The Wicked Bargain by Gina Danna
Haunted by a past as a sex slave, nobleman Ethan Warth returns to England as a male courtesan for rich matrons and runs a brothel for wealthy lords. Arabella Covington appears on his door, trained in the medical arts but unable to practice because of her gender. He hires her to care for his ladies but her inquisitive nature and beauty make him desire to teach her the world of seduction.
Ethan, however, never counted on falling in love…
Ethan pulled the emerald out of his top dresser drawer and held it carefully. The tear-drop stone glittered in the firelight but it was cold to touch. His other hand grabbed the metal cuff it had been attached to those years ago. The dark heavy ankle band weighed slightly above one pound, a lighter version of the one that he wore initially, weighing over twice the poundage. Strange to recall the exact weights at this point but it’d meant a great deal at the time. He stared at the casing. The dark metal was smooth, its edges rounded to cause no marring with a loop at one end, where the emerald stone hung.
When troubled thoughts plagued him, he often found himself here, holding the very objects that had marked his soul deeply. There was an odd feeling of comfort doing this, one he couldn’t explain. The day had started so easy but rapidly changed.
Staring at the objects, his mind tumbled over the turn of events. He should have followed through and made the girl leave. This place was not for the good and pure. Sin poured out of the woodwork and corrupted the soul. Whatever persuaded him to relent? The answer angered him. She did. Those tears and her obvious terror tugged at some hidden part of him, compassion maybe? He’d laugh if that wasn’t so ironic. His compassion died tragically years ago in the sands. No, she ran from something. Or someone. He saw the fear in her eyes. But for her to remain was wrong.
Toying with the emerald, his thoughts of her turned to business at a more base level. What possible income could she add to his? She was rather plain looking. Oh, her blond hair was attractive, her sapphire blue eyes vivid. But she was too thin, her face angular and gaunt, sickly pale and, well, common. Her legs, hidden underneath the gown, must be long, he gathered, from her height, hopefully long enough to wrap around a man’s waist. No doubt her body lacked the padded curves to entice a man. Her breasts, if there were any hidden behind the bodice, probably absent any flesh to really hold. He grunted in disgust. It would take a lot of work to make her fit the style of one of his ladies.
What was he thinking? She was way too innocent and terrified in demeanor—obviously a sign she was not meant to fill the vacancies in his income. Besides, Edith sent her to him for her protection. He scoffed. As if that wasn’t a jest….Why did Edith send her to a male courtesan with the idea that he could present her to Society? And with no dowry to support her on the marriage mart, exactly what was he to do? Make her one of them and find her a wealthy protector?
That last thought, of a protector, brought his attention back to the anklet and jewel in his hands. His mind wandered beyond the problem of Arabella. Back to a time and place that was hard and demanding, a time of survival at all costs, even at the condemnation of one’s soul. Of a beautiful woman who owned his existence at the flip of her hand and of a life he destroyed. Oh, Zahrah….
“What are you doing?” Elizabeth stood in the doorway, watching him.
Her tone instantly snapped him back to today. He rolled his eyes. How did she always seem to know when melancholy of days past arrived? “Yes, Elizabeth, how may I help you?”
“You met her?”
He dropped the anklet and emerald back into the drawer and closed it.
“Yes.” He walked to his washstand and pulled his cravat off the towel rack. Looking into the mirror to tie it, his hands fumbled. He so hated the damn thing.
With a frustrated groan, she walked to him, turned him to face her and snatched the tie’s ends. “And what do you think, sweeting?” she asked, quickly manipulating the fabric into a knot and fluffing the ends appropriately.
“She has potential,” he commented drily. “If she were amenable, she could maybe earn a nice sum.”
“Yes, probably enough to finish your debts and rebuild your estate,” she concluded with a smile.
He stepped away from her, anger building within him. Gazing out his window at the mews behind the house, he saw his horse waiting for him. He so wanted to jump on his back and escape everything. He refocused. “You put her in that room last night.”
“She needed a place to sleep, Ethan.” She came up behind him. “I couldn’t turn her out.”
“But you didn’t tell her what type of house this is, did you?” The question was cold, flat and blatant. He knew what her answer would be and it only made the girl more damaged.
He shut his eyes. It was as if the walls closed in on him. “I followed your advice. I went out, arranged new interest for the girls, even a new contract for myself.”
“So I had thought,” he turned to her, his voice tense. “I had company, Elizabeth. I didn’t know I had to worry about the next room.”
“Ah, so she came to see,” she surmised, but the grin on her face showed she wasn’t the least bit perturbed at his anger. She laughed. “I fail to see why you are so upset. Being watched isn’t new to you.”
“That’s not the point,” he argued. She never saw this from the perspective of a female client. Jane might have turned furious and demanded a refund. He could not afford that. “It might have caused problems with the lady I was with, who thankfully didn’t appear to notice.”
“See, you haven’t lost your touch.” She smiled.
He threw his head back. “Elizabeth, ladies do not come here looking for ordinary work and find I only employ high priced courtesans. But you let her stay and if she stays much longer, she may have no choice in the matter but to become one herself. Her reputation may already be beyond any repair.”
“I’m sure you can help her,” she said soothingly, her hands back on his shoulders as she reached up behind him and kissed the side of his neck, her hands stroking down his back and over his hips. She tried to deflect his anger. “Come, sweeting, let us have one last time before I am committed to Clemson.”
