The Husband Hunt
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Robert perched on the window ledge and peered cautiously inside, then frowned and peered more closely. The room at first appeared empty, but then he spotted the lump under the comforter. Lisa.
How could she sleep at a time like this? Good Lord. Muttering under his breath, he lowered himself to sit on the outer ledge and then tapped softly on the window. The sound was very faint. He didn't want to attract attention, but it was surely loud enough for Lisa to hear. The bed wasn't that far away. However, she didn't stir at all. He knocked again, a little louder, but when that still brought no result, he eased the window open, and climbed inside.
It was only as he reached the side of the bed that Robert realized the shape under the comforter wasn't quite right. He pulled back the thick blanket and then straightened with a curse when he saw the ripped and knotted sheets beneath. Returning the comforter, he straightened and moved quickly to the door. It was only when he found the knob wouldn't turn that he recalled Bet's claim that they'd been locked in.
Robert turned on a hissed curse and returned to the window. He was back out on the ledge with the window closed in little more than a moment, but then paused, unsure what to do. He could hardly just leave. He needed to get into the building and look for Lisa. He'd try another room, Robert decided, and then glanced first right and then left. The window on the left was the closer one. It was also the way he'd come, climbing up the trellis on the other side of it and moving across that ledge and then to this one. But the room had been occupied.
Not wanting to be spotted, Robert hadn't stuck around long enough to see who occupied it on his way by, but had shifted past the window as quickly as he could, barely catching a glimpse of what had appeared to be a woman in the room.
Unfortunately, the next window over on his right was farther away and he didn't think he'd reach it safely. He couldn't get Lisa out of this trouble if he was lying broken on the ground, so it was the first window he'd have to try, Robert acknowledged. He'd just have to hope that room was empty now or that the woman inside was of a friendly nature and wouldn't raise the alarm when he entered through the window . . . or that he could silence her before she did, he thought grimly. Money usually did the trick in such situations. He would have to check things out and decide from there, Robert supposed.
He sucked in a breath and clutched the edge of the window frame with one hand and stretched his other hand and one foot toward the next. It was a tricky business, and he barely reached, but barely was good enough. A moment later he was easing onto the first window ledge again with a little relieved sigh.
Robert took a moment to let his heartbeat slow down, then shifted on the ledge to peer into the room. A grimace covered his face when he saw that it wasn't empty now as he'd hoped. The woman was still there, a petite, blond and very curvaceous prostitute who stood by the bed, all ready for her first client of the evening.
Damn, she was wearing something that . . . well, she might as well not be wearing anything at all, Robert thought wryly as his eyes slid over her curves through the diaphanous gown. Mrs. Morgan had always had the best girls in town. He ought to know. He'd visited often enough over the years. Beautiful, curvaceous and talented women were what Morgan's was known for. He couldn't believe that Lord Madison had let the woman into his home and even served her tea, for God's sake. The fact that the man had let his unwed daughter spend any time with the woman was rather horrifying.
Of course, Lord Madison spent most of his time out in the country too, and probably hadn't had a clue the sort of woman he'd let into his manor. Still . . . Robert had to wonder how he'd missed hearing of the Madisons' acquaintance with this woman before now. Although, he supposed he shouldn't be surprised. He hadn't seen much of Lord Madison or Lisa since his father's death. In fact, he'd only seen them the once, those few short weeks when Lisa had been in London around the time of Suzette and Daniel's meeting and marrying. Truth be told, he'd been avoiding her to keep from encouraging the silly schoolroom crush he knew she had on him.
Robert cared for Lisa, just as he cared for Suzette and Christiana. But that was it and he had no desire to break her heart. It would make it uncomfortable to be around her sisters and their husbands and while he had always been close to Suzette and Christiana, he was even closer now. They and Daniel and Richard had become his closest friends these last two years.
His thoughts were distracted when the woman in the room turned slowly, her gaze moving to the window. Sure she couldn't see him through the gauzy curtain, he eyed her with interest. The girl reminded him of Lisa. Well, Lisa as she would look if not properly attired in her frilly pastel gowns and with her hair up in those fancy styles women in the ton tended to wear, he thought, his admiring gaze running over the girl's front now just as it had her back. She was a ripe little peach, all generous curves and shapely legs.
And her hair was a silken mass that framed her face and fell over her shoulders in a golden cascade. And what a face, he thought. It was heart-shaped with huge eyes and full, kissable lips.
