Read A Taste of Paradise Online

Authors: Connie Mason

A Taste of Paradise (3 page)

“Why did you agree to come to London if you thought it was futile?”

She looked away. She had had several reasons, but only one she was willing to admit. “I wanted to prove to you once and for all that I'm unmarriageable. I wanted you to stop hounding me about snaring a rich husband to benefit your empty pockets. Let's put all this foolishness behind us and return home. You should concentrate on providing your estate with an heir.”

“Why do I need an heir to a bankrupt estate?” Caldwell snarled. “
You
could save us if you put your mind to it.”

“You're going to have to get yourself out of this one, Ray.”

“Why should I put myself out for you when you're the reason the family has fallen so low?”

Guilt rode Sophia. She'd spent years trying to forget the event that had sent her fleeing from London. But one thing she had never forgotten was the man she had fallen in love with when she was seventeen.

“Our family would be fine today if you hadn't gambled away everything but our home and land. It's time to leave London, Ray. The estate still brings in rent and money from crops. You could make it prosper if you tried harder.”

“I'm not a farmer and never will be,” Caldwell contended. “No, Sophia, you're the only one who can save me from debtor's prison.”

“Me! How do you figure that?”

“I've lost more than I intended at the tables. My creditors are hounding me. One man in particular is demanding immediate repayment of the debt I owe him. He has threatened to send me to debtor's prison if I don't come up with the blunt.”

“You're an irresponsible fool, Ray,” Sophia spat. “Debtor's prison is too good for you. Even though Claire and I never saw eye to eye, I pity her.”

“I've received an offer for you that could help repair our financial difficulty.”

Sophia stared at him, mistrusting anything he said. “What kind of an offer, and from whom?”

“Hear me out before you refuse. Your cooperation could save our family.”

“You never cared about anyone but yourself,” Sophia charged.

“I married that cow Claire, didn't I? Do you think I would have offered for her if I didn't need her blunt?”

“Blunt you managed to squander in a relatively short time.”

Caldwell cleared his throat. “Sir Oscar—”

“Never say that toad offered for me!” Sophia spat. “The answer is no, no and no.”

“Sir Oscar said he will tear up my vowels in exchange for a night in your bed,” Caldwell continued over Sophia's objection. “He was quite taken with you.”

“How dare you! You should have challenged him for the insult, or at the very least showed him the door.”

Caldwell's mouth flattened; his eyes became cold as ice. “You always were a troublesome chit. It's not as if you're a sought-after deb. You're on the shelf, and even if you weren't, you're tainted by scandal.”

“I won't do it, Rayford. I don't need your support. I received a very good education. I can support myself as a governess if need be.”

“What about Claire? Would you leave her without support? The estate is bankrupt.”

“I won't do it, Ray, not even for Claire. She has her parents, while I have no one. I'm not going to prostitute myself for you or anyone else. I'm going to place an ad in
The Times
tomorrow, advertising my services as a governess.”

Turning on her heel, she swished past Caldwell and out the door.

Sophia spent the rest of the day avoiding her brother, and when he joined her for dinner that night, he didn't bring up the subject of Sir Oscar, much to Sophia's relief. She retired directly following the meal and didn't see Rayford again until dinner the following night.

“I gave the servants the night off,” Caldwell said when Sophia finished eating and excused herself.

Sophia stared at him. It was so unlike Rayford to be generous that she could scarcely credit it. “Did they request the night off?”

“The maid asked permission to spend the night with her mother, so I decided to give Jeeves the night off, too. And of course, Cook always returns to her family after dinner is prepared and served.”

“I bid you good night, then,” Sophia said. She paused at the door. “By the way, my ad should appear in
The Times
tomorrow.”

Since Rayford didn't react to the news as she'd expected, Sophia shrugged and left him sitting at the table. She went directly to her room, where she busied herself with various chores until her eyes began to droop. Then she undressed, washed, cleaned her teeth and pulled on a linen nightdress that had turned transparent after countless washings. Her final act before climbing into bed was to build up the fire with the last of the coal in the scuttle.

