No Mistress Of Mine
USA Today bestselling author Laura Lee Guhrke is back with the latest in her dazzling An American Heiress in London series, where a reformed rogue finds all his honorable resolutions tested by the only woman who ever broke his heart…
After spending his youth as one of the wildest rakes in the ton, Lord Denys Somerton has devoted the past six years to putting his past behind him. He is determined to fulfill his duties, find a suitable wife, and start a family, but that plan changes when Lola Valentine—the red-haired temptress from his past—returns to London, sparking the same irresistible desires that almost ruined his life once before.
Lola is a woman with no romantic illusions. She knew love would never be enough for a British lord and an American girl from the wrong side of the tracks. For Denys’s sake, she walked away from him and the glittering life he offered. But when an unexpected inheritance brings her back to London, Lola discovers the passion between them is as hot as ever. Can they vanquish it, or will it burn out of control again and destroy them both?
This emphatic oath on the part of Earl Conyers was startling enough to catch the attention of all the members of his family. The earl, as they well knew, was not a man given to profanities, particularly this early in the day.
All of them paused, knives and forks poised, but their attention seemed to go unnoticed. Conyers continued to stare at the letter in his hand and did not explain what news within its pages had caused this sudden inclination to swear at breakfast.
His son, Denys, was the first to break the silence. “Father, what is it? What’s happened?”
Conyers looked up, and his expression told Denys the news was every bit as shocking as his outburst had implied.
He waited, but when his father folded up the letter, tucked it back into its envelope, and placed it in the pocket of his jacket with a glance toward the ladies, Denys concluded there was a need for discretion and returned his attention to his breakfast.
“Do you have plans for luncheon?” his mother asked, and when he looked up, he found her watching him with a look he knew quite well. “I’m meeting Georgiana and her mother, so we can discuss the flower show. We’ll be dining at Rules, which is close to your offices. Would you care to join us?”
His lips curved in a wry smile. “You’re matchmaking, Mama.”
“Well, I am your mother.” Lady Conyers gave a sniff. “Mothers are allowed to do that.”
“Where is that rule written? I should like to look it up.”
“Don’t be impudent, Denys. And if I were matchmaking, it’s not as if I’ve no cause. I saw you dance with Georgiana at the Montcrieffe ball. Two waltzes,” she added with obvious relish.
“True.” He gave a heavy sigh of mock suffering. “Given that, I suppose I’ve no right to complain.”
“If you don’t want to go, Denys . . .” Her voice trailed off as she looked at him in hopeful inquiry.
He thought of Georgiana, and an agreeable fondness settled over him. “On the contrary,” he said. “I should be delighted.”
“Oh, I’m so glad!” The moment those words were out of her mouth, she bit her lip and looked away, as if fearing her effusiveness was a step too far. “Georgiana is a dear child.”
From her place beside their mother Denys’s sister, Susan, gave an exasperated sigh. “Really, Mother! Georgiana Prescott is hardly a child. She’s twenty-eight, the same age I am. Though I daresay she seems older.”
“She’s more mature, at any rate,” Denys put in, giving his irrepressible sister a meaningful glance.
“Either way, she’s a dear child to me.” Lady Conyers leaned closer to her daughter. “And so are you, pet.”
The earl interrupted Susan’s groan of reply by setting down his knife and fork. “Forgive me, ladies,” he said, rising to his feet, “but I fear I must be off. Denys, might you join me in my study for a spot of business before I go?”
“Of course.” He rose, but Susan’s voice interrupted before the two men could depart.
“Was the letter very bad news, Papa?”
“No.” The reply was terse, and the earl must have sensed it, for his expression softened as he looked at his daughter.
“It’s nothing to trouble you with,” he said, but even before Susan spoke again, Denys could have told his father that sort of pacification never worked with his sister.
“Don’t you want to pat me on the head before you go?” she called after him, as he started for the door.
“He likes patting you on the head,” Denys told her as he circled to her side of the table. “So let him.”
“But it’s silly,” she grumbled, tilting her head so he could kiss her cheek. “Why do men always feel impelled to shield women from the slightest hint of reality?”
“Because we love you, that’s why.” Denys turned to give his mother’s cheek a kiss as well. “It’s our duty to protect you.”
“Rot,” Susan pronounced, as he straightened and started for the door. “The truth is, you men like keeping all the important information to yourselves because it makes you feel superior.”
