The devil chased away the daylight as Constantine urged his horse to take him far from his responsibilities and into the arms of willing debauchery. He thundered down the lane, running away from his guilt and toward the distant manor house outlined by the falling sun.
His heart pounded as it always did when he rode, keeping time with his mount’s hooves upon the earthen road beneath them. But it was more than just the thrill of being free that filled him with anticipation. Today he had made a decision. Tonight he hoped to forget. Constantine crested the rise and slowed his horse to a trot as the remote manor house loomed before him. The place had no name but was widely known for its warm welcome. What else could you expect from a bawdy house perched high on a hill?
He swung off his mount as two liveried footman hurried toward him, one intent on his horse, the other upon him. “Your name, sir?”
Constantine experienced a pang of uncertainty, then brushed it aside. “Lord Grayling.”
The bewigged footman bowed deferentially. “Welcome to the House, my lord. If you’d be so kind as to come this way, Mrs. Cohen will be only too happy to accommodate your every need this evening.”
It wasn’t Mrs. Cohen’s accommodation Constantine required, but one of the younger courtesans in her employ. Perhaps they could banish the memory of his late wife from his mind, along with his part in her death.
Once inside, the footman took his riding crop, hat, gloves, and caped coat away, leaving him free to stroll about the elegantly appointed lower hall unimpeded. Spartan but elegant. So far the rumors were true. Mrs. Cohen had been much sought after in London during her youth, but as age had lessened her appeal, she’d retired to the countryside to groom others for men’s pleasures. He’d never met her, but the stories of her establishment were legend. They said a man could buy any pleasure for the right price.
Before he’d gone too many steps, an older woman long past the first blush of youth, but still lovely, appeared. “Mrs. Cohen?”
“My Lord Grayling. What an unexpected surprise. Welcome to the House.”
Constantine was well prepared for this adventure. He reached into his coat pocket and handed over the expected funds. “A token of my appreciation.”
The madam’s expression eased into extreme friendliness and another footman appeared with a glass of wine balanced upon a gleaming silver tray. “You must be thirsty from your long ride. I trust your journey was uneventful.”
“It was,” he assured her, unsurprised that she knew he’d traveled some distance to arrive here. He wouldn’t be shocked to learn the woman knew the location of every gentleman of consequence within a fifty-mile radius of her establishment, as well as the state of their pocketbook and their love life. She was in the business of providing a service where it was most needed.
Constantine took the glass and sipped. A remarkably fine vintage filled his mouth and he nodded. “Perfect.”
The madam sent the footman away and gestured to an adjacent room. “I think you will find exactly what you require in this direction. Dark or pale, full-figured or slim. The House prides itself on ensuring a gentleman’s pleasure.”
Constantine nodded. He was tired of spending his nights alone with only his guilt for company. He was weary of mourning the life he had lost.
At the threshold of the saloon—a room soaked in red velvet and supple limbs—he saw the ladies of the night reclined in shimmering, half-undone gowns as they listened to the strains of Bach adequately played by another of their number. A few gentlemen, some with vaguely familiar faces, graced the room, all engaged with willing women perched upon their laps.
The scene was one he had viewed before his marriage but found little pleasure in now. He wasn’t one for public spectacles. Private pleasures were all he desired tonight. It was simply a matter of choosing a face with an appealing body and then losing himself in desire.
He scanned the room, searching for a face and form that would inspire him and satisfy his hunger. A leggy blonde sat alone and unoccupied for the moment. The madam noticed the direction of his gaze and provided her name. “Solange.”
A rare jewel. Constantine doubted names held any accuracy in this place. With any luck she’d be willing, pliant, and easy on the senses of a man who’d come for distraction. He’d begin his quest there.
He strolled forward and limpid eyes flowed over him, caressing without touching. A prelude to intimacy to come. Her lips lifted into a smile as she rose to her feet, gliding toward him with smooth steps. When she held out her gloved hand, he kissed the back as if she were a dear friend.
“Welcome,” she said, her voice soft and easy on the ears.
Constantine smiled in response. “Grayling.”
Her hands touched his arm in a gentle caress, luring him toward her body, attempting to beguile, subtly at first. The smallest whisper of anticipation coursed through him. Perhaps a rare jewel would be enough? Perhaps Solange could provide the pleasure he sought. Yet even as he formed that thought, another filled him. Solange was lovely, but would she provide him with the challenge he craved?
Would she bend to his will completely, allow him to satisfy his needs even if it left her wanting? Would she dare to complain about his selfishness? There was no way to predict the outcome.
What Constantine missed most was the chase of love and passion. The hunt and claiming of victory. He’d had that once, so he knew what he missed and wanted tonight. A woman whose passionate nature could keep pace with his.
Solange leaned close to whisper in his ear. “Shall we sit and listen for a while, my lord?”
Constantine didn’t particularly care for the music, but the performance would give him time to consider whether Solange would suit. “Of course.”
She grabbed his hand and guided him toward an empty corner settee. Constantine followed her and after he’d sat, allowed her to press another glass of wine into his hand. While he sipped, Solange’s nimble fingers stroked the top of his thigh. But the soft touches failed to arouse. That whisper of desire he’d felt at first sight had vanished as if it had never been. Constantine cursed under his breath.
After a short period, Solange turned her attention from the pianist and caught his eye. Her hands glided up his inner thigh to tease him with the promise of later pleasures. As she leaned close to nuzzle his neck above his cravat, he realized nothing had changed. He was no more aroused by her touch than he had been when he’d set off for the brothel that evening. Even when her fingers skimmed his chest and then tangled in his hair, he had no reaction whatsoever. The gentle kisses she bestowed to his jaw were persistent, but not enough to arouse. If he got her to the bedchamber, he feared neither one of them would be happy.
Constantine concentrated on everything else but what she did. Solange’s ministrations had not banished his wife far enough into the past to allow him to lose himself in the moment. He wanted to forget he’d loved his wife. He wanted to banish the guilt that haunted him.
He glanced beyond Solange’s shoulder to see who else lingered in the room. He’d choose another. Someone he hoped had enough mastery to cure him of his longing for the perfect life he’d lost.
There were three other unattached women in the room, but as he inspected them, they failed to stir him any more than Solange had. Perhaps he should have gone to London when Rothwell had suggested it. A few weeks of debauchery in the company of a trusted friend might have been better than the pleasures afforded by this private country house. It was just his luck that his situation prevented him from visiting the capital just now.
A flutter of pale skirts caught his attention as a slight woman paused in the doorway of the saloon. A slim figure appeared, deep black hair carelessly tumbling around her head as if she’d stumbled from bed and could just as easily return to it. She claimed his complete attention and he couldn’t look away from her whiskey-brown eyes. Their eyes held as the plunking of the pianoforte dimmed.
Small limbs, perfect skin, and a smile that wasn’t the least sincere.