a searching stare.
“Ah, yes . . .”
Her eyes slowly ran the length of the marquess’s lanky form, moving from the crown of his silky, shoulder length hair, down over the broad slope of muscled shoulders and lean, tapered waist. She let her gaze linger for a moment on the distinctly masculine contours of his thighs before running it down the long stretch of legs.

“Yes,” she repeated, raising a mocking brow. “I can see that teetering on the brink of senility can make a man repent of his past sins.”

“Of which there are too many to name,” he murmured.

“Ain’t that the truth,” drawled Sara. “You and your fellow Hellhounds have a terrible reputation for wildness.” Society viewed Gryff and his two friends Connor Linsley and Cameron Daggett as dangerous because of their utter disregard for all the rules and regulations governing Polite Behavior.

“But you, of all people, know our deep, dark secret—we are harmless little lapdogs,” replied Gryff. “Our bark is far worse than our bite.”

“Ha!” Sara gave a snort. “The Wolfhound may have been domesticated . . .” Connor’s nickname was the Irish Wolfhound, as his mother had hailed from the Emerald Isle. “But you and Mr. Daggett are still devilishly dangerous. And speaking of that devil, how is his leg mending from the bullet—”

A sudden urgent thumping on the door interrupted the question. It was punctuated by a gruff shout. “Oh, no—ye can’t go in there, madam!”

“Oh, yes—” The latch sprang open. “—I can.”

Gryff saw a willowy figure evade the porter’s meaty hand and slip inside the private parlor. Prim bonnet, dowdy gown, sturdy halfboots, stern scowl. An expert in assessing females, he need only an instant to recognize the type. She was not a lightskirt, but a respectable lady.

Definitely a harbinger of trouble.

But thankfully not his trouble. Taking a sidelong step out of the ring of firelight,

Gryff slouched a shoulder to the storage cabinet, curious as to what sort of sparks were about to fly.

“Am I to understand that you are the proprietor here?” The intruder pointed an indigo-gloved finger at Sara.

“Yes.” Sara extended a ladylike hand in greeting. “I’m Sara Hawkins. And you are?”

The intruder eyed it uncertainly, but after a moment, innate good manners prevailed. “Lady Brentford,” she said reluctantly.

In contrast to her straitlaced appearance, her voice was low and lush, the sound sending an inexplicable shiver prickling down Gryff’s spine. It was soft as silk, yet had a slight nub to its texture.

The effect was unexpected. Erotic.

Gryff gave an inward wince. Erotic? Good God, what momentary madness had stirred such a strange thought? The lady did not look as if the word ‘erotic’ had ever entered her vocabulary.

And yet . . .

And yet, despite the severe chignon and the subdued, sober hues of her clothes, there was something sensual about Lady Brentford.

“Might I offer you some refreshment, Lady Brentford,” asked Sara politely. “If brandy is not to your taste, I can ring for some tea.”

“Thank you.” Her tone turned cooler—indeed, it could have chilled all the oolong in India. “But this is not a social call.”

Gryff tried to shake off the odd current of attraction that kept his gaze held in thrall.

“Ah. Then I assume you are looking for Lord Brentford,” said Sara.

“Good God, no.” The lady grimaced. “Lord Brentford has been two years in the grave, and I devoutly pray that he remains there.”

A small furrow formed between Sara’s brows. “Then forgive me, but . . .”

“It is my brother I seek—Lord Leete.”

A delicate cough sounded. “We have a full house tonight, and I do not know every patron by name. Perhaps you could describe him to me?”

Leete. The name stirred a vague flicker somewhere on the edges of Gryff’s memory. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to bring the fellow into sharper focus. Yes, yes, it had been just last week—an obnoxious puppy, yapping some impertinent question about what type of tassel looked best on a Hessian boot.
“Average height and reedy,” he answered for her. “Blonde hair brushed in an elaborate array of over-oiled curls.” A tiny pause. “And sidewhiskers that make him look like a poodle.”

“That’s the one.” Lady Brentford turned slowly to face him. “A friend of yours?”

“Not in the least,” replied Gryff. “Actually, he was making a nuisance of himself. I was forced to be rather rude.”

“He has a habit of doing that,” she said. Her voice remained calm, but her eyes betrayed the depth of her emotion. Beneath the surface hue of azure blue rippled a darker current of stormy slate. “Is he here?”

Sara shot Gryff a questioning look.

Word around my club is that Lord Leete plays for high stakes.” A pause. “Though only the Devil knows why, as he seems incapable of counting to ten when he’s in his cups.”

Looking a trifle uncomfortable, Sara cleared her throat. “Lady Brentford, there are, how shall I say it, some unwritten rules regarding establishments such as these. Gentlemen expect discretion from the management, especially concerning interruptions.”

“I’ve come all the way from Oxfordshire to see him.” Her tone had turned taut. “It’s a matter of pressing importance.”

Anger. Though she was trying hard to hide it, Lady Brentford was extremely angry, decided Gryff. But was there also a touch of fear? Repressing a frown, he angled a step to the side, trying to get a better read on her face.

“Yes, I can see that it is,” said Sara quietly. “So in this case, I shall make an exception.”

“Thank you,” came the whispered reply.

“If you will excuse me for a few moments, I will go have a look.”

Lady Brentford appeared reluctant to be left alone with an unknown gentleman. Slanting a sidelong look at him, she hesitated, and then seemed to decide that he was the lesser of two evils.

“Thank you,” she repeated signaling her consent with a curt nod.

As the door clicked shut, she expelled a pent-up breath and turned her back to him. Swoosh, swoosh. Her heavy skirts skirled around her ankles as she moved away to study the etching hanging above the bookcase.

Trouble
, Gryff reminded himself. He had survived the brutal Peninsular War by listening to the warning voice in his head. And right now it was drumming a martial tattoo against his skull.

Trouble, trouble, trouble.


The wise strategy would be to finish his drink and quietly take his leave. Whatever her reason for being here, it did not involve him.

Instead, he set his glass down and walked across the carpet.