He didn’t reply, but Susan was not deterred. “We shall ferret out this secret,” she called after him. “We always do.”
Both men ignored that rather aggravating fact of life and crossed the corridor to the earl’s study without a word. Once inside, the door safely closed behind them, Denys was able to reopen the topic. “Now, tell me what’s happened.”
Lord Conyers moved to sit behind his desk and pulled the envelope from his jacket pocket. He started to hand it across the desk, but then, for no discernible reason, he drew back.
“Father, what the devil is it?” Denys asked. “I’m beginning to find your reticence alarming.”
“It’s about Henry Latham.”
At once, unbidden and unwelcome images of Lola Valentine came into his mind—Lola on stage, in her dressing room, in his bed. Lola in a sheer white peignoir with Henry by her side. He took a breath and forced himself to speak. “What about him?”
The announcement struck Denys with the impact of a rock thrown at a mirror, and the images of Lola shattered into glittering shards of anger, slicing open a wound he thought had healed long ago. Six years since she’d left him, but suddenly, he felt as raw as if it had all happened yesterday.
“Shocking news, what?”
The matter-of-fact voice of his father brought Denys back to the present, and when he noticed the earl’s concerned gaze on him, he tamped down anger and pain. “Very shocking,” he agreed. “When did this happen?”
“A month ago.”
“A month? Why weren’t we informed at once?”
The earl shrugged. “The letter is dated three weeks ago. It was delayed in the post, I imagine.”
“May I?” He held out his hand, and after a moment of further hesitation, his father leaned across the desk to place the letter in his outstretched palm.
“Does it say how he died?” Denys asked, slipping the missive out of its envelope.
“Heart attack, so Forbes says. Henry had a dicky heart, apparently.”
“Heart?” Denys paused in the act of unfolding the letter, taken aback. Henry had always been such a vital, dynamic personality. The idea of his having a weak heart seemed incongruous somehow.
He looked down at the letter, but he stared at the typewritten lines without reading them. Had she stayed with him all this time? he wondered. All the way to the end?
The wound opened a little more, and Denys reminded himself that Henry and Lola were part of his past, a distasteful business long ago over and done. He refolded the letter, unread, put it back in its envelope, and set it on the desk.
“The question is,” he said as he leaned back in his chair, glad to note his voice was quite natural, “what happens now?”
“To the Imperial, you mean?” Looking relieved, his father at once adopted a brisk, practical demeanor that mirrored his own. “What do you think should happen to it?”
Denys paused to consider for a moment before he spoke, just to be sure his opinion was a thoroughly objective one. “We should offer to buy Henry’s share,” he said at last.
“I agree. But would she accept such an offer?”
Denys shrugged, unable to see any reason why Henry’s widow wouldn’t jump at it if the offer was fair. “Her life is in New York. She wouldn’t want to assist with managing it, surely.”
“Perhaps not, but thanks to you, the Imperial has become profitable. She might want to keep her half as an investment.”
Denys doubted that Gladys Latham would have any more enthusiasm for Henry’s theatrical ventures now than she’d had when he was alive. “Or she might jump at the chance to get rid of it.”
“True. But if she’s not amenable to selling her share, we might consider allowing her to purchase ours.”
Denys stared at his father, appalled by the very idea. “Sell our half of the Imperial? Why on earth should we do so?”
Conyers stirred in his chair. “Might be for the best.”
“I don’t agree.”
Conyers gave him a searching glance. “It’s a difficult situation. For her. For you. For everyone.”
Denys stiffened, knowing his father’s true concerns had nothing to do with Gladys Latham. “Henry’s death changes nothing, as far as I can see. My unfortunate entanglement with Lola Valentine is long over, Father, and has no bearing on this. I daresay everyone involved will be sensible. The Imperial is one of our most lucrative investments. It makes much more sense to keep it, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t. If we can’t buy her out, I’ll sell her our share. Let her have the whole bloody thing.”
His father’s terse, peremptory words surprised him. Since handing over the control of their family holdings to him three years ago, Conyers had never overridden him on any decision.
“You seem . . . quite vehement about this, Father.”
“Should I not be?”
“Not for any reason I can discern. I thought you trusted me. Have I given you cause to withdraw that trust?”
The earl’s shoulders slumped a bit. “No, of course not,” he said, and leaned back in his chair with a sigh. “I spoke in haste. However you decide to handle the situation, it is your decision. I . . .” He paused and took a breath. “I trust you.”