Perhaps he should visit this little strumpet later in the evening after finding Lisa and getting her safely home. Well, if he managed to rescue her without getting caught or seen. Mrs. Morgan would hardly welcome his clientele if she found out - Robert's thoughts died, his eyes locking on the girl's face as she suddenly gave her head a shake as if trying to clear her head and ran her hands through her hair, pushing it back and up from her face.
"Damn," Robert breathed. Dear God, the alluringly dressed little strumpet was no strumpet at all. It was Lisa Madison!
For one moment, he simply stood gaping, his eyes again traveling over generous curves that her damned frilly gowns didn't normally reveal. But then he recalled that he was perched on a ledge outside a window gaping at and - if he were honest with himself - lusting after a damned near nude Lisa Madison . . . who was like a little sister to him.
Cursing, Robert squatted slightly to reach and open the window, and then leaned in, whispering, "Lisa."
The word was a bare hiss of sound, but enough to draw her head around. Her eyes widened when she saw him, and then rushed forward.
Robert couldn't help noticing that her breasts jiggled temptingly with each step, and her generous hips swayed. Damn, who knew she hid such a tempting little body under those voluminous gowns she wore? Richard and Daniel were right, Lisa was definitely all grown up. When the devil had that happened?
The question was lost to the corners of his mind when she reached the window, threw herself at him with a happy cry, and damned near sent him tumbling backward off the ledge.
Catching at the window frame, Robert managed to save himself, not to mention her, since she would have gone out with him. He then released one hand from the frame to wrap his arm around her. "Oh, Robert. Thank goodness. I knew you'd come," she mumbled into his neck and he frowned at the slight slur to her words.
"Have you been drinking?" he asked, pulling back slightly to try to see her face.
"Uh-huh." She nodded apologetically. "Mrs. Morgan made me drink this sort of spiced wine. I mean it tasted like wine but I know it had other stuff in it. She said it would relax me for what was to come. I think it was drugged like the tea. But not with a sleeping powder. With something else. It made me feel all soft and floaty." "Hmmm." He frowned, his gaze dropping down over the gown she wore. It didn't hide a damned thing, not the round globes of her breasts or the dusky pink of her nipples, which were presently erect, he noted and scowled. "What the hell are you wearing?"
"Mrs. Morgan made me wear it. She said my suitor would like me in this. Do you like me in this?" She glanced down at herself. "I like how it feels on my skin. It feels floaty."
He couldn't help noticing that the theme seemed to be floaty, and since she was swaying on her feet and not the least bit selfconscious about standing in front of him damned near naked, he suspected whatever Mrs. Morgan had given her was the culprit.
Robert blinked and forced his gaze from her nipples to her face.
"Do I what?"
"Do you like me in this?" Lisa asked with a frown. "Don't you think it's pretty?"
"I - " Robert found his gaze sliding down over her body again, drifting over and past her breasts, down across the soft swell of her belly to the curves of her hips and the nest of blond curls between them. Too right he thought it was pretty and liked her in it. Far too much, he thought grimly and gave his head a shake. Trying for reason, he said quietly, "Lisa, we have to get out of here."
"Oh, yes. I don't like it here, Robert. Mrs. Morgan made me strip and bathe in front of this man named Gilly, who was very big and scary and I didn't like it at all, but she wouldn't make him leave when I asked and said if I didn't cooperate she'd let him strip and bathe me and I didn't want him touching me and so I had to pretend that he just wasn't there and get on with it, but it was terribly embarrassing and I didn't like it."
He'd kill the bastard, Robert thought grimly. Gilly was Mrs. Morgan's muscle, a massive, moon-faced mute who kept the girls in line and handled troublesome clients. He'd kill the bastard for having looked on Lisa and made her so uncomfortable . . . right after he handled Mrs. Morgan. But not till after he had Lisa safely out of there.
"Okay," he murmured, urging her back a bit. "I want you to climb onto my back."
"Onto your back?" she asked uncertainly.
"Yes, you climb onto my back and I shall climb back down the wall."
"How are you going to climb down the wall, Robert? You're not a spider. Perhaps we should make a rope out of the sheets like Bet and I did and - "
"It's all right. I climbed up, and I can climb down. Just get on my back, Lisa," he said turning sideways on the ledge and urging her around to his side.
She muttered under her breath the whole time, but climbed onto the ledge behind him and then wrapped her arms around his shoulders as instructed.
"Wrap your legs around my waist," he ordered.
Lisa mumbled by his ear, and her legs came around his waist, the feet hooking together against his belly. Robert stared at them blankly, noting that she was barefoot and had the most adorable little toes and a lovely high arch, and - "Now what?"
