He couldn’t believe he was doing this. Was he really doing this? He had read many novels and stories in which people liked to convince themselves that they were sometimes dreaming when they were awake, that the poor decisions they were making weren’t really happening, but it was all such nonsense. This was happening, all right. He was finally—finally!
—going to do it.
“You understand, my lord, that this is an unusual request.”
Henry Cortland, Earl of Brenleigh, snapped his head up and felt the blood run from his face. He regarded Madam Dorlet sitting on the sofa across from him. She was in her forties, perhaps, with a gentle elegance and modesty of dress that seemed drastically out of place for her profession. Her voice was level and assured, like the no-nonsense dialogue of a governess.
“But I…” he began. “I was led to understand that you… That is, that your establishment here does…”
“Forgive me, my lord, if I gave you a false impression. Of course I can
provide the service you are requesting, and I have done so before for other gentlemen. I merely want you to understand that it is uncommon, and I therefore cannot assure you that there will be any, shall we say, takers for your request. Gentlemen who utilize my rooming services usually have an understanding among themselves beforehand.”
Other gentlemen, those of a certain persuasion
, knew of each other and were confident in arranging encounters. He, however, knew nothing. Henry twisted his hands in his lap and hated himself for it. He was acting like a nervous wreck, something not at all typical of him. Except in situations like this. Oh! Who was he fooling? There had never been a situation like this. Never.
Not even once.
“Allow me to suggest again, my lord,” Madam Dorlet continued, her voice softening, “that you consider allowing one of my gentlemen to keep you company this evening. Edmund is a very pleasant young man, quite pretty and accommodating. Or Jonathan, if you would prefer company of a more…imposing nature.”
Do you want an effeminate boy to play with, or a broad-chested Corinthian to master you?
Henry swallowed hard. The woman certainly had a way of polishing up the most scandalous questions, didn’t she? But no. He was adamant.
“No. I told you before, I don’t want a wh—a whore.” Henry cringed again.
She inclined her head. “I understand, of course. Discretion and safety are also services, and this house provides them. I will make discreet inquiries this evening and see if I cannot find a gentleman with your particular taste. Of course, I would be in a much better position to please you if I knew what sort of company you were looking for.”
He ground his teeth, but if plain speaking was the only way to achieve his goal, then he might as well try. He would hardly shock her. “I would prefer someone…tall. I mean, it’s not an absolute necessity, but I don’t want someone…” He trailed off again and turned his gaze on the window.
This was a bad idea. I should leave.
“Someone not shorter than yourself, perhaps, my lord?” she offered delicately. “And may I suggest of an athletic nature? Let us say that relatively young and handsome are givens.”
“Yes. Givens,” he muttered. No doubt the woman was accustomed to discussing the most outrageous and detailed sexual requests with her patrons, and yet he was unable to bring himself to provide her with so much as a loose description of the man he wanted. Tall…strong…experienced…
“I am not interested in dandies,” he said suddenly. “Nor effeminate fops.”
The madam’s lips twitched with a knowing smile. “I understand, my lord. Completely. As I said, I will see to your request this evening as best I can, so long as you understand that I can make no guarantees that we will be able to fulfill it. I am not certain if I have many patrons who would be willing to entertain the idea of keeping company with another patron they have never met.”
“I understand, yes,” he said through his teeth.
“Meanwhile, I assume you would like to be shown to the room and allowed to make yourself comfortable?”
Henry nodded and stood, but not before frowning slightly. Your request
, she had kept saying in that particular tone. Did she think he was making this request because it was his preferred delight to bed strangers? Well. She probably did. He could only imagine the kinds of requests
that went on inside these walls, and that was what he was hoping to correct. He could
only imagine. He didn’t want to imagine. He was tired of imagining. He wanted to know
. He wanted to experience
, and he was going to. Finally.
He made a stiff bow to her and followed a maid who had appeared to escort him upstairs. Never having been in any brothel in his life, he tried to draw in his curiosity at everything he passed. It all looked so…normal. The house was not garish or disturbing, not decked out in scarlet silks or mirrors on every wall as he had assumed. The decor was modern, elegant, and bright. The maid who escorted him could have worked in any proper house on Grosvenor Square, and he found himself wondering if she was just a maid, or if she was also one of the whores.
“Here you are, my lord,” she said slowly, as if making an effort with her accent. “Would you like a tray sent up while you wait?”