Denys was relieved and heartened by those words. “You didn’t always.”
“No, but in my defense, there was a time when you made my trust a difficult thing to give. You were quite wild in your youth, you know.”
The reminder pained him, for he was well aware he’d been a rebellious adolescent and a rakish, irresponsible young man. Those less appealing traits of his character had come into full flower on a trip to Paris the summer he was twenty-four.
His only intent had been to visit friends and have a bit of fun. He hadn’t intended to go mad.
Nicholas, the Marquess of Trubridge, and Jack, the Earl of Featherstone, had been sharing a town house in Paris and vying for the attentions of Montmartre’s most famous cabaret dancer. Fascinated by her, they’d dragged Denys off on his first night in town to see her show at the Théâtre Latin, and the moment he’d first set eyes on Lola Valentine, Denys’s heart had been lost and his life plunged into chaos.
Lola, in Paris, kicking off men’s hats with her toe and winking at him as she passed his table and absconded with his drink. Lola, at the house he’d leased for her in London, standing at the top of the stairs and giving him the radiant smile for which she was famous. Lola, moving beneath him in bed, her dark red hair spread across the pillow and her long, shapely legs wrapped around him.
It had taken a lot of time and effort to straighten out his life after she’d forsaken him for Henry Latham and a career in New York, but he’d managed it, and the careless, stupid mistakes of his youth were well behind him now. With that reminder, Denys brought his attention back to what his father was saying.
“. . . sowing your wild oats, with no mind to settle down and be responsible. I had truly come to despair of you. But you’ve changed, Denys. You’ve paid off your debts, taken on the duties of your position, and done everything I’ve asked of you in exemplary fashion. I’m proud of you, my son.”
With those words, any vestiges of Lola’s memory vanished, and tightness squeezed his chest as he stared back at his father. He was unable to say how much those words meant to him, but thankfully, he didn’t have to say anything. His father looked away first, gave a cough, and spoke again.
“Whatever you decide, it will be your decision. You’re in charge now. I am merely a gentleman of leisure.”
“And you love it,” Denys said, smiling.
“I do. I am quite content to leave the tedious business of keeping our fortunes intact to you.”
“Speaking of which . . .” Denys glanced at the clock on the wall and stood up, bringing his father to his feet as well. “I’d best be on my way. I have a meeting with Calvin and Bosch at half past nine to sign some contracts, but I have to call at our offices first. All the contract documents should have arrived from our solicitors late yesterday afternoon—”
“Didn’t I just tell you these matters are your concern now, not mine?” the earl interrupted, holding up his hands to stop his son’s flow of words. “All I intend to do today is go to my club and perhaps a race meeting or two.”
The two men departed the study and went their separate ways, but an hour later, as Denys’s carriage took him around Trafalgar toward his offices in the Strand, he recalled his father’s final words of their conversation, and he couldn’t help smiling a little. The earl was bored stiff by matters of business, but Denys thrived on them.
Not that he’d always felt that way. A few years ago, he’d been the sort of fellow who’d spent his quarterly allowance without a thought of where the money came from. The sort who’d found the allure of a beautiful cabaret dancer irresistible.
But his days of being a stage-door johnny were over. Pulled by Nick into a brewery investment three years ago, he’d begun to understand the satisfaction that could come from being a man of business, and the earl, pleased by his son’s newfound sense of responsibility, had handed over management of all the family’s investments to him.
His carriage turned onto Bedford Street and came to a halt in front of his offices. His driver opened the door for him, but after exiting the vehicle, Denys paused on the sidewalk to study the building across the street, and he felt a fierce wave of pride at the sight of the Imperial’s gray granite facing and marble columns.
The Imperial had been a seedy music hall fifteen years ago, when the earl and Henry Latham had first formed a partnership to acquire the place. Henry, already a successful impresario in New York, had been seeking ways to break into dramatic theater in London, and with the earl as a partner, he had succeeded in obtaining the required licenses, finding backers, and garnering a bit of success. But London theater was an exasperating, difficult, competitive business, and the American had eventually grown tired of the project and returned to the States, taking Lola with him and leaving management of the Imperial in his partner’s hands.
The earl had happily put his son in charge of the place, along with all the other Conyers holdings, and Denys was proud of the fact that there was nothing seedy about the Imperial nowadays. Today, it was widely acknowledged as London’s finest producer of Shakespearean theater, achieving a level of critical acclaim Henry could only have dreamed of.
