“So, in exchange for your continued protection, I’m to become your mistress?” Viola smiled in spite of herself. Lord Leonidas had certainly found an original way of framing his proposal. He’d launched into it mere moments after the runner had left them.
Her savior shook his head, mad eyes dancing beneath long lashes. “No. In exchange for both continued physical protection, and my letting it be known in certain quarters that you are under such, you’ll become my lover.”
“The term you choose makes no difference, my lord. The end result is the same.”
“Oh, no, Mrs. Whedon. It’s not the same thing at all.”
Viola let out an unsteady breath. The hint of a growl in his voice set her nerves on edge, and made her nipples tighten until they pressed uncomfortably against the stiff wall of her stays.
She wanted this man, much as she hated to admit it. Wanted him badly enough to consider breaking every rule she’d ever made for herself. And that was all the more reason to resist the impulse. The last time she’d felt this way, it had been disastrous.
“No?” Her voice came out embarrassingly weak, almost breathy. She swallowed and balled up the hand he couldn’t see until her nails bit into her palm.
Calm. Serene. Unflappable. That was what she was famous for being; what gave her the allure of being unobtainable. Calm, serene . . .
“No.” He smiled and abandoned his post by the cold grate to claim the chair across from her. His long legs stretched across the small space between them, boots nearly tangling in her skirts. Viola drew her feet back and tucked them under her chair. He grinned, clearly aware of her withdrawal.
“A lover, Mrs. Whedon, puts his partner’s pleasure first. Or rather, her pleasure is his pleasure.” He leaned forward, close enough for the scent of bay rum, warm skin, and sun-dried linen to wash over her. Her mouth watered, forcing her to swallow. One corner of his mouth kicked up as though he knew. “Just as his, is hers.”
Viola settled back into the embrace of her chair, moving away from the dizzying scent of him. She traced the bargello work with a nail, eyes on the intricate needlework that covered the chair rather than on Vaughn. “Her protector’s pleasure is always a mistress’s—”
“Exactly my point, ma’am. When has your pleasure ever been the first and most important concern of either person in your bed?”
Her eyes snapped up, riveted to him.
Never. At least not since Stephen died and perhaps not even then . . . She pushed the memory away. Men paid for their pleasure to be the only concern. That was the whole point. Whether wife or mistress, a woman’s pleasure was of little import.
A bubble of panic clawed its way up her chest and lodged beneath her heart, making it nearly impossible to breathe. To suggest that there was some mythical third option of lover made her want to slap him, but it also sparked a wild desire for him to prove what he said. Her lamentable curiosity was going to get her into trouble yet again. At least this time, she had no reputation to lose. No family to embarrass or disappoint.
“So, in exchange for being allowed to put my pleasure first, you’ll slay all my dragons.” She did her best to be dismissive, to make his proposal sound as ridiculous as it was.
Lord Leonidas chuckled, a low, throaty sound that curled around her. “In exchange for being allowed to attempt to pleasure you, I’ll slay any damn thing you like.”
Viola sucked in a breath. His blue eye was steady, sincere, but the green one held a hint of mischief. That was the eye to watch, the one that gave away his secrets. It wasn’t as simple as he made it out to be, but she’d be damned if she could fathom what his real motivation was. A bet perhaps? The challenge of climbing into bed with the most infamous whore in England without so much as tuppance changing hands?
“In fact, I propose to seduce you in stages, my dear. To make you beg for each and every intimacy.”
“Beg?” A thrill coursed through her as her last shred of dignity evaporated. Her hands and feet began to tingle as heat pooled in her belly. The air between them crackled with tension, lust recognizing lust. What sort of man bothered to seduce a woman whose bed others had merely paid to enter? How badly did she really want to find out?
“Beg,” he echoed with a conviction that unnerved her.
The muscles in his thighs bunched as he rose, straining the seams of his breeches. His large, square hands smoothed his coat into place, the subtle, striped silk sliding across his chest to mask the magnificent waistcoat beneath. Viola sucked in her bottom lip and caught it between her teeth, resisting the sudden urge to touch him—unable not to imagine those hands touching her.
If she clung to almost gaudy waistcoat, crushed the embroidered panels with both hands, would he carry her to the chaise? Or would he simply sink with her to the silk carpet beneath their feet?
How long had it been now since a man had touched her? Could it really be almost a year? And how much longer than that had it been since she’d had a man with any real skill in her bed? Years? Forever? Never? The ones worth bedding were never the ones who could afford to keep her.
It simply didn’t bear thinking about. A sudden wave of regret flooded through her. This wasn’t the life she was supposed to be living . . . not the one she’d been raised to expect nor the one she’d dreamt of as a girl. Not even close.
Lord Leonidas circled around the back of her chair and leaned over her. “But for now, Mrs. Whedon,” his breath washed over her ear, and she shivered, “I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you to your afternoon.” He inched closer, until she could feel the slight abrasion of his cheek against hers, until the scent of bay rum flooded every pore. “You might indulge me and spend it imagining just what I might do, if allowed to touch you only below the knee, to induce you to beg me to touch your thigh.”
And then he was gone, boot heels sounding smartly on the wooden floors of her hall, leaving her alone in her boudoir, flushed with anger and quaking with need. All she could think about was those long-fingered hands sliding up her calf . . . The bastard.