"Why was his wife not caring for him?"
"Glenmoore wasn't married at the time. He wed not long after I arrived."
Hugh rubbed his lips against her shoulder, frowning. "What woman in her right mind would marry a man in that condition? He had an heir and was unable to produce further issue. She had nothing to gain."
"There are reasons for everything, Hugh." Charlotte rested her head back against his shoulder. "You must trust that hers were sound."
He snorted in disbelief, then said, "Carding must have been furious when you handed him his congé."
"Oh, he was," she agreed, snuggling deeper into his embrace. "He ranted and railed, and threatened to destroy me so that no other man would ever have me."
She took a deep breath. "But after the despicable way he treated his father, I wanted nothing further to do with him. I told him to do his worst."
"Bloody hell," he breathed, impressed. No one defied a duke, let alone a slip of a girl who relied on him to support her.
Charlotte laughed. "I'm no martyr, so don't think that. I was already planning to sever my arrangement with Carding, and I'd saved up enough to live comfortably. Offering to care for Glenmoore afforded me the time to discover what I wanted to do next and to help the old duke at the same time. It seemed a perfect arrangement."
"But something happened to your plans."
"I underestimated Carding. If I'd known how he would react, I would have handled things differently. I would have returned with him to London, collected my things, and then made arrangements to come back. Instead I sent my abigail-a stupid, stupid mistake. Carding wasted no time. He went through my house the night he returned and disposed of all of my clothes and jewelry, most of which I had acquired before I met him. He ceased paying the servants here, so they left. The ones we have now deserve better recompense for their efforts. All we can offer is food and a roof over their heads, hence the reason I don't overtax them with cleaning areas that aren't used."
"What of the money you'd saved?"
"It wasn't money I saved but jewelry."
"Which Carding stole," Hugh finished.
She ran her fingertips over the backs of his hands, a soft, absentminded caress he enjoyed far too much. "In deference to Glenmoore's feelings, I attempted to hide what his son was doing, but he knew. As his condition worsened, he gave me the map, books, and journal. He wanted to repay me for seeing him through his last days, and he hoped to ensure my future in some way."
"But once he was gone, why didn't you leave? As beautiful as you are, you must have known you could secure another protector."
She turned in his arms, a position that pressed her breasts to his chest. Hugh's breath hissed out at the contact, and he struggled to concentrate on her next words. "Everyone here relies on me. If I leave, what will happen to them? They are excellent servants, but very few employers can look beyond their handicaps. Besides it's not too dreadful. We eat well. We're clothed and warm."
"Then the map is just a hobby?" He stroked his hands down her back. "You appeared quite engrossed in it earlier."
"That is due to my pride." Charlotte arched into his caress.
"I dislike living under the duke's thumb. It allows him to feel that he's won, that he's bested me. If I could acquire financial independence, I could control my own fate. That's worth studying the map with all the enthusiasm I can muster. Besides, there was nothing else to occupy me in this weather." She pressed a kiss to his nipple. "Until you came along."
Hugh tucked her hair behind her ear. "I've never considered keeping a mistress, but-"
"Why pay for what I give you for free?" she interrupted with a sly curve to her lips.
"You're avoiding the subject again." He slid lower and draped her body over his. "You are quite adept at evasiveness."
"I am adept at a great many things."
He laughed and kissed the tip of her nose, pleased that she'd confided so much in him. "Is Her Grace harmless?"
"Oh, yes," she assured him. "She's no danger to you."
"Then why did she venture into my room this morning?"
Charlotte's eyes lit with mischief. "Perhaps she wished to have her wicked way with you."
"That's not funny," he grumbled.
She giggled. "I think it is."
He began to tickle her.
"Stop it!" she gasped, laughing.
"Now this . . ." he said. "This is funny!"
Turning, Hugh pinned her beneath him and smiled.
"Oh, no, you don't!" she protested, pushing upward against his chest. "I must eat; I'm starved. I want to bathe and . . . other things."
Hugh rolled his eyes and then rolled to his back with an exaggerated sigh. "For a mistress, you're not very accommodating," he complained.
Charlotte tossed a leg over his hips and straddled him, still clutching the sheet like a toga. "I am your lover, not your mistress. And I've been accommodating you for hours, my lord. Now you must accommodate my hunger."
"Hugh," he corrected, needing the familiarity. He was beginning to believe his recent ennui was a result of his lack of close personal associates. Perhaps all he needed was a mistress, one woman he could concentrate his attentions on, rather than indulging in fleeting liaisons. But first he had to prove to Charlotte that she needed him in some way. "When we've finished breakfast and fucking, we'll go over the map and journals together."
She laughed and looked down her nose at him.
"You don't believe I can help you?" he asked, with a frown. Perhaps this would be more difficult than he'd thought. "I have some investment in Lambert Shipping and-"
Gentle fingertips drifted across his lips, searing him with their touch. "I believe you can do anything you set your mind to, but I don't believe you'll ever finish fucking."
Hugh growled, her belief in him causing his lust to surge. "Best you retire to your room now, before I prove you right."
Charlotte leapt from the bed and ran from the room in a fit of giggles.
"You should never have visited his room," Charlotte scolded. "Now he knows about the hidden passageways and the map."
"I'm sorry," came the contrite reply. "You said he was gorgeous. I just wanted to see for myself. Was he dreadfully angry?"
Charlotte took a seat at her vanity and relented with a sigh. "He might have been originally. But he's not any longer."
Soft hands settled on her shoulders. "I just wanted a good look at him."
Glancing in the mirror, Charlotte caught the reflection of the woman at her back. "Perhaps it's best if you don't see him. There is something fundamentally unfair about having a man that gorgeous around. It makes it nearly impossible to think clearly." Lowering her gaze, she was startled to discover that the woman who stared back was younger than she remembered, with flushed cheeks, bright eyes, and a kiss-swollen mouth.
