London, May 1818
How am I going to explain to a man I've paid that I do not actually want him to make love to me?"
Jane St. Giles, Lady Sherringham, asked the question of her image in the cheval mirror, but her reflection could provide no answers, obviously, that she could not think of herself.
So speaking aloud to it was quite pointless.
Groaning, Jane stalked around the brothel's bedchamber, biting her thumbnail, and dreading the knock that was soon to come.
She had come here searching for her best friend Delphina, Lady Treyworth. She had come for answers. She'd paid a veritable fortune for the services of one of the young men employed by Mrs. Brougham, the woman who ran this Georgian house on the fringe of Mayfair, known simply as the "The Club." But since it had been a ruse, she now had to convince the man to leave without touching her.
Would he be angry?
Would he come to her aroused? Fear coiled, tight and cold, around her heart. She knew—though she had never experienced it with her own late husband—a man could become belligerent when he was aroused and the woman refused to play.
With Sherringham, she'd never had the courage to refuse to play. She had always toed his line, terrified how brutal he would be if she pushed him too far. But he had now been dead for thirteen months, and she no longer had to endure the nights he came to her bedroom. She no longer had to fight to find the nerve to send him away, then despise herself when she couldn't.
Jane paced, hugging her chest.
Surely a large tip would soothe any ruffled . . . well, whatever might be ruffled on a randy young man. The man she'd hired had intimate relations for money, so wasn't money the most important thing? And there were dozens of society ladies in attendance. Any reasonably attractive, healthy, and erect young man wouldn't be frustrated for long.
Oh, dear God, she thought, and she took hold of one of the bedposts for support.
The ostentatious bed almost filled the entire room. Shackles of iron—lined with velvet—hung from the carved gilt bedposts. Jane's stomach roiled as she stared at the relief crafted on the posts: entwined serpents and something that might be a sword, or could be the male privy part.
She remembered the afternoon two months ago when her two dearest friends had told her their husbands brought them to this club. Despite the sun pouring into her morning room and the cheery promise of the early spring day, a shiver of dread had rippled down her spine. "But ladies do not join a gentleman's club," she had said slowly.
"This one, they do," Charlotte had breathed. Her eyes had been wide and in their cornflower blue depths, Jane had read surprising horror and shame.
"That is the novelty of this club," Del had explained, her voice as demure as if she were speaking of a successful rout. "The gentlemen bring their wives—in costume. Every Friday evening, the ladies are required to dress as nuns." Then her voice had lowered and her lashes had dropped. "I still have the marks on my derriere from the spankings with the crop."
Jane had felt her mouth form a soundless O of horror. She'd endured Sherringham's punishments with the flat of his hand, but he'd never dared touch her with a crop.
Now, she shuddered as she gazed around the bedchamber. Del, is this horrible club the reason that you've disappeared?
A sharp rap echoed on the door and Jane jolted so abruptly she stubbed her toe on the post. "Madam? May I enter?"
Her hired man possessed a seductive voice—low-timbered, not entirely cultured, but with a growling note that sent a shiver of fear . . . it must be fear . . . down her spine. What did it signify that he spoke so politely? Would the sort of prostitute who had an educated voice be easier to manage or more difficult?
"Y—yes," she answered shakily.
She had not even removed her cloak and she had chosen to wear her widow's weeds, with the veil lowered to shroud her face. But still, as the door opened, she turned her face so no one would see her, and waited with rigid shoulders for the door to click, the signal her male prostitute had shut it behind him.
While her husband had generally smelled of sweat, drink, and other women's perfume, this man was preceded by a combination of citrusy bergamot and sultry sandalwood. She certainly couldn't smell his perspiration, and oddly, he didn't smell as though he had come to her from another woman.
But really, that didn't matter. All she had to do was get rid of him. There was no reason to feel so unnerved. She'd survived a whole half hour so far in this wretched club, after all.
But before she could force herself to face him, he asked, "Is—is there something wrong, love?"
