Chapter 14

Chapter 14

That same evening, a damp one with the mist and a fog feeling like ice on his skin, Ailesworth joined Drum and Michael Constant for dinner at Whites. From the hall, he surveyed the reading room. All the men in it were old. Some read papers, some slept in their chairs. Silence reigned.

For the first time in his life, Ailesworth wondered if he would end his days sitting in a large, comfortable club chair in White’s reading room, sleeping beneath The London Times. He smiled. No, he wouldn’t. He and Esther would have a brood of children and he and she would stay home and play with their grandchildren.

He grinned. Someone tapped him on is shoulder. He turned and startled Constant.

“Why the grin?”

Ailesworth took him by the elbow and they moved down the hall toward the dining room. “Just imagining myself playing with my grandchildren.”

Constant stared. Ailesworth might be serious. “Don’t you need children first?”

“Children? Who’s talking of children?” Drum was behind them. “Damme, Ailesworth, don’t tell me you’ve gotten a child while I’ve been away.” Drum had been in the country, visiting his mother and sisters.

The three men sat at a table covered with a stiff white tablecloth. A waiter appeared and announced the chef had some fine salmon that evening. Also some sturgeon and roe.

“Fish eggs! Can’t stand ‘em.”  Constant shuddered.

Ailesworth shook his head at his friend and said, “You need travel, my friend,” and ordered the roe and the salmon.

“All right, what’s this about grandchildren?”  Drum asked once the orders had been given.

Ailesworth leaned back and smiled as he thought a patriarch might smile. “I’m planning things.”

Drum looked at Constant. Constant grimaced and whispered, “He’s going to get leg-shackled.”

“Well, well.”

Ailesworth’s smile disappeared. “It’s a state secret.”  His glower appeared. “It goes no farther than this table. Understand?”

Drum nodded while Constant looked aggrieved. “So the lovely Mrs. B has accepted your hand?”

“Not quite.”

“Have you asked her yet?”

“No.”

“But you’re sure she will agree?’

“Oh, yes.”  He smiled beatifically, thinking of the coming evening. He’d have stayed to dine with Esther if he hadn’t had this dinner planned with his two friends.

“The man’s deranged,” Constant muttered.

“I haven’t told you about the children, have I?”

Both men were confused. Drum said, “Children. There are already children?”

Ailesworth’s grin grew broader. “Not mine. Not Esther’s. Someone else’s children.” And he happily began eating his fish eggs and crisp toast, knowing he’d stymied them.

The other two let their soup cool as they regarded him and then each other.

“Let’s ignore him, Drum.”

“Yes, I agree,” Drum nodded and both silently began on their soup.

The silence lasted for a minute.

“All right. I give up. What children?”

Ailesworth grinned at Constant. “A boy and a girl I found in the street. They’re with me until Esther and Mrs. Nelson can take them. Nice brats.”

At the Baskinville’s rout that night, Maria was finally able to talk her mother into arriving at a fashionable hour. She swept into the drawing room and looked around. Her mother took her arm and tried to take her to their hostess, wherever she was.

“Mama, can’t we wait a moment?”

Mrs. Castle said no, it wasn’t polite, so the two wended their way through the mob. Maria was able to see her friends and give them a nod. As they found their way to the end of the room where Mrs. Baskinville was fanning herself, while a friend beside her declared it a crush, Maria spotted de Sable in the far corner, bent over someone.

She made her curtsey to Lady Baskenville and stood by her mother, smiling. She was furious. De Sable was leaning over someone–obviously a woman–and leaning down at her in a most disgusting way. His eyes never left her. It must be that woman that he was pursuing. She needed to find out who she was.

Just then her friends, Matilda and Jessamyn, appeared at her side. They greeted Mrs. Castle, curtseyed to Lady Baskinville, who could never be greeted thus too many times, and settled for a talk with Maria.

“Mama, I see someone I know in the next room. May I go if Tildy and Jess come with me?”

“Yes, dear, of course.”

“Properly brought up miss,” said Lady Baskinville with her lorgnette in hand, as the three girls bowed and left.

“Who’d you see, Maria? One of your beaus?” Tildy asked.

“It’s that dog, de Sable! He’s across the room here, bent over some woman. It’s that woman he’s courting along with me. I want to see who it is.”  Maria was frowning.

“Maria,” whispered Jess. “Don’t frown.”

“What? Oh, yes, smiling all the while. What would I do without you?’ and she squeezed Jess’s arm.

Maria often forgot that a girl always appeared calm and unruffled. Jessamyn usually had to remind her every evening at least once.

Jessamyn and Matilda had been wallflowers when they had met Maria. Maria hadn’t liked it that they didn’t dance, so she dragooned the young men who surrounded her into dancing with them. Matilda didn’t care as she had a young man at home to whom she was secretly betrothed, but Jessamyn was undyingly grateful to Maria.

Maria kept her back to de Sable when they got closer. The three girls stood in a knot, as though sharing a secret. No man would bother them. Jessamyn, the tallest, was finally able to see. “It’s Lady Helen Gravoir! Maria, he can’t be courting her; she’s married.”

“Is his back to us?”

“Yes.”

Maria turned far enough to see. Lady Helen was spectacularly beautiful. He gown was stunning and displayed a breadth and depth of bosom that was greater than any Maria had seen before.

She said to her friends, “Let’s saunter away. Oh, there’s Mr. Stafford. He’s coming this way,” and she gave him a big smile.

Mr. Stafford needed no more encouragement. He joined them and soon they were surrounded by a group of young men.

Lady Helen had found it amusing that Alex’s girl friend had come across the room with her friends to see who he was talking to. She decided not to tell him. He was too sure of himself.

Maria talked and laughed and made sure her friends were included. Once they had looked plain and unattractive as they sat on chairs against the wall, but now that Maria had pulled them into her circle, their flushed, smiling faces were pretty and some of the young men were becoming interested.

