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His Wicked Heart

By:Darcy Burke

Chapter One

August, 1817, London

JASPER SINCLAIR, twelfth Earl of Saxton, loosened his cravat as he awaited the arrival of his companion for the evening. He’d never visited this particular brothel, situated in a tiny court off the Haymarket, but a glimpse of its employees below stairs had been enough to encourage him to stay. It was difficult to find a bawdy house whose offerings were worth his notice that wasn’t frequented by the upper echelon of Society. And Jasper ought to know. He’d made a hobby of locating just such jewels amongst the filth.

He had high hopes for tonight. His body thrummed with pent-up energy he needed to release before facing his family at his mother’s bi-weekly tea tomorrow. He shoved away thoughts of that and focused on the matter at hand. Or rather the matter that would soon be in his hands. He stripped his coat off and threw it over the back of a chair.

The room was functional enough, and a quick review of the bed revealed it to be clean, if not sumptuous. But Jasper didn’t require silks or velvets. Just a beautiful woman with skill and an unabashed desire to demonstrate it.

The door clicked, and Jasper’s blood heated. He was ready.

He turned, and his need evaporated. Christ, but she was the spitting image of Abigail, a woman he’d spent the last ten years striking from his memory. But now she came roaring back as if he’d met her—loved her—yesterday. His body chilled at the sight of this doppelganger, regret and self-loathing overtaking any sense of desire and commanding him to leave. Now.

He went to the chair and plucked up his coat.

“My lord?” the woman asked, her brow creasing gently. She sauntered toward him. “I’m Tilly. Let me take that.” She tried to pull the coat from his grip, but he held it fast.

“No. I’m leaving. This isn’t adequate.”

Tilly’s eyes widened briefly and then she gave a quick nod. “I see. I’m sure I can find us a different room. Something a bit richer, perhaps?”

Jasper shoved his arms into his coat. “You misunderstand. It’s not the room. It’s you. You’re all wrong.” He pushed past her toward the door.

She grabbed his arm, her grip surprisingly strong for a slender whore. “I’m sure I can be right. Give me a chance, my lord.” She rubbed her breasts against his sleeve.

Jasper glanced down at her nearly exposed nipples. Images of Abigail, sweet and virtuous, rose in his mind. The memories were at total odds with the present scenario—a strumpet in a brothel. He threw off Tilly’s hold and made for the door.

She followed him into the corridor. “My lord, you mustn’t leave.” Her tone took on a dark, desperate edge.

Jasper reached into his waistcoat and extracted a few coins. He tossed them back to her. “Here, that should be more than generous for the scant few minutes I took of your time.”

He stalked away from her and descended the stairs. The madam watched him as he crossed through the parlor, her eyes narrowing with concern. Jasper didn’t pause to speak with her.

Outside, he withdrew his gloves from his coat pocket. He took a deep breath of sweltering night air and shoved the gloves right back into the pocket. Hang them.

Eager to put tonight’s disappointment behind him, he took long strides toward the mouth of the L-shaped Coventry Court. His eye caught a couple near the corner of the court and the Haymarket. The man—a gigantic brute, really—towered over the woman. He wrapped his hand around her waist and drew her close against his chest. But she didn’t like it. She pushed at him, and her hat went tumbling to the ground, revealing glossy auburn curls pinned atop her head.

Jasper despised a bully, and as the son of the Duke of Holborn, he’d had plenty of experience with one. In several swift strides, he closed the gap between him and the woman being manhandled.

“I said I’m not interested,” the woman said, trying, ineffectually, to extract herself from the man’s grasp.

Jasper suppressed the need to smash the villain into the ground. He’d spent the past decade stifling his baser impulses, containing them to the appropriate time and place, but seeing that Abigail lookalike had his senses on overload. Still, he’d learned to master his control. He’d had to. Others got hurt when he didn’t. He curled his fingers into his palms. “She said no. Release her.”

The brute swiveled his block-shaped head toward him. “And who the hell are you?”

“Your better.” Jasper was glad he’d forsaken his gloves. He was ready for battle. Eager for it. “Release her now.”

“Push off.” With a dismissive nod, the man returned his attention to the redhead.