Thoughts of Henry inevitably brought thoughts of Lola, and an image of her came to Denys before he could stop it—an image of auburn hair, teal blue eyes, and a body made for sin.
More memories came back to him, memories of how it had all gone wrong. The play he’d financed for her closing in disaster. The house in St. John’s Wood standing empty but for the gifts he’d given her and a note that she’d returned to Paris. His refusal to accept her departure, his journey to the cabaret where she was working, his discovery of Henry with her in her dressing room. And her words, the most shattering part of it all.
Henry has made me a better offer.
Denys shook his head, baffled that he could ever have been such a fool. But then, he appreciated with a grimace, he’d been a fool about so many things back in his salad days. Thank God he was not only an older man now but also a wiser one. Beautiful, ambitious chorus girls no longer held any charms for him.
He turned away from the Imperial to study the building across from it. Five floors high, with whitewashed brick, marble pediments, and arched windows of plate glass, the offices of Conyers Investment Group gleamed with prosperity.
The message conveyed by the interior was equally clear. Anyone would know at once that this was a sound and prosperous firm. Its electric lift, telephones, and typewriting machines alluded to modern ideas and the future, but the wide central staircase, the ever-so-slightly-worn carpets, and the comfortable leather furnishings conveyed reliability and longevity, two qualities so necessary to an investment firm.
Denys started up the staircase, nodding to the clerk seated at the desk on the spacious landing as he passed. When he reached the mezzanine, he circled the lobby and ascended another set of stairs, but he’d barely entered his office suite on the top floor before he came to a surprised halt.
His secretary was not at his desk. “Dawson?” he called to the open doorway of his own office beyond, but his sandy-haired young secretary did not reply and did not appear.
With a puzzled frown, Denys pulled out his pocket watch. “Ten past nine,” he murmured, closed the watch, and slipped it back into his waistcoat pocket. Dawson was fanatically punctual, always arriving in the office ahead of his employer, a fact that made his absence from his post quite unusual.
Not that it mattered. If Dawson had been called away from his desk, he would no doubt have set out the contracts before departing. Denys glanced over the secretary’s desk, but the documents were nowhere to be seen.
He gave an exasperated sigh. “Where is the fellow?”
“If you’re looking for your secretary,” a feminine, distinctly American voice drawled in answer to his muttered question, “he’s making me a cup of tea.”
Denys froze in disbelief, for that voice was low, earthy, dipping on the vowels, and somehow able to lend an erotic note to what would otherwise be the rather flat accent of America’s Middle West. It could only belong to one woman.
He took a breath, telling himself he had to be mistaken, but when he turned, the tall, voluptuous redhead standing in the doorway of his office proved he’d made no mistake.
Her hair was the same deep, flaming color he remembered, a shade of red most women could only gain from henna dye. Atop those vibrant curls, an enormous concoction of pink feathers, crimson ribbons, and cream-colored straw was perched at an angle that defied all laws of gravity, and below it was the stunning face he’d hoped never to see again. Her eyes were the same vivid teal blue he remembered, her full lips the same deep pink. In the staid, ascetic atmosphere of his offices, she bloomed with vibrant life, like an exotic cactus flower blooming amid the sand and scrub of the desert.
He took a step closer, scanning her face, but the powder she wore prevented him from seeing the freckles that dusted her nose and cheeks. It didn’t matter, though, for he knew they were there. He ought to. He’d kissed every one of them.
How many times, he wondered, had he lain in her bed at the little house in St. John’s Wood, his body sated, his mind drowsy, watching her apply powder to her face, trying to conceal the freckles she despised? How many times had he watched her draw gossamer stockings up her shapely legs and dab jasmine scent to the backs of her knees? Dozens, he guessed. Perhaps hundreds. He’d thought those halcyon days would never end, but they had ended, and with bone-shattering shock.
Looking at her, he thought of the last time he’d seen her, in her Paris dressing room. Everything came back to him as if it had all happened yesterday—the filmy white peignoir she’d been wearing, the opened champagne on the table, her face pale as milk at the sight of him. And Henry on the settee, smiling and triumphant.
The anger he’d felt earlier began to burn inside him, as if he’d just downed a glass of cheap whisky. Although that wasn’t really an apt analogy, for Lola had never been cheap. On the contrary, she’d been the most expensive mistake he’d ever made. And the most intoxicating.