But inside, Maria fumed. De Sable found Lady Helen more interesting than food! Instead of cleaning out one entire buffet table as he usually did, he was talking to his mistress.

And still Maria didn’t know who else he was courting!

Ailesworth went in to see the children before he left for Esther’s. They slept together in a bed in his one extra bedroom. Their candle was snuffed out but he knew they were awake. Every evening Chambers reported that he could them whispering together. They insisted that the door to their room be left open, so there was dim light from the candle sconce in the hallway.

“Go to sleep, children.”

“Yes, my lord.”  He could hear them scooting down under their covers.

“Do you want a light in here? I hear tell there’s a candle that gives a dim light.”

“No, my lord. Sally and I are fine. We like the door open.”  He heard Sally whisper, “Catherine,” and a rustle of bed clothes as Jim elbowed her.

“I’ve looked for your uncle and he has vanished. None of his neighbors know where he’s gone to.”

“None of them liked him, my lord. They used to slip us bits of food now and then when he was busy.”

Ailesworth frowned. He hadn’t heard that before. “Which neighbors?”

“Nell and Jem. Old Mother Perkins.”

“And Bug-eye,” said Sally.

“He never gave me anything,” Jim said in an aggrieved voice.

In a small voice, Sally said, “He wanted me to go into the alley with him.”

“I’ll kill him!”

Jim gave a start at Ailesworth’s vehemence. “He left, my lord. Or something. He is not there anymore.”  He looked at Sally and realized what Bug-eye wanted with her.

“All right. You two go to sleep. Are you, is everything all right?”

“Yes, my lord,” came two voices.

Ailesworth leaned over and clumsily patted Jim’s head and quickly kissed the top of Sally-Catherine’s head.

In a hackney on his way to Cargill Street, he didn’t understand why he’d decided to see the children after dinner at Whites. He’d found out from Chambers that the children stayed awake for some time talking and he wanted to see if he could find out if something was bothering them.

He hadn’t found out anything new but he had more information: three people to reward for caring for those children. And there was still the disappearance of their uncle. He would  hire a Bow Street Runner to search for the uncle.

At Cargill Street, he felt slightly uneasy as he paid and dismissed his hackney. Suppose Esther had changed her mind? She’d almost seemed to be in a state of some kind, with her eyes so bright, when she talked to him of what seemed to him to be a wild mixture of sisters, father, diamonds and independence. Hell, she sounded like a Yankee, talking of independence as she did. But it didn’t matter. She’d agreed to take him into her bed and he’d see she stuck to her promise.

When he saw her, standing in her parlor in her blue gown, he didn’t care for anything but her. In the candlelight–surely there were more candles?–she was beautiful. He realized with a start that the neckline of her gown had been lowered. His eyes were drawn there and stayed there.

Esther shifted. “Um, I removed the fichu.”

“Hm?”

“That’s why the neck is lower. I removed the fichu.” Her hand described a line on her chest. “It was up to here.”

“Why did you ever wear a fish, a what-do-you-call-it?”

“So men wouldn’t stare!”  She put her hands on her hips and glared up at him.

He smiled. “Sweetheart, men will always stare at such a beautiful sight.”

“Some don’t.”

“Who?”

“Lord Grainger.”

He let out a laugh. “You just never caught him.”

“Oh.”  Her hands dropped from her hips.

He took her hands and kissed them. “Esther, it’s ten o’clock. Can we go to bed?”

“Yes.”  A blush covered her face, neck and bosom.

“How beautiful you are. Your womanly flush arouses me.”

“Well,” she gulped, “we’d best go to bed, then,” and blushed some more.

Ailesworth wanted to wrap his arms around her and take her there but he was playing a cagey game. A long-term game. He took her hand and picked up a candle. She went to the other candles that were alight to snuff them and he, connected by her hand, followed and snuffed them for her.They went upstairs and into her bedroom. There he put the candle down and turned her to face him. She was tremblisng.

“Ailesworth, do you have a way of preventing, um, children?” She had decided some time ago that she was barren. She had never conceived once with Jacob. But she didn’t want Ailesworth to know that.

“Yes.”  His hands went into her hair and removed pins. Her heavy dark locks fell into his hands. “So soft, so silky. You have beautiful hair, Esther.”

“I do?”  She was surprised. Her lids wanted to drift close. She must stay awake.

“Yes. Silky and alive. And it changes color–brown to black to red.”

“Red?” she murmured. How mesmeric his hands were on her scalp, massaging and stroking. She attached her hands to his hips, to have something to hold on to. It took her several seconds to realize how large his hip bones were.

She looked up at him. “You’re tall. And big. Your hip bones are big.”

Ailesworth chuckled although it was getting harder not to groan. Somehow she made his hip bones erotic. “Big hip bones?”

“Yes, so big, so safe.”

That stopped him. “Safe?”

“Yes, with you, I’m safe.”  She looked up at him and shrugged. “I don’t understand it but because you’re big and strong, you’ll save me from,” her hand waved toward the window, “all that, outside.”

“Yes, I will, Esther.” He began unfastening her dress, his hands working behind her. She began unfastening his waistcoat. She was eager to see and touch his bare chest again.

Her dress began sliding down her arms.

“Wait! I want to touch you,” and she pushed his coat down and he shrugged out of it, followed by his waistcoat, all gleaming silver and black embroidery.

Her dress fell below her breasts and he gasped. My God! They were magnificent–large and creamy breasts with dark colored nipples.

Esther stopped unbuttoning his shirt and looked u at him, a little anxiously. “They aren’t too big, are they? Jacob used to say–”

“I’ll kill Jacob! They are perfect, glorious,” and he gently palmed them, feeling the luscious weight of them down to his soles.

