Reed jumped to his feet, relieved. Listening to this stuff was one of his least favorite chores, but it helped keep Clermont calm and more malleable.
When the bellboy announced a lady awaited them, Clermont pulled the cigar from his mouth. “Wonderful. I’ll be ready in—”
Reed interrupted the bright-eyed Clermont. “Escort her to the ladies’ parlor, please.” Reed handed the boy a random American coin. “I’ll meet her there in a few minutes.”
He closed the door and glared at Clermont, who lay on the bed, his handwritten pages in one hand, the fat cigar between the fingers of the other.
“We agreed you will not entertain here,” he said.
“I can’t help it if the ladies come after me.” Clermont took a big puff of the cigar, and ash spilled onto his chest. “You’ll just pay the staff a little extra, and I can at last employ my staff in more pleasant surroundings.”
“No, Clermont. The rules aren’t going to change just because we’re not in London.” Reed picked up the list of ships heading back to England and waved it in his usual unspoken threat of handing in his notice.
Clermont swung his legs off the bed. “Laddie, I am sad we aren’t getting along lately.”
“You’re sad that the more responsible members of your family will probably send the law after you if I scarper.”
“Not at all, but I know they’ll ship someone even less fit and able than my old friend Reed.”
“God bless the man your family sends. He’ll need God on his side.” Reed pulled out a watch and slumped down into a chair. “Is the female downstairs a professional? Because they warned me again at the front desk—this is a respectable establishment. If any more ladies of the night show up asking for you—”
“I tell you, I hadn’t made any plans. Now I might. I’ll nip down and take a good look at her.” He rubbed his hands together.
“No. I’ll nip down and send her on her way. You push the limits of my patience.”
Clermont still wore that vapid smile that meant he wasn’t thinking about anything other than plowing into whichever female waited for him downstairs.
Reed tried again. “You said you wanted to go to the Lotus House tonight. Save your strength for that.”
Clermont flopped back down and stubbed out the cigar on the bedside table. “Very well.”
Reed examined the man lounging on the bed. He’d learned Clermont’s mannerisms well enough to know when the man planned to escape his keeper, and this wasn’t one of those times. Apparently the reminder of the Lotus House had worked.
One of the older siblings in a large family, Reed knew how to manage small children, and Clermont’s personality rather resembled a toddler’s. One could take away his toys far more easily if one dangled the promise of another treat in front of him. Keep him busy, and he’d stay out of trouble. What a pity Clermont wasn’t a small child instead of a strong, reasonably good-looking, too-wealthy, unbridled idiot.
Reed picked up his wallet and hat. If necessary, he’d escort the woman from the premises, perhaps pay her cab fare—or even more. He had grown weary of Clermont and most of his ladies, but occasionally the female who’d hunted down the rich Englishman was desperate and hungry.
God knew he wasn’t a puritanical soul—or hadn’t been until he’d held this job for several weeks—but it gave Reed positive pleasure to give such a woman a hefty sum from Clermont’s purse as he informed her she needn’t use her body to earn her living for at least a few days.
He avoided the creaking elevator and used the stairs all the way to the first floor. The bellboy asked him to wait in a semiprivate lounge while he fetched the lady.
“Who is this lady?”
“Dunno.” The bellboy pushed away the strap to his cap and absently scratched at a red mark on his chin. “Didn’t give a name. I swear it, Cap’n. Said it was personal business.”
Confirmation that she was up to no good.
Reed settled himself in a chair and waited. The last one who’d shown up at the hotel had tried to seduce him, and despite months of celibacy, he’d said no without much regret.
There was only one female who’d appealed to him lately. She’d drawn him with her full, expressive mouth, the delicious curves of her figure, but he’d grown too accustomed to that sort of appeal—Clermont would only visit sexually arousing women. The difference was he’d also decided he liked her. He’d had a chance to watch her rebuff Clermont more than once during their long visit. Miss Ambermere wouldn’t fall into Clermont’s arms, thank goodness.
When they went to call on her, he’d supposed they’d visited her for the usual reasons.
During their calls upon most independent females, Reed’s job was to remain as invisible as possible while making certain the lady truly wanted Clermont. He was to allow Clermont and his choice to conduct their “flirtation” and eventually, discreetly disappear. That was the usual procedure.
By God, this lady had more in her mind than cocks and innuendos.
He’d forgotten how much he enjoyed the company of females. She’d talked of New York and England, and she’d made him want to laugh when she’d tried to drive them out of her parlor.