“Um…no. No need.” He was sure anything he ate would come rushing back up and onto the fine Persian rugs.
“As you say, my lord, but if you should change your mind…” She smiled becomingly and bit her lower lip between perfect white teeth.
Henry regarded her pretty round face and buxom figure, shown to full effect despite the deceptive modesty of her dress. She was quite lovely, but it was an academic observation. He felt nothing. He never had, and that was part of the problem, but if the maid was showing an interest in him, he was not surprised. While he was anything but a conceited man, Henry knew that ladies considered him rather handsome.
He was just shy of six feet tall and had wavy dark blond hair that always seemed to be slightly too long, since he so rarely remembered to have his valet cut it. He had a strong, medium build and legs well formed from years of avid horsemanship, though he was generally slender. But it was his eyes that drew the attention of young misses and their husband-seeking mamas. Cornflower blue and unfailingly kind, his eyes exuded a cheerful serenity that left those of the fairer sex feeling instantly at their ease. It was an unending source of worry and confusion on his mother’s part that he had yet to choose one of the young lovelies.
“I will ring the bell if I change my mind, thank you,” he said to the maid.
She bobbed a curtsy and opened the door before departing down the hall. Henry stepped into a large and immaculate room that had him halting in his steps as soon as the door closed behind him. He looked immediately to the massive four-poster bed, the corners and headboard draped with ivy-green silk that hung from guides in the ceiling. Somehow, as ridiculous as he knew it was, the sight of the bed took the last glaze of unreality from his eyes. This was happening, it was going to happen, and he was terrified.
And excited beyond anything he could describe.
He closed his eyes and tried to see it as he had so many times in his imagination. He would be stripped first, slowly, by strong working hands that would seem to burn him with every touch of bare skin. Warm breath would graze his neck, and a deep voice would whisper delicious nonsense into his ear. The combined scents of expensive musk cologne and male sweat would fill his senses until he felt drugged.
Henry rubbed a hand over his face and crossed toward the crystal brandy decanter resting on the sideboard. He poured himself a modest two fingers of what was likely some of the finest French contraband, then thought better and added another two. A little assistance never hurt anyone, did it? And besides, there was always the possibility that he would leave the brothel later that night with nothing to show for it but a good drunken state. Madam Dorlet had made herself more than clear about the chances of granting his unusual request, and now that he had yet another moment to stand back and think, he felt his stomach lurch as if a lead ball had been dropped into it.
What if no one agreed? What if no one fitting his loose preferences even showed up tonight, and Dorlet sent him away with her profuse apologies? It was perfectly possible. A strong, young, handsome man who happened to arrive tonight, who happened to be open to spending the evening with a stranger sight unseen, and, oh, yes, who happened
to prefer other men! Military campaigns relied on fewer contingencies.
So the question was left to him: would he return another night if this one was unsuccessful? Or would he take Madam Dorlet’s suggestion and just do what other men of his class did, which was to buy what he wanted? No on both counts. He was certain that he would not be able to bring himself to try again, to go through all the stress again. As for the second option, he simply…couldn’t. The idea of paying someone to pretend to get pleasure from the encounter was so distasteful and lowering that he would not even consider it.
He took his glass and cradled it in both hands. The fire had been lit in the carved marble hearth and was filling the room with a soothing warmth and flicker as the sky outside darkened to sunset. He regarded the two wingback chairs set before the fire and wondered which to take. He decided that he would rather not face the door directly, and so he chose the opposite and made himself comfortable to wait.
Waiting had always been one of his strong suits, for he was an incredibly patient man. It had often been said to him that he was too patient, that as the Earl of Brenleigh it was his prerogative to wait for almost nothing, but he had never minded. It gave a man time to think, and that was one thing Henry Cortland did a lot of. Think. It was because of his penchant for thinking rather than talking that he was sitting where he was at that moment, and it was why he had even known about such a place as Madam Dorlet’s. It was amazing what a man could learn if he merely kept his mouth shut and listened.
Despite not having been to London since he was a boy, he had decided to take advantage of his de facto membership at White’s and had taken lunch there only the week before. News traveling in the ton
as it did, it had not taken long for everyone who was anyone to know that the reclusive new Earl of Brenleigh was finally in London. Several gentlemen were curious enough to introduce themselves, and he had gladly invited them to join him for lunch, as he was eating alone and no one liked that.