She gasped and let her dress fall to the floor. She tried to say that he couldn’t kill Jacob as he was dead, but her mouth could only moan. Her hands found their way under his shirt. “Ailesworth, your chest, take your shirt off.”

He released her breasts and pulled his shirt over his head, buttons flying.

She gasped and put her hands on him. What a glorious sight, all brawny muscle, broad with thick curly brown hair narrowing to a line leading to his groin. Her hands slid over his nipples. He shuddered. His nipples hardened.

“Oh!” she released a tiny gasp.

“Yes”, he ground out. He’d never had a woman treat him with such sweet surprise before. He felt like a new continent and Esther, the explorer, trembling with eagerness to discover him.

“Ailesworth,” she crooned and kissed him over his heart.

“Garick, call me Garick.”

“Garick,” she crooned, her hand exploring his chest. The tight whorls of hair were so interesting.

He was unable to say another word. His privy member, upright and thick, was demanding more and more of his attention.

She laid her cheek against his chest. “My knight, Garick, who slays dragons for me.”

“Yes, yes.”  He worked to free her of the rest of her clothes, chemise and pantalettes. She tried to unbutton his trousers but she couldn’t make her fingers work. He rapidly undid them and pulled pants and under drawers down.

Damn! He had his boots on.

He sat on the bed to pull his boots off. Esther stared at his rod, huge ans swollen. He saw her wide eyes.

“Esther? You’ve seen a man’s privy member before, haven’t you?”

She gulped. “No, I haven’t. Jacob put out the candle before he undressed. And his, uh, member was not like that. Not at all.”

He wrenched his boots and clothes off and moved to hold her. She was getting nervous. “Mine is, dearling, and will fit very well.”

He scooped her up and placed her on the bed, immediately covering her body with his. For a second, she was frightened of his large hard body looming over her. Then the fear changed: it became exciting fear and aroused her strongly. She moaned and he found himself growling.

Oh, how marvelous to feel that strong muscled body on hers. He was heavy but it felt so good. She felt at home with him now, safe in a manner she didn’t understand. Her hands went to his hips again and traced the power of his hip and thigh. The mere pressure of his heavy body caused her to private parts to secrete moisture. She felt embarrassingly wet. But she wasn’t going to fret. Whatever happened was fine. She had him in her bed, all his heavy glory pressing her down.

He was kissing her, soul-deep kisses. He wanted to take his time but her reaction was undermining his plan. She gave little sighs and her lush body began moving while her hands ran up and down his back and over his taut buttocks.

Ailesworth pulled away and groaned. “I want it to be good for you, my dearling. I must slow down.”

“Oh, no, Garick. I want you now. Now! Come in, please!”  Her knees were up and she was tilting her pelvis to receive him.

He couldn’t resist her cry. He found her hot, honeyed haven and plunged in.

She gave a cry and climaxed around him. He gave up, and with two fierce thrusts, he shuddered to his release. Although she could barely see, she saw him arching above her, his chest pulled taut and an expression of ecstasy on his face. Ah! She had given him that pleasure.

He collapsed on top of her and she wrapped her arms tightly around him. Yes, yes, this was what she wanted.

They clung to each other until his head jerked up. He rolled off her and looked at his feet.

“Damn! I made love with my socks on!”

Esther looked. She giggled. He looked at her and began smiling and in seconds they were laughing and rolling about in the bed.

Next door where Alma had a pillow over her head, so jealous was she of their sounds of love-making, she lifted it to listen to laughter. She smiled and relaxed. How good it was that they laughed together. She turned on to her other side and found sleep.

The next morning, Esther and Ailesworth were ravenously hungry. Mrs. Batson must have understood the morning hunger after a night of love-making for there was ham and eggs and a piece of beef for Ailesworth.

“Oh,” he sighed, “a cook who provides a good breakfast is a gem without price.”

Esther could only nod, as she ate her ham and eggs and toast and butter and jam and tea.

“Coffee! Ailesworth, did you want coffee?”

“I usually have it but the tea is good and strong.”

Esther nodded. “I’ll get some in.”

“For tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow?”  She had a little squeak in her voice.

“Tonight, my dear.”  He grinned at her wolfishly.

Oh my, she was being devoured by a wild creature, a wolf or a lion. As she stared into his gold-brown eyes, she began to blush. She was remembering last night, particularly their second bout of love-making. He had kissed her whole body, as though learning it with his lips and mouth. She thought that she should have declared, “only simple love-making; no worshiping of bodies.”  For that is what it was. And he ended by kissing and tonguing her “down there.”

She dropped her eyes to her plate and began eating again. She must be grown up enough to call her parts and his by their rightful names. The trouble was she didn’t know the names. Except for the word,”penis,” which she could never say. What had he called it? “Privy member,” that was it. Would she be able to say it?

Ailesworth was amused by his future wife’s expressions as she ate. He could tell when she began remembering last night. They’d slept for awhile after their first congress. Then he’d woken her by caressing her body. He’d brought her to climax using his lips and tongue. That was what brought the blush to her cheeks, he was sure.

He deliberately hadn’t withdrawn last night. Since he’d decided on marriage, he thought it might be good to start a family. Why not?

When should he propose?

Esther began talking of the new house she’d found, once the ham and eggs rested comfortably in her stomach. Alma had joined them.

“It’s got three bedrooms on the first floor, so we can hear the children at night. It’s just around the corner so we can use the same butcher, which is very important, Ailesworth.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I take your word for it.”

“The lady next door said it was a sound house. We are to look at it today.”

“Here, give them my card to hold it for you.”

“I don’t need that! I have the funds for the rent.”  She frowned at him.

“Oh, yes, I forgot. A lady of means.”  He smiled at her.

“Well, yes. Once I rid myself of that tiresome tiara, I shall have heaps and heaps of money. I’ll need advice on investing, Ailesworth.”

