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Click here for the Excerpt from A Talent for Sin

Click here for the Excerpt from Bound by Temptation

Click here for the Excerpt from Taken by Desire

Click here for the Excerpt from What a Duke Wants

 

Excerpt from Mastering the Marquess

 

Chapter One

Louisa, Lady Brookingston had loved her husband. In fact, she’d loved him her entire life. She’d loved him when she was four and he’d climbed a tree to rescue her kitten. She’d loved him when she was eight and he’d helped her brush the mud off a summer dress after an unfortunate fall. She’d loved him when she was twelve and he was the first “man,” besides her father, to tell her she was pretty despite the spots that marked her chin. She’d loved him at fourteen when he danced with her in the moonlit garden after her father said she was too young to attend the annual harvest ball. And she truly loved him at fifteen when he gave her a first kiss in that same moonlit garden.

And at sixteen he’d told her he loved her too.

At seventeen he’d asked her father for her hand in marriage.

She’d loved him at eighteen when he told her she had to wait while he went to war. And a year later when he returned missing half a leg—and more.

It hadn’t mattered. He was the only man in the world for her.

At nineteen Louisa married him and promised to love him until death did them part.

And she’d kept her word, until at twenty-four it did.

All of which explained why, at twenty-six, she stood outside the brothel her husband had frequented throughout their marriage—at least it explained it to her. And that was all that mattered.

Louisa glanced down at her glove-clothed hands and wondered if they’d stop shaking. She tightened her hands into fists and then relaxed them, trying to calm the jittering muscles. Her mother had taught her the trick, but it didn’t seem to be working right at the moment.

She stared up at the heavy wood door. The paint was so bright a red that it stood out from quite a distance, marking it for all who sought entrance. When Madame Rouge had agreed to see her, she’d offered to meet Louisa someplace far more discreet. Louisa had refused; if she was going to be brave about this, she needed to start now.

Which didn’t mean she needed to be foolish. Pulling the heavy dark veil forward over her face, she tried to find her courage. It was necessary that she do this.

There was no avoiding it.

And when that was the case, one faced it straight on no matter how hard and painful it threatened to be.

She could do it. She’d done it once before.

Only on that occasion Madame Rouge had refused to help her. She didn’t know what she’d do if that happened again.

She had to succeed. She must.

Once this one small thing was accomplished she could go on with her life, have a future. Until then . . .

Blast John for leaving her in this situation.

Only she couldn’t blame John. None of it had been his fault, and that was why she was here now.

Staring at her gloves, she willed the trembling to stop and, pulling her shoulders back, rapped hard upon the ruby-colored door.

***

Madame Rouge was not at all what one would have expected. Louisa was shocked again on this second encounter by how prim and almost proper the Madame appeared. Yes, her hair was an unlikely shade of crimson, her face lightly shaded with cosmetics, and her gown a trifle low, but in every other way she resembled a proper matron ready for afternoon tea—and, in fact, tea was the beverage on offer. Tea along with the most fabulous tray of pastries Louisa had ever seen.

Madame caught Louisa’s glance and laughed. “I am afraid I am much more used to serving men. Women will take a single cucumber sandwich and pretend that their appetites are satisfied. Men have no such problem. Once they have their first pastry they want another and another. The more exotic the better.”

Was Madame still talking about baked goods? Louisa could not be certain. And it didn’t matter. Not one bit. She was here for a practical matter—not because of any appetite. To prove this point, she almost refused the tray as the maid held it out. She didn’t need refreshment. She needed only . . .

And then she hesitated. Why not? Why not indulge herself in such a simple thing? Reaching forward, she chose the most fantastic of the tarts, something covered in a mound of white cream with a single candied cherry on top. She’d always had a weakness for cherries and it looked like this might be filled with them under the froth of cream. Lifting it to her mouth, she prepared to bite—oh dear, it looked exactly like a . . . How could she have not realized? Could she really put that in her mouth? Did Madame realize what the tart . . . ? Oh rubbish, of course she did.

Staring straight at Madame, Louisa tilted the tart so that she could flick the cherry off with her tongue, then bring it into her mouth to slowly savor. Oh my, it was heavenly, better than anything she could remember tasting before. Refusing to think, she bit into the side of the tart and let herself relish the sourness of the cherries combined with the delicate wonder of the heavy sweet cream. Was there lemon in it?

She took another bite, lost in the sensation and taste, and then she gulped, swallowing hard. Hastily she placed the tart on the small porcelain plate at her side. She coughed, trying to clear her throat—and her mind.