Giving his head another shake, Robert was now the one to mutter under his breath. Then heaving a sigh, he said, "Just hold on tight."
He waited to hear her say that she understood and then began to shift them both out of the window. It was a much trickier maneuver with her clinging to his back like a monkey, and Robert began to grit his teeth, his attention divided between what he was doing and her hold on him. He was concerned that she might lose her grip and fall, but couldn't spare a hand to help her hold on. "Tell me if your grip starts slipping," he hissed, easing along the ledge toward the trellis.
"Yes, Robert," she mumbled against his neck and he felt a shudder run through him as her breath brushed his ear. Damn, he'd never had this reaction to her before. But then she'd never looked quite so . . . well - "Ow."
Robert paused. He'd just stepped off the ledge and onto the trellis when she'd made the sound of pain. Twisting his head slightly he tried to glance around to see what was wrong. "What is it?"
"Nothing. My foot just hit something," Lisa muttered, digging her heels tighter against him to try to avoid the wall and wood. She'd slid lower once he'd straightened on the ledge, and her feet were no longer against his waist, but now dug into his groin. Pain wasn't the word for the sensation she was unintentionally causing. Robert managed not to groan out loud, and bent slightly to protect her feet, then began to descend the trellis with a little more speed than care. He was somewhat amazed when they made it to the ground without a misstep, and the moment his feet were planted solidly on the ground he urged her off his back.
Relief sped through him when her feet were no longer rubbing him so intimately, but he ignored it and turned to lift her into his arms. It was an attempt to hide some of her nakedness as well as to protect her poor bare feet . . . and had absolutely nothing to do with a desire to hold her in his arms, he assured himself as he strode toward the end of the alley and the carriage waiting there.
Robert moved as quickly as he could, eager to get her inside and away from prying eyes, not to mention any kind of confrontation with Mrs. Morgan or her goon. That would wait until he'd got Lisa safely away. He wouldn't risk her being caught again should Gilly prove more of a problem than he expected, or if the man got in a lucky punch with one of those hammy fists of his. "Oh, Robert, I knew you would save me," Lisa sighed, nestling into his chest.
Robert grunted and tried to ignore the way her breasts were pressing into his chest.
"You're so brave and clever. And strong and handsome too," she added with a pleased little sigh. "You will make beautiful babies."
Robert blinked, his mind filling with baby making: the act, not the result. Realizing the treacherous road his thoughts were taking, he gave his head a shake and picked up speed, rushing the last few steps to the carriage.
The driver saw him coming and was off his perch, opening the carriage door at once so that Robert was able to simply step inside with his burden. He dropped onto the bench seat as the driver quickly closed the door, but found himself reluctant to set Lisa down on the opposite bench. Staring at her dressed as she was just didn't seem that smart an idea. That, of course, was the only reason he held her pressed tight to his chest, he told himself as the driver climbed back up on his seat, setting the carriage rocking.
"Are you taking me home?" Lisa asked as the carriage set off. "Good God, no! I can't take you home like this," he gasped, his eyes skating over her revealed body in the see-through gown. Feeling himself begin to harden at just the sight, he forced his eyes away and muttered, "I am taking you to my townhouse. Bet is waiting there. I shall have to send her back to Richard and Christiana's to fetch you something more appropriate to wear."
"I suppose they would realize something was amiss did I show up in someone else's gown," she said agreeably, and wiggled her bottom about on his leg, apparently trying to find a more comfortable position. "I never noticed before that you had such bony legs, Robert."
"It's not my leg," he muttered and then could have bit his tongue off at the admission.
"Then what is it? Have you something in your pocket?" she asked curiously, shifting about again.
"Aye," he growled, his hands grasping her hips to hold her still. His eyes then wandered of their own accord down her body again before he could catch himself. Robert looked quickly away and gave himself a firm lecture. This was Lisa Madison who was like a little sister to him. A sweet, innocent, dreamy-eyed - Damn, when the hell had she filled out like this?
Tilting her head, Lisa eyed him curiously. "Can I see it?"
"See what?" he asked with a distracted frown, his eyes sliding back to her, but staying firmly on her face this time.
"What you have in your pocket that's so lumpy and hard?" she explained. "What is it? Show it to me."
Robert simply stared for the longest time, aware that his lumpy hardness was growing lumpier and harder at the very thought of showing it to her. But then he regained enough of his senses to catch her by the hips and shift her to sit on the opposite bench.
"It shan't be long before we reach my townhouse," he announced, desperate to change the subject. "I told the driver to use the back alley so that you wouldn't be seen."