Clermont’s conversation and diary reduced each woman to a series of curves and hot, wet holes of mouths, vaginas, and arseholes. During their visit with Miss Ambermere, he’d realized how pleasant it was to remember they were humans. Miss Ambermere was a person and, even better, never the sort who’d come calling for Clermont in his hotel, looking for mindless pleasure.
Oh, dear God.
Miss Ambermere stood in the doorway, squeezing her hands together, obviously nervous.
His heart sank even as he rose to his feet, determined to be polite. He’d simply ignore the nearly overwhelming urge to grab her, shake her, and shout in her face.
She smiled at him. He managed to speak. His lips felt stiff. “I am sorry, but I cannot allow you to visit our rooms.”
Her delicate eyebrows rose. She seemed on the verge of an angry retort when he blurted, “Miss Ambermere. You are a—” He stopped himself in time. He was an employee hired to keep Clermont from despoiling innocents and harming women who cared about their good names. But if a rich idiot of a girl wanted to operate in the same hedonistic manner, it was none of his business. Even if the thought of Clermont and this woman together filled him with nausea.
“What is the matter?” she asked as he led her out into the corridor.
“Nothing at all.” He tried not to sneer. “If you are fully cognizant of your…your interest in Mr. Clermont, I will send word to him. I ask that you go to your own house rather than—”
“Mr. Reed. I don’t understand you. And why are you looking at me as if I’ve broken out in some sort of horrible rash? I’m aware you are prone to moodiness, but I don’t think I deserve to be glared at.”
“I beg your pardon.” He bowed, determined to remain as professional as he could. He had nothing else to cling to at the moment. “You’re absolutely correct. Should I have Mr. Clermont paged?”
“No, you’ll do.” She reached up to adjust her hat. The way she lifted her arms—a deliberately seductive motion, so much more effective than the more obvious motions he’d seen other women employ.
“I-I am not available.” He found the words surprisingly difficult to speak. She might be a reckless fool, but she was still amusing, had a mind. And her body—oh Lord. He’d seen so many naked female bodies in the last year, but still longed to see this one unclothed. His cock stirred at the thought. All right, if she had such hungers, why couldn’t he be the one to assuage them?
“You’re not available?” She frowned, disappointed.
He opened his mouth to say he’d changed his mind, that he’d go with her to her house and her bedroom—any place she named—when she continued. “But my lawyer said you had also expressed an interest in the, ah, substance I’ve inherited.”
Lord in heaven.
The substance. He’d forgotten she was Lord Williamsford’s heir.
Reed had been dealing with the dithering lawyer, Mr. Dorsey, and had entirely forgotten she owned the object Clermont was after. This was the power of a man’s sexual drive—it destroyed his brain.
He attempted a smile as he gabbled, “Oh. Yes, of course. You’re correct. I can help you.”
He grasped her elbow and moved her aside before two men walking side by side bowled her over.
Fresh air would help him regain his senses, he prayed. “It seems unusually crowded today in the public areas.” He still sounded too tense, so he inhaled deeply, caught a whiff of her already familiar perfume, subtle and clean, with the sharpness of citrus and only a hint of sweetness, rather like her manner. He tried another smile. “Shall we go for a walk?”
“That’s a wonderful idea.”
He glanced around the crowded foyer. “Do you have a maid?”
“I have one, yes, and she waits in the carriage.”
“Despite your peculiar manner, I’m not afraid of an attack.” She let him steer her around a group of ladies gathered near a palm tree. “I didn’t want her to listen to the conversation. And to be frank, we are less fearful for unmarried ladies on this side of the ocean.”
“Which is why you chose to live here?”
“One of the reasons. But I imagine even in England I’d at last be able to walk with a man without worrying about my reputation.”
“What do you mean ‘at last’?”
“I’m closer to thirty than twenty, Mr. Reed. At a certain age, a spinster must be allowed some freedoms a young girl wouldn’t dare. But never mind that. Now your manner has changed again. You are so very changeable, like the wind off the East River. What made you go from starchy to human, I wonder?” They paused to wait for several families to pass.
She looked at him, her brow furrowed. “I can’t imagine why you’d grow upset just because I came to call. Unless you thought I wanted something, but what could…?” She gasped as comprehension filled her eyes and made her turn red. In a choked voice, she said something about yet another Cousin Johnny.
He tried to look innocently confused, but she must have seen the truth.
“Oh. No. Oh indeed.” She covered her mouth. “You thought I wished to see Mr. Clermont…” Her voice stumbled. “And then you thought I would take you for, well, in h-his stead.” She pressed the tips of her gloved fingers to her lips.
“Miss Ambermere. Please. Allow me to apologize for making such a dreadful error. Please excuse me for such—You’re laughing?”
“But I insulted you. I hope you will forgive me for supposing you to be that sort of woman.”