“I do wish you hadn’t stopped. I love watching a woman enjoy herself and Cook’s tarts are most exceptional, something to be appreciated.” Madame’s eyes were focused on Louisa’s lips, her eyes dark.

Did she have cream on her mouth? Her tongue darted out and then back. Seeing Madame’s gaze grow even more focused, she brought the tiny linen napkin to her mouth.

Madame laughed again, a deep, low chuckle. “John always did say that you had unexpected depth, and perhaps he was right.”

John had talked about her—here? The thought was horrifying. It had been bad enough to know that her husband came regularly to such a place; it was unbelievably mortifying to think that he might have discussed her. And Madame Rouge called him John? Louisa had always thought she was the only one with that privilege. Everyone called him Brookingston.

“John talked about me?”

“You were the most important thing in his life. It was why it was necessary for me to refuse to help with your last request. Your husband was a good man. He wanted only the best for you.”

“Mortified” did not begin to cover the feeling those words evoked. “Then why . . . ?” She could not finish the sentence. Her eyes fell to her lap to escape Madame’s knowing look.

“Then why did your husband not wish you to help with his needs? Why did I refuse to help you learn what he required?”

“Yes.” Louisa could barely hear her own answer.

Madame released a long sigh and lifted her delicate cup from the table. Louisa heard her sip at the tea but could not look up. Those two questions had tortured her for years, both during her marriage and after. Why could John not have let her be his wife in all ways? What had been wrong with her? Was she so unattractive? So undesirable to a man?

The cup rattled as Madame put it down. “Your husband loved you.”

“I know.” Finally Louisa looked up. “Then why . . .”

“He wanted only the best for you.”

Louisa had no answer for that. How could it have been the best for her that her husband came here instead of seeking out the marital bed—no, that was not quite fair. He had slept with her—but only slept. He’d even held her in his arms on lonely nights. But his hands had never strayed beyond the mildest of caresses.

“Do you know what happened to your husband in the war?” Madame’s voice surrounded her.

“Of course I do. He lost a leg, and most of his comrades. He had nightmares for years, until the day he died.”

Another loud sigh. “Did you ever see his wounds?”

An image filled Louisa’s mind of the long scar that had run down her husband’s chest, then dipped beneath the band of his trousers. And his leg. His poor leg. She’d seen his stump once, raw and swollen, but she’d never forgotten. “Yes. Of course. I was his wife.”

“I must be blunt. Did you ever see your husband without his trousers? Did you ever see him in the entirety?”

“I, uh, he chose to wear a nightshirt.”

“Did you ever see him in the bath or getting dressed?”

“No, John preferred that only his valet be present for such moments.”

“Did you ever wonder why?”

“I thought it was just the way things were. Certainly nobody but my maid has ever seen me . . . seen me without my clothes.” She knew she must be redder than a beet. A conversation such as this had never even entered her mind when she’d arranged this meeting, but perhaps it should have.

“Do you know what happens between men and women—know about marital relations, about mating, about sex?”

Had Madame really just used that word? Louisa must have heard it someplace before. She did know what it meant. But she could not imagine its actually passing a woman’s lips. “Yes.” She sounded hoarse. “I grew up in the country. The livestock are not always discreet. And my mother explained things before my wedding.” And hadn’t that been a conversation she’d hoped to never have again!

“John was not able to perform as most men—or as most livestock do. His wounds damaged more than his leg.”

“Oh, I see.” She bowed her head again, with embarrassment, but more at the pain of finally knowing this harsh truth about her dear husband. Why had John never talked to her, let her comfort him? She could only imagine how great his anguish must have been. She became even more determined to guard his secrets well.

“I see your distress, my lady, so let me gently tell you that your husband was capable of receiving pleasure, but not by any method that a lady would engage in. And he was not capable of fathering children. He could not come.”

“Could not ‘come’?” She might know the meaning of sex, but what did Madame mean by “come”?

Louisa looked up. “I am afraid I do not understand.”

“I hate ignorance.” Madame’s exclamation was loud and angry.

“I am sorry.” Could this get any worse? If she wasn’t careful she was going to cry, and that might be the most embarrassing thing of all—worse than any of this discussion.

“No, I am sorry, child. It is not you I am angry with, but society. But that is not a topic for this moment—or, indeed, ever.” Madame’s voice gentled. “A man comes when he reaches completion. Another word is ‘climax’—or ‘orgasm.’ No. You don’t know those either. Do you know that a man plants his seed within a woman and that is how children are conceived?”

