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by Sabrina Jeffries
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Helena Laverick couldn’t help remembering that stricture as she surveyed the deserted hallway of the St. Giles lodging house. For she was about to break it most flagrantly.
Her sister Rosalind had always criticized their late mother’s favorite instruction book, "Mrs. Nunley’s Guide to Etiquette for Young Ladies." Rosalind’s philosophy was to follow Mrs. N’s rules when possible, but ignore them when they were impractical. Helena usually considered that a mere excuse for disregarding any checks to her outrageous behavior.
But in this case she had a point. Their young sister Juliet’s mad dash into trouble made it impossible for Helena not to break the rules. And by venturing into this strange lodging house, where rats scrabbled all around her and burning rushlights clogged the air with their scorched mutton scent, she was breaking quite a few.
"The Well-bred Young Lady does not take long trips alone"—she’d broken that one when she’d traveled alone to London from Warwickshire. Since Rosalind and her new husband, Griff Knighton, were honeymooning on the Continent and Papa was unable to leave his bed, someone had to handle this messy situation.
"The Well-bred Young Lady never ventures outdoors without her maid"—that one was laughable. The fewer servants involved in her secret mission, the better. Servants did have a tendency to talk.
Her grip tightened on her cane as she stared at the scarred oak door before her, the one that belonged to Mr. Daniel Brennan, her brother-in-law’s unmarried man of affairs. Now she was about to violate one of Mrs. N’s most serious strictures—"The Well-bred Young Lady does not call on a gentleman in his lodgings unchaperoned."
And certainly not at dawn. Why, Mr. Brennan’s own landlady had refused to risk his ire by rousing him so early.
A shiver ran down Helena’s spine as she remembered the last time she’d provoked Mr. Brennan’s ire, when he and Griff had been guests at Swan Park this past summer. Not that he’d had any right to be angry. He’d been the one in the wrong. He’d been the one shamelessly taking money from Griff for misleading them all, for pretending to court them while undoubtedly laughing at them behind their backs for believing his kindnesses and compliments . . .
No, she mustn’t think of that. All that mattered was saving Juliet. Which was why she must swallow her pride, rouse her courage, and awaken Mr. Brennan. And soon, too, because her bad leg pained her from the arduous climb up the steep stairs, and nothing would be more mortifying than having it give out in front of him. So before she could change her mind, she rapped sharply on the door.
At first she heard nothing. Merciful heavens, what if she had the wrong place? She’d wondered why Mr. Brennan would reside in a slum like St. Giles when he surely could afford better, but Griff’s coachman had insisted that the man lived here.
She knocked again, this time more loudly. Nothing. Might he refuse to answer? Panic seized her at the thought, so she rapped the silver head of her cane on the door repeatedly, loud enough to raise the dead.
Success at last. Through the thin walls, she heard heavy steps and a male voice growling, “I’m coming, devil take you!” If not for her mission, she might well have fled. Instead she braced herself for whatever might happen.
But nothing could prepare her for her first sight of the burly giant. Bare-chested, clad only in his drawers.
Struck speechless, she gaped at him. Despite what her sisters thought, she did have some curiosity about men, especially half-naked ones of such impressive dimensions. Mr. Brennan was a veritable Samson, with the muscular shoulders of a pugilist and the broad, sculpted chest of a laborer, thickly sprinkled with dark blond hair. As for those arms swathed in sinew . . . she could easily imagine them pulling down a temple.
Just now, however, the Samson was staring at her, perplexed. “Lady Helena?” He shook his head as if to clear it. “It is you, isn’t it?”
She kept her eyes trained on his face as a blush crept up her cheeks. “Good morning, Mr. Brennan. I’m sorry if I awakened you.” Not that there was any question of it—his tousled sandy hair and lack of attire confirmed it.
“Is everything all right at Swan Park? Your father is well?”
“Yes . . . no . . . I mean I . . .” Her lame attempt at coherent speech came crashing to a halt when he leaned one huge forearm against the doorframe, unwittingly causing all his muscles to shift and flex.