He nodded. “My man, Wrigglesworth, is at your service.”

Alma looked at Esther with a slight frown. “Esther, are you sure you want to sell it?”

Esther put her hand on Alma’s arm. “Do you want to wear it? I can wait–”

“No! Horrors! I just meant selling it is so irreversible, so…”

“Money, Alma, security. And comforts. Right, Ailesworth?”

“If you say so, my dear.” Lud! He sounded just like a husband.

Alma steered the conversation back to the house. She and Esther had set eleven o’clock as the time to pay a visit to the house agent.

Ailesworth left, after giving Esther a passionate kiss in the hallway which Alma tried not to see.

Unfortunately, it was time to visit his brother. After a visit to his lodgings.

Alma and Esther were pleased with the house and promptly made arrangements to secure it. The agent gave them the name of a removal man and they left, happy as they hoped the children would be.

Esther went down to the kitchen after they returned to Cargill Street.

“Mrs. Batson, Jessie. Mrs. Nelson and I have rented a house around the corner of Furth Street. Here’s the keys, Mrs. Batson, for you to look at the kitchen. I think you’ll find it superior but I don’t know about the stove. You’ll have to tell me if it is sufficient or do we need something different.”

Both Mrs. Batson and Jessie were eager to see the house. Esther went upstairs to start packing, singing as she pulled their trunks out of the box room.

Ailesworth, after changing clothes at his lodgings, went to the dining room to talk to the children. As usual, Jim was making a good job of his meal. Sally Catherine was eating more slowly but seemed able to put away a sufficient amount.

Ailesworth sat at the table before Jim could get up and bow. He’d taken to bowing every time he saw Ailesworth. Chambers’ doing, Ailesworth surmised.

“Mrs. Beryll has taken a house and will be moving very shortly. There’s an extra bedroom for you two.”

He waited for a response.

“Yes, my lord,” said Jim.

Sally-Catherine said, “May I bring my new clothes?”

“Of course! And Mrs. Beryll and Mrs. Nelson will take you out to buy more.”

He waited for a smile and instead saw a frown, a very delicate one.

“What’s wrong?”

She dropped her eyes to her plate and her hands fell to her lap. Jim leaned over and whispered. She nodded, a tiny nod.

Jim turned to Ailesworth but she stopped him. He seemed to understand.

“My lord, may I speak to you, um, in the hall?”

“Of course.”  He rose, leaving Sally-Catherine sitting like a statue at the table.

Ailesworth closed the door.

“My lord, it’s her back, she doesn’t want anyone to see her back.”

“Of course! I’ll tell Mrs. Beryll.” He gave Jim a pat on his shoulder and left.

He must find that brute of an uncle! He’d hire a Bow Street Runner today.

But first he’d go and wring his brother’s neck.

That same evening, a damp one with the mist and a fog feeling like ice on his skin, Ailesworth joined Drum and Michael Constant for dinner at Whites. From the hall, he surveyed the reading room. All the men in it were old. Some read papers, some slept in their chairs. Silence reigned.

For the first time in his life, Ailesworth wondered if he would end his days sitting in a large, comfortable club chair in White’s reading room, sleeping beneath The London Times. He smiled. No, he wouldn’t. He and Esther would have a brood of children and he and she would stay home and play with their grandchildren.

He grinned. Someone tapped him on is shoulder. He turned and startled Constant.

“Why the grin?”

Ailesworth took him by the elbow and they moved down the hall toward the dining room. “Just imagining myself playing with my grandchildren.”

Constant stared. Ailesworth might be serious. “Don’t you need children first?”

“Children? Who’s talking of children?” Drum was behind them. “Damme, Ailesworth, don’t tell me you’ve gotten a child while I’ve been away.” Drum had been in the country, visiting his mother and sisters.

The three men sat at a table covered with a stiff white tablecloth. A waiter appeared and announced the chef had some fine salmon that evening. Also some sturgeon and roe.

“Fish eggs! Can’t stand ‘em.”  Constant shuddered.

Ailesworth shook his head at his friend and said, “You need travel, my friend,” and ordered the roe and the salmon.

“All right, what’s this about grandchildren?”  Drum asked once the orders had been given.

Ailesworth leaned back and smiled as he thought a patriarch might smile. “I’m planning things.”

Drum looked at Constant. Constant grimaced and whispered, “He’s going to get leg-shackled.”

“Well, well.”

Ailesworth’s smile disappeared. “It’s a state secret.”  His glower appeared. “It goes no farther than this table. Understand?”

Drum nodded while Constant looked aggrieved. “So the lovely Mrs. B has accepted your hand?”

“Not quite.”

“Have you asked her yet?”

“No.”

“But you’re sure she will agree?’

“Oh, yes.”  He smiled beatifically, thinking of the coming evening. He’d have stayed to dine with Esther if he hadn’t had this dinner planned with his two friends.

“The man’s deranged,” Constant muttered.

“I haven’t told you about the children, have I?”

Both men were confused. Drum said, “Children. There are already children?”

Ailesworth’s grin grew broader. “Not mine. Not Esther’s. Someone else’s children.” And he happily began eating his fish eggs and crisp toast, knowing he’d stymied them.

The other two let their soup cool as they regarded him and then each other.

“Let’s ignore him, Drum.”

“Yes, I agree,” Drum nodded and both silently began on their soup.

The silence lasted for a minute.

“All right. I give up. What children?”

George finally gave up on his cousin. He’d never get Mrs. Beryll now that she had a fortune at her disposal and he wouldn’t be guided into sound business moves.

He methodically finished his dinner. He had chosen this place because the food–perfectly edible and good for strengthening the teeth–was cheap. He was tired of buying his cousin meals. There would be no more.

George rose. “I must go,” and he walked out.