Unhindered rage poured through Jasper with the speed of a racing thoroughbred. Without censoring his actions, he reached out and wrapped his hand around the larger man’s neck. “You’re not listening to me.” He squeezed his fingers into the man’s skin, felt tendons straining against his palm. “Let. Her. Go.”

“My lord?” March, Jasper’s footman, had silently approached. He’d been stationed just outside the court, awaiting his employer’s pleasure.

The villain’s eyes widened, and he abruptly released the woman. “I beg your pardon, my lord.” He bowed his head and looked at the ground, which was a bit difficult given Jasper’s grip on his neck.

Jasper didn’t loosen his hold. “If you come near her again, I’ll know. And you’ll pay for it. Have I made myself clear?”

“Aye,” he croaked.

Jasper slowly pried his fingers from the man’s flesh, disappointed he hadn’t put up more of a fight. With a deep, calming inhalation, he stepped back and straightened his coat. The brute stepped around March and exited the court.

“March,” Jasper said, inclining his head toward the Haymarket, where his coach was parked. The footman nodded and took himself off.

Jasper turned to the woman. She stared up at him with wide-eyed shock. Captivating green-eyed shock. Or perhaps wonder.

“Thank you, my lord.” Her voice quavered, and she bent to retrieve her hat.

Jasper beat her to it. He fingered the thick felt, thinking it would feel terribly heavy on a sultry night like this. Why was she wearing it? He looked at her face and simply stared. She was exquisite. The street lamp splashed across her fine-boned features, sculpting the patrician nose, full lips, and saucily dimpled chin. She wore a heavy cloak, which had to be stifling in this heat, but he could tell from the slender curve of her neck and the narrow bones of her delicate wrist that she possessed an alluring figure. She was what he’d been hoping for. What he needed tonight.

“Your hat,” he offered. “Though I daresay you might not want to put it back on. It’s rather hot.”

She nodded. “Thank you. I’m nearly home anyway. I only wear it to disguise myself. Not that it worked this evening.” Her hand shook as she accepted the hat from him.

“You’ve had quite a scare. Let me see you home.”

“Thank you, but that’s not necessary, my lord.” She turned and walked into the court.

He wasn’t going to let her go that quickly. He caught up to her in a few long strides. “Where do you live?” The court held a half-dozen ramshackle buildings, the nicest of which was the brothel. Was she one of their doves? If so, he’d take her upstairs in a trice. And maybe offer her a long-term arrangement. She was that beautiful.

“Just there.” She pointed toward the brothel.

This was too convenient. His night wasn’t ruined after all. “May I come upstairs with you?”

She paused just before the brothel and shot him a horrified look. “No.”

Ah, perhaps she was overset after her encounter. “Tomorrow night, perhaps.”

“No.” She quickened her pace. Past the brothel.

What the hell?

Jasper kept up with her, determined to break through her cool exterior. “I thought you said you lived there?” He gestured back toward the brothel.

She said nothing, and continued walking toward the end of the court.

He snagged her elbow. “Stop, please.”

She turned abruptly and glanced down at where his hand was wrapped around her arm. “Unhand me. You’re no better than that other man. Worse maybe, since you were so quick to choke him.” Her gaze was direct but dark. He couldn’t tell if she was afraid. Christ, he didn’t want her to be afraid.

Jasper froze. Images of fights at Eton and Oxford flashed in his brain. “I’m not a violent person.” Anymore. “And I’d certainly never attack a woman.” Ever. In fact, several of those rows had been in defense of a woman.

He let her go.

She arched a brow, and he wondered if she believed him. “That’s relieving. I live here.” She pointed to the shabby building they’d stopped in front of, a four-story hovel with missing shutters, crumbling brick, and a dilapidated roof.

He couldn’t keep his lip from curling. She lived in this sty? “You can’t.”

“I can, and I do.” She lifted her chin, giving him a glimpse of a woman who deserved far better than her current station. Which was?

He took in the pair of slatterns standing in front of the boarding house. They were of far lower quality than the women in the brothel next door. But it seemed the entire court was rife with prostitution. There was only one way to determine her occupation. “Why won’t you let me make an appointment with you? If not tonight or tomorrow, tell me when.”