How in creation could a lady converse rationally when such a magnificent display of male flesh was before her? Despite his size, he hadn’t an inch of fat on him—no hint of unwanted flesh on the chest and arms, no telltale thickness about the waist. Not a woman above the age of fifteen could miss that Mr. Brennan in his drawers was a fine figure of a man.
“M’lady, are you well?” he queried.
Only when her head snapped up did she realize her gaze had wandered down to his bulging drawers. “Yes!” she cried, much too loudly, then added in a more subdued tone, “I’m fine. Quite well. Yes.”
He cocked an eyebrow, as if knowing precisely how much his appearance unnerved her. “Forgive my inappropriate dress, but I wasn’t expecting company at dawn.”
“No need to apologize. I hadn’t even noticed your draw— I mean, your dress— I mean, your lack of—” Heavens, she was being a complete ninny. She started again, futilely attempting to regain some shred of composure. “I hadn’t noticed a thing, I assure you.”
“Nothing?” His gray eyes danced with mischief. “D’you mean to wound my pride, Lady Helena?”
“Of course not! That is . . . well . . .”
“It’s all right.” He idly rubbed his hairy chest, and her gaze greedily fixed there. “Why don’t you tell me why you’re in London calling on me at such an ungodly hour?”
“Certainly.” She drew herself up, trying to recover her badly slipping ladylike demeanor. “You see, Mr. Brennan, I . . . er . . . require your assistance in a personal matter.”
“Require it, do you?” His eyes narrowed. “Has your ladyship not heard that I’m no longer in your brother-in-law’s employ? Although I’m running Knighton Trading until his return, I’m not his man of affairs anymore, so anything you want in that capacity—”
“No! It’s nothing to do with Griff. Not exactly.”
“Then p’raps you’d better tell me what it does have to do with.” He pushed away from the doorframe, looking impatient.
“You see, I—” She broke off when another lodger emerged from the stairs. As soon as the unkempt man skulked past and shuffled into his own room, she lowered her voice. “Please, Mr. Brennan, I must keep this conversation private. May I come in?”
A devilish smile touched his lips. “In here? With me? Isn’t your ladyship worried about your reputation? About being alone with a man of my reputation?”
Though he said it with a trace of sarcasm, his assumption was not entirely wrong. Mr. Brennan might be respectable these days, but he’d spent his youth with smugglers. The bastard son of a notorious highwayman, he was also known to live rather wildly—or so Rosalind said. And considering his scanty attire . . .
“I’d rather you put on some clothes, of course,” she ventured.
“And I’d rather return to my bed. So why don’t you go back to wherever you’re staying in London, and I’ll come ’round this afternoon. Then we can have all the private conversation you like.”
“No, no,” she protested, “I must speak to you now. It’s urgent.”
“Oh, Danny Bo-o-o-y,” a melodious voice suddenly sang out from the inner recesses of his rooms. “Don’t you want to see the nice surprise Sall’s got for you?”
Helena froze. Lord, this was worse than she’d feared. He had a woman with him.
Mr. Brennan groaned. “Go back to sleep, Sall,” he called out. “Be there in a bit.”
But apparently his companion wasn’t to be put off so easily. As Helena watched in horrified fascination, Sall emerged behind him. She was one of those women and fresh from his bedchamber, judging from her disheveled hair and brazen manner. Not to mention her state of undress, which exceeded Mr. Brennan’s.
For Sall wore no clothes at all.
Helena found it incomprehensible that a woman could prance about in broad daylight entirely unclothed. She’d never, ever done so herself, and certainly she’d never been in the presence of another woman doing it, not even her sisters. Though she’d sometimes secretly wished to paint the naked human form, she’d never pursued it, knowing that flagrant displays of the nude body were outrageous and shameful.