Squirming beneath the quilt to find a comfortable position, Sophia wondered if she would receive any replies to her ad. Aware that it would take a day or two for replies to reach her by return mail, she fell asleep looking forward to achieving full independence from Rayford. His despicable request that she prostitute herself on his behalf had been the last straw. Her disgust for him had finally reached the point of no return.

As sleep claimed Sophia, she had no idea that Rigby had arrived and was being welcomed by Caldwell.

“Is she waiting for me?” Rigby asked eagerly.

“Not exactly,” Caldwell muttered. “She's probably sleeping. I'm leaving it up to you to tame her. She refused to cooperate, but I don't see that as an impediment. She always was a stubborn chit. A man of your experience should be able to handle one small reluctant woman.”

Rigby, decked out like a dandy and smelling strongly of perfume, appeared pleased by Caldwell's compliment. Puffing out his chest, he said, “Point out her room so I can get on with it.”

“In a moment. The servants are gone, and I am about to leave myself. But first, I'll have my vowels.”

“Do you think I'm stupid? You'll have them tomorrow, after I've had my night with your fetching sister. If you think to trick me, there will be hell to pay. I'm an unforgiving man with a long memory.”

“No tricks, I promise,” Caldwell said. “Sophia's chamber is upstairs, the first door on the right. I wish you a pleasant good night. I don't intend returning until tomorrow morning, at which time you can give me my vowels.”

After Caldwell's hasty exit, Rigby started up the stairs, all but drooling over the prospect of bedding Sophia. He'd had a whore or two while visiting London, but they were hags compared to Miss Sophia Carlisle. If she turned out to be a virgin, he'd count his bargain with Caldwell well worth the monetary loss.

It wasn't as if he were a pauper. He had made a fortune in the slave trade out of Jamaica.

Sophia stirred in her sleep. Not fully awake, she lay still, listening for whatever had disturbed her. When she heard footsteps in the hallway, she assumed it was Rayford seeking his bed and rolled over, hunkering down into the warm feather bed. Then she heard the door open and the latch fall back into place as it closed.

She sat up, squinting into darkness alleviated only by the dying embers in the grate. “Rayford, is that you?”

No answer was forthcoming.

The footsteps advanced, moving closer to the bed. “Rayford! What are you doing in here?”

Sophia felt a shimmer of panic when a man emerged from the shadows and passed before the hearth, his stout body outlined in the flickering light. She knew instantly that it wasn't Rayford, for the short, stout figure couldn't possibly belong to her tall, slim stepbrother. When she finally realized who had invaded her room, she opened her mouth and let loose a piercing scream.

“We're alone in the house, so there's no one here to hear you, my dear,” Rigby said as he struck a light to the candle on her nightstand.

Stunned, Sophia stared at him. His mouth was slack, his eyes bright with lust. “Get out!”

“Oh, no. I'm paying dearly for you and I won't be denied.”

“If you're talking about your unholy bargain with my stepbrother, I want no part of it. Rayford can rot in prison, for all I care. Now get out before I summon the Watch.”

Rigby reached for the quilt and stripped it away. “I'm not going anywhere, my dear. Take off that nightdress so I can see what I'm paying for.”

For a moment, Sophia's brain had shut down, but now she was thinking clearly, her mind searching for a way to escape Sir Oscar's nefarious plans for her. She was alone in the house, with no one but herself to rely upon.

Rigby reached for the hem of her nightdress.

“Wait!” Sophia cried. “I won't make it easy for you if you try to rape me. Wouldn't it be a much more pleasant experience if I came to you willingly?”

Rigby gaped at her. “You'd do that?”

Never in a million years
. “Of course.” She summoned a smile. “After all, my compliance would benefit my family.” She nearly gagged over her next words, for she knew Rayford cared little for her. “I'm very fond of my stepbrother.”

“I own I am surprised,” Rigby replied. “Caldwell led me to believe you would object.”

He discarded his jacket and cravat and would have shed his breeches and boots if Sophia hadn't raised a hand, stopping him. “Wait! Let me help you.”

Trying her seductive best, though she knew little about seduction, she climbed out of bed, allowing a bit of ankle and calf to show beneath her nightdress. Taking note of the way Rigby stared at her ankles, she sidled up to him and began unbuttoning his shirt. His eyes nearly popped out of his head when she pulled his shirt halfway down his arms, imprisoning them at his sides.