He turned towards her and took her hands off him.
“I think not,” he said quietly, kissing her hands lightly.
She sighed. “You never seem to desire me any longer, sweeting.”
He looked into her eyes. “It is not that, my dear,” he commented quietly. “I just won’t because you’ve already signed the papers.”
“It has been years and I can’t help but worry.”
“Do not be upset,” he said. “I can’t.”
“You know, Zahrah’s no longer around. You won’t be caught. You’ve been freed now for two years.”
His smile disappeared, his past lashed out, memories back in full force he smothered as quickly as he could. “I know. Come. We have dinner with our new doctor.”
Arabella stood in her chambers, her thoughts a tumble of emotions, none of them comfortable. Her biggest one was fear. Had Jeremy made it to London? What if he lurked outside, waiting for her?
Another intruding thought was this house. Just what went on beyond those chamber doors?
One thing was certain. Her cousin, the Marquis, was not like any other man she knew. There appeared to be several women living here but she couldn’t tell if it was a boarding house. Plus last night, she heard from Ethan’s own mouth that he was in bed with another man’s wife and that was more than she could take. She wanted to run from the house but go where? Her lack of funds would not take her far and she could never return home. The combination of confusion, fear and panic had her pacing around the room, her mind on the scene from last night and of the marquis being in here but few minutes ago, all congenial and handsome. His refusal to let her stay followed by a reluctant change of heart made her more irritated, restlessness and anxious. If she didn’t do something, she might go insane. She swung the door open and marched quickly down the hall to Mary’s room.
Knocking at the door, Arabella heard Mary’s response and opened the door.
Mary spun in her bronze evening gown. “What do you think?” the girl asked, a whimsical smile on her face.
The dress was stunning. Its underskirt of a copper colored watered silk was the perfect match to a diaphanous gold overskirt trimmed with decorated braiding at the neckline and capped sleeves.
“It’s beautiful.” Arabella stood in awe. The girl looked so young and full of life. The bulge of her condition only slightly visible when she ran her hand over her belly. Nothing of last night’s trauma showed. She stopped and gave a slight curtsy.
“Thank you,” she said. “Robert will love it!”
“Yes.” She looked at Arabella quizzically. “Oh, yes, well, Robert is my….” She ran her hand over the skirted bulge.
“Ah, your husband, or soon to be.”
A peel of laughter came as she shook her head.
Arabella frowned. She may be from the country, but children born out of wedlock anywhere were bastards, a permanent stain. Surely, the Marquis would demand this Robert make her his wife. “But he will be, right?”
Mary’s eyes slanted, crinkling with amusement. “You’re new. Please forgive me.”
“What does that have to do with your condition?”
Mary fidgeted with her overskirt, avoiding her gaze.
“Mary,” she asked quietly. “Why won’t you answer me?” Fear crept into her voice before she could prevent it.
“They didn’t tell you?” Mary broke into a giggle.
“I fail to see the humor in this,” Arabella stated flatly. She wanted answers. The vision of the naked Marquis on the bed once more came to mind. Drat, why did it always pop up like that?
Mary controlled her giggles as she walked to her dresser and pulled out her jewelry box. Glancing at Arabella, she opened the box and grabbed a pair of earbobs.
“I laughed too at first.” She pushed the wire through her earlobe. “To be trained by Ethan and make the sort of blunt seemed too good to be true, especially for a girl like me. But Ethan claimed he saw in me a spark that’d light his nabob friends on fire.” She sighed, connecting the second earbob closure till both glass orbs hung from her ears.
Arabella furrowed her brows. Blunt and nabobs she understood but she had yet to see what work was involved. Only thing she did know was the young woman in front of her, probably barely old enough to know better, at eighteen or nineteen, was increasing, unmarried and pleased to dress for an evening out with the guilty party. This was what London did to a woman? Made her forget her upbringing? Even the country folk knew that a woman’s virtue was to remain until marriage.
There were few ways for women to earn money but none brought any riches. Except one and it was called prostitution, a courtesan to be exact. One who serviced the nobility. Arabella’s mind stumbled over the thought. Was she in a brothel? What would the Marquis be doing, living in a place of ill-repute? Why would her aunt send her here? Granted, Aunt Edith told her to come here as a last resort, but she couldn’t believe her aunt wanted her to sell her body. Heavens, that was what her cousin wanted her to do and why she fled him. Arabella shuddered, fear coiling inside her.
The snap of a necklace closure grabbed Arabella’s attention back to the girl. Mary was still talking.
“He will train you to be the best but you’ll never have him. He remains…,” Mary paused. “Alone. So don’t be disappointed. All of us have been there.”
Arabella frowned. The girl lost her. She opened her mouth to ask what training when the girl grabbed her hand. “Come on! We’ll be late and Ethan hates when you’re late!”
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Gina Danna has spent the better part of her life reading. History has been her love and she spent numerous hours devouring historical romance stories, dreaming of writing one of her own. Years later, after receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in History, writing academic research papers and writing for museum programs and events, she finally found the time to write her own stories of historical romantic fiction.
Now, under the supervision of her three dogs and three cats, she writes amid a library of research books, with her only true break away is to spend time with her other life long dream – her Arabian horse – with him, her muse can play.
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