His gaze lowered before he could stop it. She still had the same generous curves he remembered, curves shaped by years of dance, curves that he suspected still owed little to corsets and nothing at all to bust improvers, pads, or bustles.
She was wearing a frock of pale pink silk, and he couldn’t help noticing how the color of the dress blended seamlessly into the skin of her throat and jaw. Any other woman, he thought in chagrin, would look maidenly, even innocent, in such a color, but not Lola. Pale pink silk only made Lola look . . . naked.
Denys wasn’t usually one to curse, but in some situations, an oath was the only response a sane man could offer.
“Hell,” he muttered, but the word seemed wholly inadequate as a vent to his feelings. “Damn,” he added, and was still not satisfied. “Damn, and blast, and holy hell!”
She smiled a little. “It’s good to see you, too, Denys.”
The sound of his name on her lips was like paraffin on hot coals, and all his suppressed anger blazed up, threatening to burn out of control. He pressed a fist to his mouth, working to contain it.
“Aren’t you going to say something?” she asked after a few moments. “Beyond a few choice curses, that is?”
He lowered his hand and took a deep breath. “It’s odd,” he murmured, injecting a level of cool detachment into his voice that he didn’t feel in the least, “but I cannot think of anything more I might wish to say to you.”
“‘Hello’ might be a good start,” she suggested. “Or you could ask how I’ve been.”
He set his jaw, hardening his anger into resolve. “That question would imply a degree of curiosity I do not possess.”
Any trace of a smile vanished from her face with that cold reply. He was being churlish, he knew, a demeanor not at all in keeping with his position or his upbringing, but what had she expected? A warm welcome? Fond recollections of the old days?
She cleared her throat, breaking the silence that had fallen between them. “Denys, I’m sure my call today has caught you by surprise, but—”
“On the contrary. The day you stop being unpredictable is when I shall be caught by surprise. Capriciousness, after all, is part of a mistress’s stock-in-trade, isn’t it?”
That shot hit the mark, he could tell. A flash of answering anger showed in those extraordinary eyes, reminding him that Lola was not only a redhead, she also possessed the passionate temperament often associated with hair of that shade. “I wouldn’t know,” she countered with asperity, “since I was never your mistress. I was your lover.”
He shrugged, in no frame of mind to debate the rather blurred distinctions of their past relationship. “And which were you with Henry? His lover, or his mistress? Or were the two of you just good friends?”
She flinched, but if he thought such caustic questions would send her scurrying off, he was mistaken. Instead, she lifted her chin and stood her ground.
“Is there any point in rehashing the past?” she asked. “It’s really the future we need to talk about, isn’t it?”
“The future?” he echoed, baffled. “What do you mean?”
That question seemed to take her back though he didn’t know why it should. “But surely you knew—” She broke off, catching her full lower lip between her teeth, staring at him for a moment before she spoke again. “You haven’t heard.”
He frowned, feeling suddenly uneasy. “I heard Henry is dead if that’s what you mean.”
“It isn’t . . . quite.”
“Is that why you’re here? Now that Henry’s gone, you want to take up where we left off?” He knew it was absurd even as he said it, and yet he could not imagine any other reason for her presence or her words about the future. “You want me to take care of you?”
“No man takes care of me,” she countered with asperity, reminding him of the scrappy, saucy girl he’d met so long ago, a girl who’d kept him at arm’s length for over a year and driven him nearly mad before at last becoming his. “I take care of myself. I thought I made that clear six years ago.”
“So you did, and yet, Henry seems to have taken care of you nicely. From what I hear, the show he backed for you is quite the thing in New York. Becoming his mistress paid off handsomely for you.”
She opened her mouth to reply, then bit her lip. “Please don’t pick a fight with me, Denys. I didn’t come all this way for a quarrel nor to see if we could take up where we left off.”
Her words brought no relief, for if she wasn’t here to reconcile, that meant something else was in the wind. “And yet, you talk of us having a future. What could ever lead you to believe we have one?”
She sighed. “Henry’s will.”
“His will?” Denys stared at her, and suddenly, it felt as if the earth were opening beneath his feet, as if he were being pulled down into some dark abyss.
“Yes.” She opened her handbag of crimson silk and pulled a folded sheet of paper from its interior. She held it up between white-gloved fingers. “He made me your new partner.”