Apparently no one had informed Sall of that fact, for she strode boldly up to them. “H’lo.” Planting her hands on her lush hips, the woman scrutinized Helena from the top of her modest bonnet to the end of the cane she could never hide. “Didn’t know Danny called for more company. Haven’t seen you around, luv. You one of those demi-reps what’s kept by the gents? Here I been thinkin’ Danny Boy’s a gin man when all along he’s hankerin’ for champagne. What a lark.”
“Sall—” Daniel began in a warning tone, as Helena gaped speechlessly.
“It’s all right, Danny. I already know you like more than one tart sometimes, so just let the girl in. And if it’s that leg of hers making you balk, you can be sure it won’t make a bit of difference once we’re all rollin’ about—”
“Sall!” Mr. Brennan mercifully interrupted. “Before you go putting the lass in my bed, you should know that this is Griff’s sister-in-law, Lady Helena. And I doubt she’s here for the entertainment.”
A little gasp escaped Sall as she slid behind him and punched him in the back. “Then why did you let me rattle on like that to a proper la—” She suddenly burst into laughter. “Wait a minute—you’re shammin’ me, ain’t you? A lady comin’ to Buckeridge Street alone—you must think me a complete chucklehead!”
“I’m afraid, Miss . . . er . . . Sall,” Helena sputtered, “that Mr. Brennan is not ‘shamming’ you. I am indeed Mr. Knighton’s sister-in-law.”
As an awkward silence descended, she kept her eyes focused on a chair across the room, utterly incapable of meeting Mr. Brennan’s gaze. No doubt he found this ridiculous situation amusing.
Meanwhile, Sall’s words rang in her ears: "And if it’s that leg of hers making you balk . . ." As if there would be any question of it. She’d learned the hard way that her bad leg always made men balk. Mr. Brennan wouldn’t be any different.
“Sall, m’dear,” he told the woman gently, “why don’t you wait for me in the bedchamber? You’re making m’lady a mite nervous.”
“All right, but don’t be long, luv,” Sall responded without rancor, giving Helena a once-over that left her feeling utterly inadequate as a woman.
As Sall flounced back toward his bedchamber, hips wiggling, Helena felt a stab of envy. What would it be like to be the shameless woman waiting for Mr. Brennan in his bed, the one providing his “entertainment”?
Then she groaned. Whatever had given her such an indecent idea! She’d never in a million years wish to behave so scandalously. No, indeed. Never. Even if a man would want her in that way.
She forced herself to meet his gaze.
He was watching her with concern. “Please forgive Sall’s . . . er . . . brazenness. I’m afraid she isn’t used to seeing your sort around here.”
Which sort is that? she wanted to ask. The well-bred sort? Or the sort whose lameness renders her unable to jiggle her derriere in that provocative manner?
She swallowed down her dreadful envy of the woman and muttered, “No, I don’t imagine she is.”
“P’raps it’d be best if I called on your ladyship at a more acceptable location later. If you’d just leave your direction with my landlady—”
“No, please, I assure you that this matter cannot wait.” It galled her to have to beg him for help, but she had no choice. “I do not mean to intrude upon your—” Entertainment? Orgy? “I do not intend to keep you long, but if you’ll give me a few minutes, I’d appreciate it beyond words.”
She held her breath. He might be a libertine and God knows what else, but with Griff and Rosalind on the Continent, he was her best hope right now. Her only hope.
His gaze met hers, wary but clearly curious. He paused a moment longer, a moment that seemed like an eternity.
Then he released a sigh. “All right. Go downstairs and wait for me in the parlor. I’ll be there soon as I dress.”
Relief swamped her. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Brennan. I truly—”
“Go, before I change my mind,” he said gruffly. When she turned away, he added, “And tell my landlady I said to put the tea on. Looks like we’ll both be needing it.”
Tea. She nearly laughed aloud. After he heard her request, he’d want something a good deal stronger than tea, and she would not blame him. Indeed, if it would ensure his cooperation, she’d give him anything he wanted.
Excerpted from A Notorious Love by Sabrina Jeffries. Copyright © 2001 by Sabrina Jeffries. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.