Alex shook his head. Devilish moody fellow, his cousin. He spied a piece of cheese left on George’s plate and popped it into his mouth. He was still hungry. He’d best go to the Baskinville’s rout tonight. They always had a good table. Perhaps there’d be lobster patties. Maybe he’d see Lady Helen there. He smiled and felt warm as he thought of her charms. If only that curst valet of his hadn’t left. He’d better find another. And first he’d better find some money.

Chapter 14

That same evening, a damp one with the mist and a fog feeling like ice on his skin, Ailesworth joined Drum and Michael Constant for dinner at Whites. From the hall, he surveyed the reading room. All the men in it were old. Some read papers, some slept in their chairs. Silence reigned.

For the first time in his life, Ailesworth wondered if he would end his days sitting in a large, comfortable club chair in White’s reading room, sleeping beneath The London Times. He smiled. No, he wouldn’t. He and Esther would have a brood of children and he and she would stay home and play with their grandchildren.

He grinned. Someone tapped him on is shoulder. He turned and startled Constant.

“Why the grin?”

Ailesworth took him by the elbow and they moved down the hall toward the dining room. “Just imagining myself playing with my grandchildren.”

Constant stared. Ailesworth might be serious. “Don’t you need children first?”

“Children? Who’s talking of children?” Drum was behind them. “Damme, Ailesworth, don’t tell me you’ve gotten a child while I’ve been away.” Drum had been in the country, visiting his mother and sisters.

The three men sat at a table covered with a stiff white tablecloth. A waiter appeared and announced the chef had some fine salmon that evening. Also some sturgeon and roe.

“Fish eggs! Can’t stand ‘em.”  Constant shuddered.

Ailesworth shook his head at his friend and said, “You need travel, my friend,” and ordered the roe and the salmon.

“All right, what’s this about grandchildren?”  Drum asked once the orders had been given.

Ailesworth leaned back and smiled as he thought a patriarch might smile. “I’m planning things.”

Drum looked at Constant. Constant grimaced and whispered, “He’s going to get leg-shackled.”

“Well, well.”

Ailesworth’s smile disappeared. “It’s a state secret.”  His glower appeared. “It goes no farther than this table. Understand?”

Drum nodded while Constant looked aggrieved. “So the lovely Mrs. B has accepted your hand?”

“Not quite.”

“Have you asked her yet?”

“No.”

“But you’re sure she will agree?’

“Oh, yes.”  He smiled beatifically, thinking of the coming evening. He’d have stayed to dine with Esther if he hadn’t had this dinner planned with his two friends.

“The man’s deranged,” Constant muttered.

“I haven’t told you about the children, have I?”

Both men were confused. Drum said, “Children. There are already children?”

Ailesworth’s grin grew broader. “Not mine. Not Esther’s. Someone else’s children.” And he happily began eating his fish eggs and crisp toast, knowing he’d stymied them.

The other two let their soup cool as they regarded him and then each other.

“Let’s ignore him, Drum.”

“Yes, I agree,” Drum nodded and both silently began on their soup.

The silence lasted for a minute.

“All right. I give up. What children?”

Ailesworth grinned at Constant. “A boy and a girl I found in the street. They’re with me until Esther and Mrs. Nelson can take them. Nice brats.”

At the Baskinville’s rout that night, Maria was finally able to talk her mother into arriving at a fashionable hour. She swept into the drawing room and looked around. Her mother took her arm and tried to take her to their hostess, wherever she was.

“Mama, can’t we wait a moment?”

Mrs. Castle said no, it wasn’t polite, so the two wended their way through the mob. Maria was able to see her friends and give them a nod. As they found their way to the end of the room where Mrs. Baskinville was fanning herself, while a friend beside her declared it a crush, Maria spotted de Sable in the far corner, bent over someone.

She made her curtsey to Lady Baskenville and stood by her mother, smiling. She was furious. De Sable was leaning over someone–obviously a woman–and leaning down at her in a most disgusting way. His eyes never left her. It must be that woman that he was pursuing. She needed to find out who she was.

Just then her friends, Matilda and Jessamyn, appeared at her side. They greeted Mrs. Castle, curtseyed to Lady Baskinville, who could never be greeted thus too many times, and settled for a talk with Maria.

“Mama, I see someone I know in the next room. May I go if Tildy and Jess come with me?”

“Yes, dear, of course.”

“Properly brought up miss,” said Lady Baskinville with her lorgnette in hand, as the three girls bowed and left.

“Who’d you see, Maria? One of your beaus?” Tildy asked.

“It’s that dog, de Sable! He’s across the room here, bent over some woman. It’s that woman he’s courting along with me. I want to see who it is.”  Maria was frowning.

“Maria,” whispered Jess. “Don’t frown.”

“What? Oh, yes, smiling all the while. What would I do without you?’ and she squeezed Jess’s arm.

Maria often forgot that a girl always appeared calm and unruffled. Jessamyn usually had to remind her every evening at least once.

Jessamyn and Matilda had been wallflowers when they had met Maria. Maria hadn’t liked it that they didn’t dance, so she dragooned the young men who surrounded her into dancing with them. Matilda didn’t care as she had a young man at home to whom she was secretly betrothed, but Jessamyn was undyingly grateful to Maria.

Maria kept her back to de Sable when they got closer. The three girls stood in a knot, as though sharing a secret. No man would bother them. Jessamyn, the tallest, was finally able to see. “It’s Lady Helen Gravoir! Maria, he can’t be courting her; she’s married.”

“Is his back to us?”

“Yes.”

Maria turned far enough to see. Lady Helen was spectacularly beautiful. He gown was stunning and displayed a breadth and depth of bosom that was greater than any Maria had seen before.

She said to her friends, “Let’s saunter away. Oh, there’s Mr. Stafford. He’s coming this way,” and she gave him a big smile.