Concern laced his gentle voice, and there was a surprising vulnerability in his hesitation. Obviously he wasn't accustomed to a woman who looked as though she wanted to hide from him.
Jane glanced to the cheval mirror to see what he looked like, but the glass only reflected part of his side. She saw a large hand clad in a black leather glove, and a long, long leg in well-tailored trousers. A lean line of hip that vanished into a tailcoat, a glimpse of a very broad shoulder, and that was all.
Big. He was big and male. Panic flared in her chest and she struggled to breathe. He can't hurt you. Here you can scream. You can scream and bring help and he has no right to hurt you.
She must search inside to find greater strength. She'd vowed to herself that this time—finally—she would take action. How many times had she made that promise before, then taken the easy path, and slipped back into being a coward? And because she had been a coward, Delphina had disappeared. Del was in trouble.
"Turn around, love."
Grasping for that courage, Jane did. "I am so sorry, but—"
Her words—her very thought—died abruptly. The man stood by the wall and leaned against it in a lazy, relaxed way, and though several feet separated them, she had the sudden sense of the room shrinking in on her.
Shoulders—he had shoulders that seemed as wide as her legs were long. His legs, crossed casually at the ankles, stretched endlessly in front of her, and when her gaze followed them upward from the tip of his gleaming boots, the moment lasted a lifetime.
A black leather mask left his eyes a mystery, but beneath she saw he had not shaved—dark stubble ringed his square jaw. A scar forked down beneath the mask, another cut deeply into his chin.
But his lips quirked up in a kindly, sympathetic smile and deep dimples showed in his cheeks. He held out his hand in a coaxing sort of way—as though offering food to a timid deer. "It's all right, love. I won't hurt you. I'm at your command, after all. Your slave, so to speak."
At her command. The exact words to remind her that, for once, she had power here.
But, faced with him, she didn't feel powerful.
"You are in mourning?" He took a slow, easy step away from the wall toward her.
"No, no!" she said hurriedly and she scrambled, back until her legs trapped her skirts against the bed. And as her heart pattered wildly, she saw the perfect escape.
"I—I mean, my mourning year has not quite passed." She fluttered her hands—it was no stretch to act like a nervous woman who had changed her mind. "And the truth is, I—I was . . . lonely. So I thought I could . . . but I can't. Not with you. Not now."
He was so near she could see his eyes in the oval holes of the mask. Indigo blue eyes surrounded by abundant black lashes. The bed pushed back on her as she tried to retreat.
Another slow step brought him terrifyingly closer. Her heart thundered. He had not understood.
"I can't . . . use you tonight. I—I've changed my mind. I'll pay you . . . extra, if you want. In case you are disappointed—"
His eyes lit up with understanding. "So that's why you did not give your name."
What on earth did he mean? She did give a name. A false one.
Goodness, the way he tilted his head, the thick black hair, the shape of his mouth, the straight, attractive nose—why was it all so suddenly familiar?
Ridiculous. When would she have ever encountered a male prostitute in her daily life?
But she couldn't tear her gaze away from his mouth—his sensual lips were wide and generous. His lower lip was much larger, much fuller than his upper. Again, she felt as though she had stared at this mouth before. His skin was the color of clover honey, a sign he had spent much time under a hot sun.
Surprising for a man who earned his living in a bedroom—though perhaps he hadn't been doing it for very long.
His lips smiled again, smugly. He knew she was staring and he must think it meant she desired him, this large man who stood between her and the door.
A dull roaring began in her ears. He wasn't going to take no for an answer.
"I hope I have not frightened you, madam."
"No, no, you've done nothing wrong. You've been . . ." What should she say here? "Lovely. Yes, you have been so very . . . wonderful, and I hope you are not upset. I will pay you. You won't have wasted your time—"
Then he was there—right in front of her, filling her vision with a black tailcoat and a white embroidered vest.