She wiped her eyes carefully. “And now your attitude reminds me of my papa.” The way she said it made it clear she didn’t think much of her father. “But if you are going to be all stiff and formal, maybe I should talk with Mr. Clermont. I’d rather take a leering male over one who judges.”
“I swear to do neither.” He pressed his palm over his heart. “Please, let us start again.”
He held out his hand. “How are you today, Miss Ambermere? Well, I hope? Isn’t the weather fine on this lovely spring day?”
She smiled and held out her hand too.
Good, he thought as he shook it. Both of them were wearing gloves. Not like that one time. He’d been taken unawares by her touch. After months of naked limbs and moaning, it was amazing that a small hand taking a firm grasp of his had roused and riled him.
She smoothed her skirts and adjusted the fluffy confection of her hat into place again. “The weather is lovely, and what a good idea to go for a walk. We can stroll down Fifth Avenue and watch the ladies shop. And you can be honest with me, because I am in sore need of advice, sir.”
“The, ah, chemical that Clermont wants,” he guessed.
“Yes. Why are you making an offer to buy it?” Her pretty mouth twisted. “You do know that Mr. Clermont has made a separate bid? Why would you work against him?”
He didn’t usually reveal the truth. Clermont was a bounder, but he’d promised not to spread the word far and wide. “It’s difficult to explain,” he said, and didn’t.
“Do you have private reasons for wanting the powder for yourself? What would you do with it?” She straightened her shoulders. “I do apologize for my impertinence, but it is an important question.”
He liked her straightforward manner, but the question struck him as silly. This was just a box of powder. He laughed. “Absolutely nothing. I think I’m to dispose of the substance. Pour it into the river, I suppose. I am acting as an agent for someone else.” Several someone elses, actually. The solicitor who’d hired him had said that Clermont’s mother, aunt, and uncle would pay his fees. The very wealthy family was willing to pay all sorts of outrageous costs.
“I don’t understand. You don’t believe the vial of powder is real?”
“Oh, I’m sure it would influence a man like Clermont. He’d inhale some or drink it and become as inflamed as a, ah, satyr. But it would be in his mind.”
She suddenly looked weary. “You would be wrong, Mr. Reed. There is real power in the vial. It exercises a strong and terrible influence. I’ve witnessed it.”
He remained silent, hoping she’d tell him what had happened to her. No matter that a lady—and she was most definitely a lady—would never describe such animal appetites. For once he wanted to hear someone describe the effects of lust. Unable to bear the suspense, he asked, “Did something happen to you?”
She shook her head. “Not to me. But you must believe me when I say the chemical in the vial has a real effect. I have no intention of selling it to you or your friend.”
He gave an abridged bow. “As long as I keep it out of the hands of other people, I’ll have done my job.”
“Your job. What a curious thing to say.”
“Yes,” he agreed. He had the strongest urge to tell her the truth, just in case Clermont had managed to arouse any of her interest. Don’t let him touch you, he wanted to warn her. Let me.
She looked anxious. “If you don’t believe in the substance, then you’ll be of no help to me. I need to know how to get rid of it safely.”
He shrugged. “Burn it? Bury it?”
“I think it needs to be destroyed, but burning it might be disastrous.”
She twisted her hands together and chewed her lip. “Perhaps I should ask some professionals. Chemists.”
“Yes, take it to one of them. There must be one on every other street corner.”
“No, I mean specialists, not just a pharmacy, as they call it here. It’s terribly important that I find someone who wouldn’t attempt to use it for his own gain.”
He knew she’d grow angry or skittish if he again hinted that she was under the influence of nonsensical fears. Easy enough to help. “My duties here don’t require all my time. I would be glad to help you.”
She smiled and her shoulders visibly relaxed, but the smile faded almost at once. “I don’t want to give you the powder. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”
He waited for her to finish the sentence, but she only pressed her lips tight. He reassured her. “I understand and will only seek out information. I’ve worked as an investigator in England for private parties. Certainly I can undertake a simple search like this—locating a reputable scientist, correct?”
“You? An investigator? What are you doing here?”
“I made the mistake of taking on what I thought would be an easy assignment,” he said drily, “and ended up being dragged across the ocean.”
“I suppose it’s very secret, this assignment?” She made a show of looking left and right to make sure no one in the indifferent crowds around them listened. “And you don’t dare allow me a single hint?”
He actually enjoyed her mild mockery of him, but he wasn’t going to answer her questions. “Yes, and no, I don’t.”
She burst into laughter. “You do enjoy putting me in my place, Mr. Reed.”