Mr. Stafford needed no more encouragement. He joined them and soon they were surrounded by a group of young men.

Lady Helen had found it amusing that Alex’s girl friend had come across the room with her friends to see who he was talking to. She decided not to tell him. He was too sure of himself.

Maria talked and laughed and made sure her friends were included. Once they had looked plain and unattractive as they sat on chairs against the wall, but now that Maria had pulled them into her circle, their flushed, smiling faces were pretty and some of the young men were becoming interested.

But inside, Maria fumed. De Sable found Lady Helen more interesting than food! Instead of cleaning out one entire buffet table as he usually did, he was talking to his mistress.

And still Maria didn’t know who else he was courting!

Ailesworth went in to see the children before he left for Esther’s. They slept together in a bed in his one extra bedroom. Their candle was snuffed out but he knew they were awake. Every evening Chambers reported that he could them whispering together. They insisted that the door to their room be left open, so there was dim light from the candle sconce in the hallway.

“Go to sleep, children.”

“Yes, my lord.”  He could hear them scooting down under their covers.

“Do you want a light in here? I hear tell there’s a candle that gives a dim light.”

“No, my lord. Sally and I are fine. We like the door open.”  He heard Sally whisper, “Catherine,” and a rustle of bed clothes as Jim elbowed her.

“I’ve looked for your uncle and he has vanished. None of his neighbors know where he’s gone to.”

“None of them liked him, my lord. They used to slip us bits of food now and then when he was busy.”

Ailesworth frowned. He hadn’t heard that before. “Which neighbors?”

“Nell and Jem. Old Mother Perkins.”

“And Bug-eye,” said Sally.

“He never gave me anything,” Jim said in an aggrieved voice.

In a small voice, Sally said, “He wanted me to go into the alley with him.”

“I’ll kill him!”

Jim gave a start at Ailesworth’s vehemence. “He left, my lord. Or something. He is not there anymore.”  He looked at Sally and realized what Bug-eye wanted with her.

“All right. You two go to sleep. Are you, is everything all right?”

“Yes, my lord,” came two voices.

Ailesworth leaned over and clumsily patted Jim’s head and quickly kissed the top of Sally-Catherine’s head.

In a hackney on his way to Cargill Street, he didn’t understand why he’d decided to see the children after dinner at Whites. He’d found out from Chambers that the children stayed awake for some time talking and he wanted to see if he could find out if something was bothering them.

He hadn’t found out anything new but he had more information: three people to reward for caring for those children. And there was still the disappearance of their uncle. He would  hire a Bow Street Runner to search for the uncle.

At Cargill Street, he felt slightly uneasy as he paid and dismissed his hackney. Suppose Esther had changed her mind? She’d almost seemed to be in a state of some kind, with her eyes so bright, when she talked to him of what seemed to him to be a wild mixture of sisters, father, diamonds and independence. Hell, she sounded like a Yankee, talking of independence as she did. But it didn’t matter. She’d agreed to take him into her bed and he’d see she stuck to her promise.

When he saw her, standing in her parlor in her blue gown, he didn’t care for anything but her. In the candlelight–surely there were more candles?–she was beautiful. He realized with a start that the neckline of her gown had been lowered. His eyes were drawn there and stayed there.

Esther shifted. “Um, I removed the fichu.”

“Hm?”

“That’s why the neck is lower. I removed the fichu.” Her hand described a line on her chest. “It was up to here.”

“Why did you ever wear a fish, a what-do-you-call-it?”

“So men wouldn’t stare!”  She put her hands on her hips and glared up at him.

He smiled. “Sweetheart, men will always stare at such a beautiful sight.”

“Some don’t.”

“Who?”

“Lord Grainger.”

He let out a laugh. “You just never caught him.”

“Oh.”  Her hands dropped from her hips.

He took her hands and kissed them. “Esther, it’s ten o’clock. Can we go to bed?”

“Yes.”  A blush covered her face, neck and bosom.

“How beautiful you are. Your womanly flush arouses me.”

“Well,” she gulped, “we’d best go to bed, then,” and blushed some more.

Ailesworth wanted to wrap his arms around her and take her there but he was playing a cagey game. A long-term game. He took her hand and picked up a candle. She went to the other candles that were alight to snuff them and he, connected by her hand, followed and snuffed them for her.They went upstairs and into her bedroom. There he put the candle down and turned her to face him. She was tremblisng.

“Ailesworth, do you have a way of preventing, um, children?” She had decided some time ago that she was barren. She had never conceived once with Jacob. But she didn’t want Ailesworth to know that.

“Yes.”  His hands went into her hair and removed pins. Her heavy dark locks fell into his hands. “So soft, so silky. You have beautiful hair, Esther.”

“I do?”  She was surprised. Her lids wanted to drift close. She must stay awake.

“Yes. Silky and alive. And it changes color–brown to black to red.”

“Red?” she murmured. How mesmeric his hands were on her scalp, massaging and stroking. She attached her hands to his hips, to have something to hold on to. It took her several seconds to realize how large his hip bones were.

She looked up at him. “You’re tall. And big. Your hip bones are big.”

Ailesworth chuckled although it was getting harder not to groan. Somehow she made his hip bones erotic. “Big hip bones?”

“Yes, so big, so safe.”

That stopped him. “Safe?”

“Yes, with you, I’m safe.”  She looked up at him and shrugged. “I don’t understand it but because you’re big and strong, you’ll save me from,” her hand waved toward the window, “all that, outside.”

“Yes, I will, Esther.” He began unfastening her dress, his hands working behind her. She began unfastening his waistcoat. She was eager to see and touch his bare chest again.

Her dress began sliding down her arms.

“Wait! I want to touch you,” and she pushed his coat down and he shrugged out of it, followed by his waistcoat, all gleaming silver and black embroidery.