"That was kind. I think," she added with uncertainty. "Although I don't see why I can not be seen entering your townhouse. Unless, of course, it's because I'm a single lady. But everyone knows our families are friends and surely wouldn't think anything of it. It is daytime, after all, and Bet will be there."
"Lisa, Bet is already at the townhouse, so she wouldn't be seen accompanying you," he pointed out patiently, and then added with exasperation, "And frankly, it wouldn't matter if it were morning, noon or night. Dressed as you are it would cause a scene should you be seen at all, let alone entering a man's home."
"What is wrong with the way I am dressed?" she asked with surprise.
"Your gown is see-through," he pointed out, unable to believe she would even ask. Of course, pointing that out made his eyes wander over all that lovely revealed flesh again and he was hard pressed to stop devouring her with his eyes this time.
"Is it?" Lisa asked with what appeared to be real surprise, and then squinted down at herself rather owlishly.
Frowning, Robert asked, "Is there something wrong with your eyes?"
"Yes. No. Well, perhaps," she said on a sigh and then admitted, "Everything has been a little blurry since the second drink Mrs. Morgan insisted I down. Things keep going in and out of focus. Mostly out of focus." She sighed and then confessed, "The only way I recognized that it was you at the window was because your scent drifted in on the breeze when you opened it." She heaved out a little breath and squirmed slightly on her bench seat. "You do have a very particularly lovely scent, Robert. It's spicy and a little woodsy and really quite nice. It makes me all tingly."
"Tingly," Robert echoed faintly.
Lisa smiled at him beatifically and nodded. "Yes, tingly. All over. When I was sitting on your lap your smell seemed to envelop me. I liked that, Robert. Can I not sit there again?"
"No," he growled, desperately battling the urge to say yes and pull her back there himself. "It's not proper."
"Oh, of course," she said on a disappointed little sigh, and then leaned back and announced, "But Robert, I love you. Surely that makes it okay?"
"I love you too," he muttered, struggling to keep his eyes above her neck. "You are like a little sister to me."
Lisa scowled. "I am not your little sister."
"You are to me," Robert assured her, his gaze drifting downward and then quickly away. Forcing some firmness into his voice, he added, "You, Suzette and Christiana have always been like the sisters I never had."
"Sisters," she snapped with disgust. "I am not your sister, Robert Langley."
"Well, that is how I see you, Lisa Madison. Like a sweet little sister." Usually, he added silently. Dear God, there was nothing little sisterly about her just then, and neither his thoughts nor his body's reactions were anywhere near filial in nature.
"Well I am not your little sister, Robert. In fact, there is nothing little about me anymore at all. I'm a grown woman, and if you're too dense to see that, then perhaps it's time I found someone more intelligent to give my love to."
Robert's gaze slid to her again and he quickly removed his cape and leaned forward to wrap it around her, muttering. "I wish you would."
Lisa stiffened as the first real emotions she'd experienced since Mrs. Morgan had forced those drinks on her pierced the fog clouding her brain. And those feelings were disappointment and fury. She had loved this man forever, since she was knee high to her father, and Robert valued it about as much as an old pair of shoes thrown out on the dung heap.
"As you wish," she said coldly, gathering his cape around herself. She then leaned to the window to glance out as the carriage slowed. "That is Richard and Christiana's townhouse."
"Aye," Robert muttered, not bothering to look. "We have to pass it on the way to my place. Close the curtain, Lisa. One of the servants might look out and see you riding past."
Lisa scowled, but just shrugged. "I may as well just go home rather than trouble you to take me to your townhouse. Send Bet home when you get there, please."
"You are not - Lisa!" he snapped as she opened the door and leapt from the stopping vehicle. It was only when her feet hit the pavement that she realized she was barefoot. Ignoring that, she glanced to the front of the carriage to see what had made them stop. Richard and Christiana's neighbors, the Wortheys, were returning home from an outing, their carriage blocking the road as the couple disembarked.
"Lisa!" Robert hissed from behind her, but she ignored him and hurried to the gate leading to the walk to Richard and Christiana's front door. She heard his boots hit the pavement behind her, but didn't glance around, merely hurrying to the door and rushing inside.
The entry was empty. Even in her still somewhat muddled state, Lisa thought that could only be a good thing. Pushing the door closed, she slipped quickly up the stairs, and then along the hall to the room she was occupying, neither slowing nor stopping until she was safely inside.