Louisa nodded.

“And you know the parts of the body involved. The penis. The vagina.”

Louisa dropped her gaze again. How could Madame say these words? Louisa knew her mother certainly had not. “I know pe—the first one.”

She had a vague memory of her brother whispering that word to her when he’d been about eight and had learned it from a friend. He’d been soundly thrashed for saying it once too often.

“The vagina is the part of a woman’s body that a man puts his penis into. Perhaps you have heard it called a ‘cunny.’”

Oh dear. That term she had heard, but only from the rudest of laborers—when they did not know she could hear. All she could do was nod again.

“When a man’s seed leaves his penis he feels great pleasure. This is his climax. It is called ‘coming.’”

Louisa’s mouth made an Oh, but no sound left her lips.

“Your husband, John, was no longer capable of this, and therefore could not ever father children. I think it is important that you know that. He would never have deprived you of being a mother if it had been within his power.”

Another silent Oh. Her hand drifted down to rest upon her belly, to the child that had never been.

Her mind filled with questions, but she was incapable of uttering a single one.

Madame seemed to understand without the words. “You wish to know why he came here if he could not . . . did not release his seed.”

Another nod.

“He was still capable of feeling some pleasure, felt a man’s need for these feelings. My girls helped him with this.”

“But why . . . ?” Words burst from Louisa’s lips, but then became lost. “I would have . . . ,” she tried again, but without success.

“I know. I understood when you came to me before, but you must understand that this is not what your husband wished. Some men feel that wives are pure and should not be troubled with a man’s needs other than for the procreation of children.”

“But . . .”

“You are correct. Your husband was not such a man, but his feelings were not far from it. He was ashamed. Ashamed of both his body and what he needed done. He wished to keep you as the best, most perfect thing in his life. He felt his needs would sully you. He would never have wished that.”

“But I . . .” Louisa raised her eyes to stare straight at Madame. What did any of that matter? She had loved John enough to manage anything. “I did not care, do not care. I would have done whatever was needed to help him. Surely he knew that.”

“He did know.”

“Then what did he need done that I could not . . . that I could not do?”

Madame blinked. “I do not think that matters. He wished to keep it private during his life, and I don’t think he would wish me to betray him now. Do you?”

Louisa wished she could lie. “No. I do not.”

“But you are curious. So I will tell you it involved mouths and hands, and some degree of pain.”

“Pain?” How could John have wanted more pain? He’d often suffered it—fine lines of exertion had creased his noble face many mornings when he first tried to walk.

She wasn’t sure she could ever have hurt him. Perhaps that was why he had come here, because he’d known she would be incapable of causing him any physical pain?

“There are men who like pain—both to receive it and to cause it,” Madame replied. “John did not quite fit this category. Instead I think some of his nerves were damaged so greatly that it took intense feeling for him to react at all. Pain was the easiest way.”

Men who liked pain? Who could possibly like pain? Louisa wasn’t sure which was worse, the thought of receiving it or causing it. She didn’t even like to squash a bug. “He was that injured?”

“Yes.” Madame rose from her seat. “Now, perhaps if I have answered your questions as best I can and you have finished your tea”—Madame stared at Louisa’s empty cup—“then perhaps it is time for you to leave. Evening is approaching, and I do not think you wish to meet any of my guests.”

“But I didn’t come here just to ask questions.” Louisa jumped to her feet.

“You didn’t?” For the first time, surprise showed on Madame’s face.

“No. I came to ask you for help with a problem.”

“What kind of problem can you have? I understood John left you quite well off, despite the title’s going to his cousin.” Madame’s gaze took in every detail of Louisa’s gown and cloak, as if she was pricing each item in her mind.

This was the moment. “I wish to remarry,” Louisa said.

“And how do you need my help with this? I may be a matchmaker, but never for marriage, although I’ve often thought I’d have a knack for it.”

Louisa closed her eyes—and then opened them again. “I am a virgin widow—a laughable thing.”

The corners of Madame’s mouth twitched. “I must admit I had never believed they existed.”

Her cheeks growing ever hotter, Louisa continued. “As I have said, I wish to marry again. However, I cannot bear for anybody to think less of John. I do not yet have a specific man in mind. I want this taken care of before I meet someone and have any thoughts of feeling unfaithful.”

Madame’s face grew serious. “So what do you want me to do?”

“I want you to help me lose my virginity.”

 

Coming in July 2016

Angel in Scarlet

Sarah's Surrender

 

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