Her dress fell below her breasts and he gasped. My God! They were magnificent–large and creamy breasts with dark colored nipples.

Esther stopped unbuttoning his shirt and looked u at him, a little anxiously. “They aren’t too big, are they? Jacob used to say–”

“I’ll kill Jacob! They are perfect, glorious,” and he gently palmed them, feeling the luscious weight of them down to his soles.

She gasped and let her dress fall to the floor. She tried to say that he couldn’t kill Jacob as he was dead, but her mouth could only moan. Her hands found their way under his shirt. “Ailesworth, your chest, take your shirt off.”

He released her breasts and pulled his shirt over his head, buttons flying.

She gasped and put her hands on him. What a glorious sight, all brawny muscle, broad with thick curly brown hair narrowing to a line leading to his groin. Her hands slid over his nipples. He shuddered. His nipples hardened.

“Oh!” she released a tiny gasp.

“Yes”, he ground out. He’d never had a woman treat him with such sweet surprise before. He felt like a new continent and Esther, the explorer, trembling with eagerness to discover him.

“Ailesworth,” she crooned and kissed him over his heart.

“Garick, call me Garick.”

“Garick,” she crooned, her hand exploring his chest. The tight whorls of hair were so interesting.

He was unable to say another word. His privy member, upright and thick, was demanding more and more of his attention.

She laid her cheek against his chest. “My knight, Garick, who slays dragons for me.”

“Yes, yes.”  He worked to free her of the rest of her clothes, chemise and pantalettes. She tried to unbutton his trousers but she couldn’t make her fingers work. He rapidly undid them and pulled pants and under drawers down.

Damn! He had his boots on.

He sat on the bed to pull his boots off. Esther stared at his rod, huge ans swollen. He saw her wide eyes.

“Esther? You’ve seen a man’s privy member before, haven’t you?”

She gulped. “No, I haven’t. Jacob put out the candle before he undressed. And his, uh, member was not like that. Not at all.”

He wrenched his boots and clothes off and moved to hold her. She was getting nervous. “Mine is, dearling, and will fit very well.”

He scooped her up and placed her on the bed, immediately covering her body with his. For a second, she was frightened of his large hard body looming over her. Then the fear changed: it became exciting fear and aroused her strongly. She moaned and he found himself growling.

Oh, how marvelous to feel that strong muscled body on hers. He was heavy but it felt so good. She felt at home with him now, safe in a manner she didn’t understand. Her hands went to his hips again and traced the power of his hip and thigh. The mere pressure of his heavy body caused her to private parts to secrete moisture. She felt embarrassingly wet. But she wasn’t going to fret. Whatever happened was fine. She had him in her bed, all his heavy glory pressing her down.

He was kissing her, soul-deep kisses. He wanted to take his time but her reaction was undermining his plan. She gave little sighs and her lush body began moving while her hands ran up and down his back and over his taut buttocks.

Ailesworth pulled away and groaned. “I want it to be good for you, my dearling. I must slow down.”

“Oh, no, Garick. I want you now. Now! Come in, please!”  Her knees were up and she was tilting her pelvis to receive him.

He couldn’t resist her cry. He found her hot, honeyed haven and plunged in.

She gave a cry and climaxed around him. He gave up, and with two fierce thrusts, he shuddered to his release. Although she could barely see, she saw him arching above her, his chest pulled taut and an expression of ecstasy on his face. Ah! She had given him that pleasure.

He collapsed on top of her and she wrapped her arms tightly around him. Yes, yes, this was what she wanted.

They clung to each other until his head jerked up. He rolled off her and looked at his feet.

“Damn! I made love with my socks on!”

Esther looked. She giggled. He looked at her and began smiling and in seconds they were laughing and rolling about in the bed.

Next door where Alma had a pillow over her head, so jealous was she of their sounds of love-making, she lifted it to listen to laughter. She smiled and relaxed. How good it was that they laughed together. She turned on to her other side and found sleep.

The next morning, Esther and Ailesworth were ravenously hungry. Mrs. Batson must have understood the morning hunger after a night of love-making for there was ham and eggs and a piece of beef for Ailesworth.

“Oh,” he sighed, “a cook who provides a good breakfast is a gem without price.”

Esther could only nod, as she ate her ham and eggs and toast and butter and jam and tea.

“Coffee! Ailesworth, did you want coffee?”

“I usually have it but the tea is good and strong.”

Esther nodded. “I’ll get some in.”

“For tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow?”  She had a little squeak in her voice.

“Tonight, my dear.”  He grinned at her wolfishly.

Oh my, she was being devoured by a wild creature, a wolf or a lion. As she stared into his gold-brown eyes, she began to blush. She was remembering last night, particularly their second bout of love-making. He had kissed her whole body, as though learning it with his lips and mouth. She thought that she should have declared, “only simple love-making; no worshiping of bodies.”  For that is what it was. And he ended by kissing and tonguing her “down there.”

She dropped her eyes to her plate and began eating again. She must be grown up enough to call her parts and his by their rightful names. The trouble was she didn’t know the names. Except for the word,”penis,” which she could never say. What had he called it? “Privy member,” that was it. Would she be able to say it?

Ailesworth was amused by his future wife’s expressions as she ate. He could tell when she began remembering last night. They’d slept for awhile after their first congress. Then he’d woken her by caressing her body. He’d brought her to climax using his lips and tongue. That was what brought the blush to her cheeks, he was sure.

He deliberately hadn’t withdrawn last night. Since he’d decided on marriage, he thought it might be good to start a family. Why not?

When should he propose?

Esther began talking of the new house she’d found, once the ham and eggs rested comfortably in her stomach. Alma had joined them.

“It’s got three bedrooms on the first floor, so we can hear the children at night. It’s just around the corner so we can use the same butcher, which is very important, Ailesworth.”