“Not at all. I might accuse you of the same thing.” They stopped at a corner and waited a long few minutes for the busy traffic to pass before attempting to cross the street. “Don’t you recall what you said when we called upon you the other day?”
“I did so much talking that day. Someone had to fill the silence.”
“Toward the end of our visit you asked me which I disliked, parlors or ladies. I suspect you were only trying to needle me and perhaps convince us to leave.”
She blushed. “I beg your pardon. I had forgotten that. But I know I have a reputation as a plain-speaking shrew.”
“No doubt you carefully maintain it to keep strange gentlemen and fortune seekers from your door.”
An impatient driver of a dray cart snapped a whip, causing his horse to take the corner too sharply.
She deftly retreated, bumping against Reed hard enough that he had to catch her around the waist so she might not fall. His hip was against her side, and for less than a second, he allowed himself the enjoyment of holding her, discerning the slender form under his hand before she straightened.
“You’re used to this city,” he said.
“I think I’ve lived in New York too long. I would have made a dash across the street, but I don’t want to show a visitor to our country what sort of language drivers use when annoyed.”
“Do you believe they’re worse than London drivers?”
She smiled up at him. Her face glowed with amusement, and his chest grew tight as their eyes met and held. “Oh yes,” she said. “They are far more impatient.”
One of the ubiquitous two-wheeled carts slid over the cobblestones and onto the curb, so they had to back up again, but when the plodding old cab horse was far enough away, they could cross without running.
“Dancing with traffic,” she said and slowed to take his proffered arm. He wanted to pull her close, but was content with her arm crooked through his.
Even this shared light touch was enough to distract him and make him fall silent, though she still chattered on easily enough. “I don’t think we’ll have to face another street. There are plenty of attractions on this single block to afford us a half hour’s entertainment. The windows of the stores are enough.”
They stopped in front of a shop window where live models moved as if time had slowed through a tableau of friends meeting in a park. The scene was only slightly marred when one of the girls dropped her fringed parasol.
He didn’t watch the window but kept his attention on Miss Ambermere and tried to think of ways he might make her smile at him. She had so many kinds of smiles—astonished, playful, knowing. And she wasn’t afraid of using her expressive face. He remembered that playful look of horror he’d seen her direct to her companion that day.
“Why are you grinning?” She let go of his arm to walk closer to a display.
“I’m, ah… Oh. I wasn’t aware I was.” He wasn’t terrible at flirtation, but with Miss Ambermere, he realized he felt as awkward as a boy fresh from school, encountering a female in public. She leaned over and began a conversation with a small girl pointing into the window. He missed her presence next to him.
Good God. He was worse than a young boy—more entirely, blunderingly blind, at any rate.
He hadn’t even recognized he’d developed what he’d heard an American call a crush. Not the sort they’d just left behind in the corridors of the hotel. He felt passionately drawn to this woman.
Granted, he’d rather use his mind for something other than male-female interactions, but this attraction to her was more interesting than the tedious automatic arousal he felt when escorting Clermont to the various dens of flesh and corruption. Although yes, that sort of activity he wanted with her. He was enveloped by the sudden and fierce desire he’d managed to control for months. He longed to watch her air of competent dignity turn into something wild. Not to defeat her, but to see that mouth open wide in a cry of pleasure would be so sweet. The same sort of scene he’d witnessed far too often, except this time he’d be the cause of that glazed passion in her eyes.
Not a chance in hell or heaven he’d act on it. Not with a lady like her. Slaking hunger for momentary satisfaction made him no better than Clermont. That left only a longer, stronger connection, but he had no interest in finding a partner for life, not after that disaster with Lily. Should he ever seek a wife again, she’d be a woman from his own class. The daughter of a clergyman or a professor, perhaps. Even Lily, the squire’s daughter, had considered her position in life too lofty for the likes of him.
“You’re glowering now.” She had returned to his side. “And I can see by the reflection in the window that you’re looking at me. Should I have been introduced to that little girl before speaking to her? Do I have a smudge on my cheek?”
“Oh no. Of course not. I beg your pardon,” he said. “I ought to return to the hotel. Mr. Clermont will be expecting me.”
He didn’t dare leave the idiot to his own devices for more than half an hour, but this evening he’d be occupied for at least four hours at the Lotus House. “Shall I call at your home at seven?”
“Yes, please. You’ll have names for me then, I hope? It’s vitally important that we find someone—a scientist—who can help me deal with this.”
He probably wouldn’t have names, but it would give him an excuse to spend time with her. Perhaps by then he’d have regained his equilibrium. After months of exposure to writhing naked bodies, he’d grown used to controlling his desires. He was not used to this sudden, intense yearning for a woman.