Almost immediately they had begun the required process of bringing him up to snuff on all the latest gossip and goings-on, most of which he could not care less about. But Henry’s manners were impeccable, and he asked questions where proper and raised his eyebrows where expected. He had been only half listening to some scandal about Viscount Kilsen and the Baroness of Sunderdale when the man who had introduced himself as Mr. Evers had abruptly changed the subject with a tone designed to draw attention.
“You must hear this, though, old man,”
Evers had begun, leaning in toward the others. “Will Stoning told me just this morning that Farnsworth had quite the almost adventure last night. Turns out that the damn fool was so drunk he instructed a hired coachman to take him to a brothel.
Any brothel. I’ll give you three guesses where he ended up.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, who taught you how to tell a story?”
one of his friends had scoffed. “Just spit it out.”
Evers and the other two men had shot uncertain glances in Henry’s direction, no doubt considering if the earl whose acquaintance they had just met might be a high stickler who would object to such talk. Henry had put their fears to rest by raising his eyebrows and showing all the same morbid curiosity as the others.
“I suspect I am about to learn something,”
Henry had said with a laugh.
“That you might, my lord.”
Evers had grinned. “It turns out that the cab dropped Farnsworth off at Madam Dorlet’s on Russell Street.”
Without hesitation, Evers and the others had burst into fits of delighted laughter and managed to drop in a few suggestive facial expressions, though suggestive of what, Henry could not be sure. His confused, though amused, expression had sobered them enough for Evers to continue.
“Forgive me, my lord. I have forgotten that you don’t spend much time in London and are perhaps unfamiliar with Madam Dorlet’s.”
“I am afraid that I am less than familiar, if truth be told. And please, feel free to call me Brenleigh. This is my first time to London since I was twelve, which might just as well have been never. What is amusing about Madam Dorlet’s?”
Evers had chuckled along with the others. “No gentleman of any decent breeding goes there. It isn’t exactly a respectable house, you know.”
What whore house would be?
He had bit his tongue, though, and nodded as if he understood. “I see. A low-class establishment, then? Some dressed-up inn catering to the dregs?”
“Well, not quite that.”
Evers had shrugged. “From what I hear, the place is fine enough, but it’s all
vulgar riche. Cits and social-climbing merchants trying to purchase a scrap of gentility.”
The other men had laughed and snorted, as if the very idea of someone working for a living and raising their place in the world was a joke.
Henry had said, hoping the conversation would move on.
that is not what makes the story amusing,”
Evers had continued brightly. “You see, Madam Dorlet is known to offer services of a more, shall we say, Greek persuasion. And rumor has it that she provides nightly lodging to men and their, eh,
There had been no confusion in that moment. Henry was an educated man, and he doubted that Evers might be referring to Mediterranean beauties. He had read everything he could find on the unnatural
tendencies of the ancient Greeks.
He had been sure to show appropriate outrage and amusement. “Oh,
really! I’m guessing this Farnsworth fellow sobered up quick enough.”
“Quick as you please!”
Evers had assured him. “They say time is the only cure for a liquor-swelled head, but set a man down next to that sort of abomination and watch his wits come back like a finger snap!”
The entire group had cut up in delighted and saucy laughter, having no idea that as they did, Henry was dedicating the names Madam Dorlet and Russell Street to firm memory.
And here he was. It had taken him a week of subtle inquiry and some indecent gossip of which he was not quite proud before he had learned enough and worked up enough courage to request an interview with Madam Dorlet. Evers had been right. The brothel was fine and tasteful, but definitely outside the purview of the ton. He was unlikely to meet anyone he knew, nor anyone who would recognize him on sight. And since he had no intention of sharing his real identity with anyone, he felt safe enough. He had shared his real name and identity with Madam Dorlet only because she had insisted that she needed to protect her patrons, and she could not do that if she thought some potential blackmailer was trying to gain entry on false pretenses.
He lifted his glass for another sip, only then realizing that he had already managed to finish the brandy off. He set the glass on the narrow side table and began to turn it in slow circles as he stared into the fire. No more. He needed to have his wits about him. He needed to make certain that there was no impairment on his memory, because he needed what happened tonight to last the rest of his life. He had decided that just one night was all he would allow—one night to experience what he had long ago accepted to be his unfortunate nature—and he could not go back on that decision, ever, because Henry Cortland would never be anything less than a faithful man.
He was, after all, to be married in hardly more than a month.