Once there, however, Lisa paused briefly to lean against the door, her eyes closing. She should want to cry. She should want to scream and throw something. She knew with some part of her brain that she really did want to, but the brief, sharp pang of fury and disappointment that had managed to pierce the numbness claiming her had already receded and become a faint memory. She couldn't seem to feel anything again. All she seemed to want to do was lie down.
Pushing herself away from the door, she crossed the room in what she suspected was an unsteady gait and then simply collapsed on the bed.
Robert started to follow Lisa, but stopped after just a couple of steps and waited uncertainly. If her arrival was witnessed, his presence might just cause more trouble. Hell, if Richard had returned by now and witnessed her arrival and her state of dress - or undress as the case may be - he'd come out and demand an explanation. However, if she got in without being seen, his approaching the door might draw attention to her arrival and her state. He hesitated, unsure what to do, but after several moments passed without anyone coming out after him, Robert turned and got back in the carriage, then tapped on the wall to let his driver know to continue. He would return home and send Bet back to help her mistress. Lisa hadn't been in the best shape and could no doubt use assistance getting out of that gauzy creation laughingly called a gown.
Then he'd take himself down to Mrs. Morgan's and release some of the frustration now filling him by raising a little hell. By the time he finished with her, the woman wouldn't ever again think of mixing herself up in anything like this and he'd know exactly who this "suitor" was . . . And then he'd pay that bastard a visit too.
Lisa stirred sleepily and opened one eye to peer at the woman leaning over her. Bet. Pushing the other eye open, she smiled at her a bit woozily. "Oh, good. You're okay."
"Aye. Thank goodness you are too," Bet said, settling on the side of the bed with a crooked smile. "I was ever so worried until Lord Langley returned and said he'd got you safely away."
Lisa grimaced at the name and then closed her eyes on a muttered, "Horrid man."
"Horrid man?" Bet asked with confusion. "Did you meet the suitor then? Lord Langley said he got you out in time."
"Not the suitor," she growled. "Robert."
"Oh." There was a pause and then Bet asked uncertainly, "Did he behave inappropriately?"
"No . . . the deuced fellow was as proper as could be," she growled with exasperation and then rolled onto her back with an unhappy sigh. "I told him I love him, Bet, but he said flat out that he thinks of me as a little sister."
"In that gown?" Bet asked with amazement.
Lisa glanced down with disinterest. It did seem rather revealing and she suspected she should be embarrassed to be wearing it, but couldn't seem to find the emotion within herself. In fact, she felt rather disconnected from all her emotions at the moment . . . even her exasperation and irritation with Robert were a sort of far-off sensation. As if they were standing outside of her somewhere, there but untouchable. It was really quite strange, Lisa thought, and knew she should probably be alarmed by that too, but wasn't.
What the devil had Mrs. Morgan poured down her throat? she wondered, not for the first time, and then glanced to Bet. "Did you just get home from Robert's?"
"Nay. I've been home for hours. Lord Langley said ye'd most like be needing help getting out of that getup, but when I came up here you were dead to the world so I let you sleep. But if you're going to that ball tonight, ye need to be dressing." She frowned uncertainly. "Are ye going to the ball?"
Lisa debated the matter briefly and almost said no, she wanted to sleep, but then reconsidered. Robert wasn't interested. It appeared she'd wasted her love on him all these years. She was twenty-one years old now, an old maid to many, and here she'd sat on the shelf all these years in the vague hope that Robert would finally notice that she was all grown up. But frankly, if seeing her in this gown didn't stop him from looking at her like a "little sister," nothing would. It was time she took herself off the shelf and found a husband.
Sitting up determinedly, Lisa tossed the covers aside. "Aye. I am going to the ball. 'Tis time I found a husband, Bet, and all of the ton will be at the Landons' season-opening ball, which means every single eligible bachelor presently in town will be there as well."
Noting Bet's concerned expression, she smiled and got to her feet. "Mayhap Findlay, that handsome, blond lord who asked me to dance at the Landon ball two years ago will be there again. He was very handsome and seemed to like me the last time we attended. If he's still single, mayhap he'll ask me to dance again." Her mouth firmed out determinedly. "If he does, this time I shall pay him more attention and let him woo me."
"Are ye sure?" Bet asked, looking troubled. Reaching out to steady her mistress, she added, "Lord Robert said ye'd obviously been given some sort of tincture and I don't think it's quite worn off yet."
"I'm sure it will wear off by the time I'm dressed and ready to go," Lisa said with unconcern, but wasn't at all sure it would. She simply felt . . . well, she felt oddly invincible, untouchable . . . or maybe she just couldn't seem to care.