“Sit down, Sir Oscar, so I can remove your boots.”

His arms still captured by his shirt, Sophia led him to a chair. “What about my shirt?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Sophia purred. “We'll do this my way or not at all. Sit down and let me tend to your needs.”

By now Rigby was panting with lust. “This waiting is killing me.” Nevertheless, he sat down in the chair Sophia indicated.

“We have all night,” Sophia reminded him as she thought of all manner of vile things she'd like to do to Rigby and Ray.

Sophia moved behind Rigby. He swiveled in the chair to find her. “What are you doing? Stay where I can see you.”

Sophia's lush lips pursed in a fetching pout. “Turn around while I take off my nightdress. If you peek, I won't finish undressing you.”

His eyes glazed over. “I had no idea you enjoyed playing sex games. Caldwell made no mention of your . . . unconventional nature.”

“Rayford doesn't know everything,” Sophia said, rolling her eyes. “Turn around, Sir Oscar.”

Rigby had become so excited he was literally bouncing in the chair. Though clearly reluctant, he did as Sophia asked. “Don't take too long. I'm hard as a rock and ready to burst.”

The moment Rigby turned his back on Sophia, she grabbed a long, tasseled rope from the drapery at the window and flung it around his bulky body, wrapping it around him twice and knotting it behind the chair.

“What's this?” Rigby blustered. “I don't like this kind of game.”

“Neither do I, Sir Oscar. I can't believe you had the audacity to think I would go along with the plan you hatched with Rayford. I'm not for sale, sir. You can tell that to Ray when he returns home and releases you.”

Sophia turned away to find her clothing. She didn't intend to be there when Rayford returned. She dressed quickly behind a screen, disdaining a corset and several petticoats in her haste to leave. Rigby was struggling with his bonds and cursing violently when she emerged. She should have gagged him but decided to ignore his foul language instead.

Sophia dragged her valise from beneath the bed and packed only the necessities, leaving the bulk of her clothing behind. She could only carry so much.

Sophia doubted that Ray had left enough money in the strongbox in his desk to get her back home, but she knew where she could find what she needed. She turned to look at Sir Oscar, wondering how difficult it would be to lift his purse. Difficult or not, she had to do it.

“What are you going to do?” Rigby asked when Sophia approached him.

“I need money,” Sophia said bluntly. “In which pocket do you keep your purse?”

The moment Rigby lunged forward, Sophia knew she had misjudged his strength as well as her ability to tie knots. The rope gave, and he burst free. Sophia didn't wait as he pulled his shirt up over his arms and grabbed his coat; she turned and ran, forgetting her valise, her wrap, and all thought of money in her haste to escape the enraged man.

Sophia flung open the door and raced for the stairs. Rigby was close on her heels. He lunged for her, catching the sleeve of her dress. It ripped in his hand.

“I've got you, bitch!” he crowed. “You won't get away with this. I'll fetch the Watch. It's a raw night; you wouldn't get far in this weather anyway. I'll have you brought up on charges of robbery and assault.”

Sophia prayed for a miracle. It arrived when her sleeve tore away, freeing her. Rigby lost his balance and tumbled headlong down the stairs. Sophia scrambled after him. Reaching for the vase resting on the hall table, she crashed it on his head as he started to rise. She didn't wait to see if it had knocked him out as she flung open the door and sprinted into the dark night. But Sir Oscar must have had a hard head, for she heard him stirring behind her.

Sophia ran. Ran as far and as fast as she could. In the distance, she could hear footsteps pounding after her. Sir Oscar? It had to be.

Her chest ached, her legs were ready to collapse beneath her, but she refused to give in to weakness. All her life she'd been dictated to. She was told whom to let court her, whom to favor even though she yearned for another. Now she would take care of herself.

Sophia could hear voices behind her. Apparently, Sir Oscar had found the Watch. If she didn't find a hiding place soon, they would toss her in Newgate and throw away the key. Gulping in a lungful of cold air, Sophia stopped to get her bearings. She'd run so long and so far, she had no idea where she was.

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