"Of course I'm not upset. But if you don't want me, I understand." He bowed over her hand and lifted it so slowly to his lips that she forgot to breathe and her legs swayed beneath her.
"No." She jerked her hand back from her prostitute's mouth.
"Do I not please you, Lady Sherringham?"
"Stop. Stop!" She dragged her hand away, aware of a louder rushing sound in her ears. She had not given her real name. Mere moments before he had even said that himself.
"How do you know who I am?" she cried.
His expression revealed him then. She knew exactly why he had looked familiar and she was so startled that she tumbled backward onto the soft, deep bed, grasping at air as she fell. Her skirts flew up, her legs parted as she tumbled back and she slammed her elbow against the bedpost in her fall.
Shooting pain and humiliation changed her shock to anger as she lay back on the bed in a tangled heap. "You aren't my hired man! I recognize you now. You are Delphina's brother. You are Lord Wickham."
Known, for very good reason, as Lord Wicked.
How could he be here, in this revolting club that had destroyed Del?
"I am surprised you recognize me, Lady Sherringham."
Jane scrambled up on her elbows. She saw it now—she saw the handsome young rake of twenty in the masked face of this older man. He had been Christian Sutcliffe when she'd known him—his father had still been alive. Eight years had changed him. As well as the scars he now bore, his cheekbones were more prominent, his face more deeply lined. He was broader, tanned, and far more muscular.
"I suppose you would be surprised," she snapped, over the pounding of her heart. "After all, you've been away, on the Continent, in India, and the Far East. You have been everywhere but in England, where you could have helped your sister before she was forced to marry Lord Treyworth."
"And I remember you," he murmured, looking down on her. "The tartar."
Jane glared up at the dark blue eyes. But for the color, his eyes were just like Del's. "What are you doing here," she demanded, "in England and in this disgusting club?"
She dragged her legs closed as quicly as she could. Falling onto the bed. Of all the useless things for her to do.
She started as Wickham held out his black leather-clad hand to her. He didn't jump on her, as Sherringham would have done, and take advantage of the situation. He wore a bemused smile that barely reached his eyes as he helped her back on her feet. She had known Del's brother for three years before he'd left England and they'd never had a conversation that didn't include an argument.
A hundred questions raced through her mind, but oddly, she picked the most inconsequential to blurt out. "Where is the man I hired?"
Wickham's coal black eyebrows jerked up at that, above his mask. "Trussed up with his own selection of velvet ropes and stowed in a closet," he answered impatiently. "Now, Lady Sherringham, talk to me. What do you know of this club?"
His hand closed on hers, large, warm even through the supple leather.
"I'm not a member, if that's what you mean," she said. "And I asked you first—"
"Your husband did not bring you?" he continued, speaking over her indignation and cutting off her words.
"No, but I do know that Del's husband brought her. For over a year, Treyworth forced her to come here. She admitted to me that she was frightened of this place."
There—let him chew on that, the irresponsible wretch. He'd never once tried to help Del after he left England.
He lifted her with ease and Jane had to reach out and grasp his other arm to steady herself as he abruptly pulled her to her feet.
"If you believed Delphina was afraid of this place, Lady Sherringham, why did you come and hire a man for the night?"
"It wasn't for . . . for passion, if that's what you are thinking—which I am sure is all you've ever thought of." All her hopeless anger and fear was rushing to the surface now, making her tongue sharp and wicked. She jerked her hands from his and scurried around him, so she was the one closest to the door. "It was a ruse. I was stopped at the door and taken to Mrs. Brougham, so I told her I was a lonely and wealthy widow. She wouldn't let me enter unless I—I bought a man. Why did you tie him up in the closet?"
"To question you, Lady Sherringham."
"You were spying on me?"
"I'd gone to your house to talk to you about Del," he said. "You were leaving, obviously disguised, so I was intrigued enough to follow."
Excerpted from The Club by Sharon Page. Copyright © 2009 by Sharon Page. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.