Hardly a Stranger, the third novella in the Hunt Club Chronicles is out now:
Ambrose Manning, Duke of Staines, has the worst luck in wives and lovers. A widow for fifteen years, he’s busy running his gentleman’s club, snatches pleasure from transient lovers, and relies on Francis Redding to provide intelligent companionship between social engagements. There is only one problem with his relationship with Redding; the man would make the perfect lover, if only he wasn’t a dependant servant.
Life-long footman to the Duke of Staines, Francis Redding, is hardly a stranger to the disappointment of unreachable dreams or the duke’s unorthodox love life. He’s lived in the duke’s shadow for most of his life, trained as a surgeon at his request, too, and has all too frequently kept the duke out of trouble. It’s not a bad life for a farmer’s son, until the duke’s luck runs out.
“Now that is a sight worth getting aroused for. Good God, the duke could charge double to have a man like you join our ranks,” a feminine voice purred.
Francis didn’t turn around as the Hunt Club’s abbess invaded his chamber. “Not all of the duke’s servants are destined to be whores, Mrs. Marinari.”
Marinari managed everything about the girls except for their health. She clothed, styled and allocated them for the patron’s pleasure. She could also be a pain in the arse for everyone else in between.
“I cannot see why not.” She flounced into the room with a loud rustle of fabric and perched on his only chair, her pretty face twisted with distaste. “It’s far preferable to stitching them up.”
He sighed and waggled his finger at her. “If I turned whore for the duke then who would clean up your customers mistakes?”
Her smile turned grim. “That man should have his balls removed for his wickedness,” her voice came out as a low pitched growl, reminding Francis that he was actually dealing with a man beneath all that dazzling beauty. There were days when he tended to forget. Or maybe he merely wanted to ignore that some men liked to dress in fine silks and lace and parade about as women. Mrs. Angela Marinari was really Mr. Angelo Marinari, previously of Italyand with no other socially acceptable profession he could speak of.
“Who is to lose their bollocks?” The Duke of Staines asked from the open doorway, his face set in angry lines.
Mrs. Marinari started abruptly at the interruption, but then smiled sweetly in the blink of an eye. “Oh, no one, Your Grace.” She curtsied and hurried out.
Staines closed the door behind him and leaned against it. His chest swelled as he drew in a large breath then let it out slowly. “I was wondering where you’d got to until I heard your skills were required this morning.”
The strain of the morning closed about Francis and he set his hand to the back of the chair for balance. “Lord Carter, again. You must do something about him this time.”
Staines crossed the room and stopped within inches. His gaze roved over Francis’s face, a frown marring his usually happy expression. “I must?”
Francis nodded. “Yes, Your Grace. I had to stitch Miss Felicity’s nether region today.”
The duke winced.
Acid curled in Francis’s belly at the memory. He set his hand on his stomach as emotion rolled through him. “Yes, again. It is not her fault. He is far too rough with her and the others.”
Staines mirrored his action and set his hand to his stomach, too. “Last time, he claimed he was enraptured by the new girl.”
Francis shook his head at the duke’s stubbornness not to see the truth. “Three times is no accident. The earl is little better than a rutting animal.”
Carter plowed with little care for the whore beneath him and no consideration for her pleasure either. Men like that had once disgusted Stainesand Francis wondered when the duke had ceased to notice and care.
Staines regarded him, his lips quirking upward. “Why are you the only one who will argue with me?”
Francis slumped to a chair wearily and rubbed his hands over his face. “Because it amuses you to let me, Your Grace.”
Staines nodded, his gaze softened. “You look dead on your feet. Which reminds me, today is your day off. You should not be here.”
The duke waved his hands to silence him. “Yes, yes, you had a woman in need of your skills and we are very grateful, but you’ve done your best. Go enjoy what’s left of your day.”
Francis regarded the duke warily. Even though he’d been gifted with an additional day off from his duties each month as a reward for faithful service, he was loath to take them. His family worked from sunup till sundown and the only time they left the farm was to attend church. When he compared his day with that of his brother, he lived a spoiled and pampered life. A life of further idleness, without responsibilities, sat ill with him. And since the duke was prone to accidents, and misunderstandings frequently occurred when Francis wasn’t around, he hadn’t been overly concerned to lose the day off.
The duke stuck out his left hand. “Come on, get up and out of this mad house before I change my mind and force you to attend Fairmont’s ball with me. Lady Fairmont let slip that her companion was quite keen on you.”
Francis shuddered at the thought and the duke laughed at him.
“In that case, I’ll see you tomorrow morning at six, as usual.”
Francis groaned. Six was such an ungodly hour for riding about inHyde Park. Yet the duke insisted upon the exercise and so they rode together in relative privacy. Every other sensible lord was abed at that hour.
He placed his right hand in the duke’s left and was hauled to his feet. Eye to eye, the duke was an imposing man. Handsome, determined, and with a playful streak a mile wide. At leastStainesdidn’t dump him on his arse today as he had several days ago.
The grip on his hand slackened and slid up his arm.
As always, the tight ropes of desire spun upward from that brief caress. Francis’s pulse hammered as the duke licked his lips. But then His Grace took a step back and spun about. He waved as he hurried for the door. “Till the morning, Red. Try to have fun without me.”