Hugh La Coeur liked kissing. He took his time with it, tasting her, caressing the inside of her mouth with deep licks of his talented tongue. She'd had her share of selfish bed partners, men who couldn't be bothered with foreplay. Hugh, however, was a tactile man. He loved to caress her hair, her skin, her lips, and she preened like a cat under his touch, wanting to stretch and purr and soak up his affection.
Fierce and primitive in bed, he took her body as if it belonged to him, as if it existed only for his pleasure. The tiny glimpses of vulnerability she'd seen in him certainly didn't extend to the bedroom. His lovemaking was breathtaking, his stamina impressive. Twice she'd begged him to leave her alone, only to find that she craved him again within moments. He knew it, too, the arrogant man. It was rather like an addiction to chocolate, she supposed. She only hoped she would have her fill before the storm blew over and he went away.
Charlotte picked up her brush and ran it through her hair. "I told him about the map and Glenmoore."
"That sounds promising. What did he say?"
"He offered to help, actually." She thought of his reactions to everything he'd witnessed so far and had to admire his aplomb. Nothing seemed to catch him off guard. And the way he'd soothed Katie and offered to buy a dozen pitchers for her . . . Charlotte had been touched. She didn't trust people easily, but Hugh's flashes of kindness for her, for his footman, and for her servants made her believe he was someone who genuinely cared for her welfare.
"Do you think he can? Help, that is?"
She shrugged. "I'm not certain, but I don't see how it can hurt anything for him to try, and it will keep us occupied during the storm."
Laughter greeted that statement. "I didn't think you needed any outside influences to keep you two occupied."
Charlotte set the brush down with a firm click. "Now that, I'm certain, isn't proper at all!"
Hugh stared into Artemis's single eye and refused to give ground. To cave in to a servant . . . Why, the thought was abominable!
"Listen, old chap," he said curtly. "'Tis a simple enough question."
Artemis set his hands on his hips. "And one ye need be askin' 'er Grace!"
"You answer the door, for Christ's sake! You know as well as anyone if Lord Glenmoore comes calling here."
"O' course I know! Doesn't mean I'll be tellin' you!" The bulbous eye protruded further as the butler narrowed his gaze. "You can ask from 'ere to perdition, gov'na, and I-"
"Hang it all!! The proper address for a peer is 'my lord.' Is that so bloody difficult?"
Artemis gasped. "'Ere now! Are ye complainin' 'bout the way I perform my duties?"
"Complaining?" Hugh snorted. "Good God, I'm astounded. Amazed. Stunned."
Artemis nodded in agreement. "And so you should be, gov'na."
"'Tis not every day one finds service of your caliber," Hugh muttered, running a hand through his hair.
"Are ye bein' sarcastic?" Artemis asked suspiciously.
"Who, me? Never."
"What are you two arguing about?" Charlotte asked as she descended the staircase. Dressed in soft floral muslin that was a few seasons out of style, she looked fresh and young, a vision of ripe innocence that belied her sensual past.
"You can ask 'er!" The butler turned to leave without being dismissed. "A man shouldn't 'ave to deal with this sort of treatment in 'is place of employment," he grumbled as he shuffled away.
Hugh gaped after him.
Charlotte laughed, a raw, husky sound that made his cock hard.
Damnation! He scowled. He couldn't go around sporting a constant erection, which is precisely what he'd been doing since he arrived.
Coming to a stop before him, she brushed his frown away with the soft touch of her fingers. "Artemis is a good man, and whatever you asked, you shouldn't have asked him. You know as well as I that no respectable upper servants would ever divulge information about their employers."
Not accustomed to admitting he was wrong, Hugh stewed for a moment before nodding.
Charlotte's green eyes sparkled with amusement. "Now, what did you want to ask?"
Hugh released a deep breath. "I'd like to know if Glenmoore still comes to visit you."
A dark red brow rose. "In what capacity?"
He snorted. "In any capacity."
"He stops by occasionally," she said carefully. "But I no longer share my bed with him, if that is what you're inquiring."
The relief that flooded him was profound and, because of that, disturbing. "Why does he come, then?"
"I suspect he simply wishes to assure himself that the duchess remains here and poses no threat to his precious reputation." She laced her arm with his and steered him toward the drawing room, where tempting aromas made his stomach growl. He was ravenously hungry, and once they were seated, he tucked into the delectable meal with gusto. Consisting of kidney and eggs, honey cakes and plum cakes, the food was delicious. Despite the rather frightening specter the cook presented, Hugh had no trouble admitting that her talent in the kitchen was impressive. She was much better than the resident chef at Montrose Hall.
When Katie came in a few moments later, bearing a pitcher of wildly sloshing water and favoring a bandaged hand, he simply smiled, unalarmed. Everything seemed different today. The candlelight that bolstered the dreary morning light seemed more golden, the food more appetizing, Charlotte more beautiful.
Suspecting it was contentment he was feeling, Hugh grinned, savoring the moment. He wanted to feel this way more often, and he knew Charlotte was the cause. Therefore a stratagem was required to convince his lover that having him around could benefit her in more ways than orgasms. Since she'd provided the solution already, he had only to take advantage of it.
"You're in a fine mood," Charlotte noted, smiling against the rim of her cup. Hugh La Coeur was also in fine form. Dressed in warm shades of brown, he made her mouth water, the handsomeness of his features intensified by a boyish smile.
"I am. More's the pity for you." He waggled his brows suggestively.
She laughed. "A girl could become accustomed to having you around."
"I hope you do." He pushed away his empty plate and stood, moving to her chair. "Shall we retire to my room and study your map?"