He raised his eyebrows. “I take your word for it.”

“The lady next door said it was a sound house. We are to look at it today.”

“Here, give them my card to hold it for you.”

“I don’t need that! I have the funds for the rent.”  She frowned at him.

“Oh, yes, I forgot. A lady of means.”  He smiled at her.

“Well, yes. Once I rid myself of that tiresome tiara, I shall have heaps and heaps of money. I’ll need advice on investing, Ailesworth.”

He nodded. “My man, Wrigglesworth, is at your service.”

Alma looked at Esther with a slight frown. “Esther, are you sure you want to sell it?”

Esther put her hand on Alma’s arm. “Do you want to wear it? I can wait–”

“No! Horrors! I just meant selling it is so irreversible, so…”

“Money, Alma, security. And comforts. Right, Ailesworth?”

“If you say so, my dear.” Lud! He sounded just like a husband.

Alma steered the conversation back to the house. She and Esther had set eleven o’clock as the time to pay a visit to the house agent.

Ailesworth left, after giving Esther a passionate kiss in the hallway which Alma tried not to see.

Unfortunately, it was time to visit his brother. After a visit to his lodgings.

Alma and Esther were pleased with the house and promptly made arrangements to secure it. The agent gave them the name of a removal man and they left, happy as they hoped the children would be.

Esther went down to the kitchen after they returned to Cargill Street.

“Mrs. Batson, Jessie. Mrs. Nelson and I have rented a house around the corner of Furth Street. Here’s the keys, Mrs. Batson, for you to look at the kitchen. I think you’ll find it superior but I don’t know about the stove. You’ll have to tell me if it is sufficient or do we need something different.”

Both Mrs. Batson and Jessie were eager to see the house. Esther went upstairs to start packing, singing as she pulled their trunks out of the box room.

Ailesworth, after changing clothes at his lodgings, went to the dining room to talk to the children. As usual, Jim was making a good job of his meal. Sally Catherine was eating more slowly but seemed able to put away a sufficient amount.

Ailesworth sat at the table before Jim could get up and bow. He’d taken to bowing every time he saw Ailesworth. Chambers’ doing, Ailesworth surmised.

“Mrs. Beryll has taken a house and will be moving very shortly. There’s an extra bedroom for you two.”

He waited for a response.

“Yes, my lord,” said Jim.

Sally-Catherine said, “May I bring my new clothes?”

“Of course! And Mrs. Beryll and Mrs. Nelson will take you out to buy more.”

He waited for a smile and instead saw a frown, a very delicate one.

“What’s wrong?”

She dropped her eyes to her plate and her hands fell to her lap. Jim leaned over and whispered. She nodded, a tiny nod.

Jim turned to Ailesworth but she stopped him. He seemed to understand.

“My lord, may I speak to you, um, in the hall?”

“Of course.”  He rose, leaving Sally-Catherine sitting like a statue at the table.

Ailesworth closed the door.

“My lord, it’s her back, she doesn’t want anyone to see her back.”

“Of course! I’ll tell Mrs. Beryll.” He gave Jim a pat on his shoulder and left.

He must find that brute of an uncle! He’d hire a Bow Street Runner today.

But first he’d go and wring his brother’s neck.

That same evening, a damp one with the mist and a fog feeling like ice on his skin, Ailesworth joined Drum and Michael Constant for dinner at Whites. From the hall, he surveyed the reading room. All the men in it were old. Some read papers, some slept in their chairs. Silence reigned.

For the first time in his life, Ailesworth wondered if he would end his days sitting in a large, comfortable club chair in White’s reading room, sleeping beneath The London Times. He smiled. No, he wouldn’t. He and Esther would have a brood of children and he and she would stay home and play with their grandchildren.

He grinned. Someone tapped him on is shoulder. He turned and startled Constant.

“Why the grin?”

Ailesworth took him by the elbow and they moved down the hall toward the dining room. “Just imagining myself playing with my grandchildren.”

Constant stared. Ailesworth might be serious. “Don’t you need children first?”

“Children? Who’s talking of children?” Drum was behind them. “Damme, Ailesworth, don’t tell me you’ve gotten a child while I’ve been away.” Drum had been in the country, visiting his mother and sisters.

The three men sat at a table covered with a stiff white tablecloth. A waiter appeared and announced the chef had some fine salmon that evening. Also some sturgeon and roe.

“Fish eggs! Can’t stand ‘em.”  Constant shuddered.

Ailesworth shook his head at his friend and said, “You need travel, my friend,” and ordered the roe and the salmon.

“All right, what’s this about grandchildren?”  Drum asked once the orders had been given.

Ailesworth leaned back and smiled as he thought a patriarch might smile. “I’m planning things.”

Drum looked at Constant. Constant grimaced and whispered, “He’s going to get leg-shackled.”

“Well, well.”

Ailesworth’s smile disappeared. “It’s a state secret.”  His glower appeared. “It goes no farther than this table. Understand?”

Drum nodded while Constant looked aggrieved. “So the lovely Mrs. B has accepted your hand?”

“Not quite.”

“Have you asked her yet?”

“No.”

“But you’re sure she will agree?’

“Oh, yes.”  He smiled beatifically, thinking of the coming evening. He’d have stayed to dine with Esther if he hadn’t had this dinner planned with his two friends.

“The man’s deranged,” Constant muttered.

“I haven’t told you about the children, have I?”

Both men were confused. Drum said, “Children. There are already children?”

Ailesworth’s grin grew broader. “Not mine. Not Esther’s. Someone else’s children.” And he happily began eating his fish eggs and crisp toast, knowing he’d stymied them.

The other two let their soup cool as they regarded him and then each other.

“Let’s ignore him, Drum.”

“Yes, I agree,” Drum nodded and both silently began on their soup.

The silence lasted for a minute.

“All right. I give up. What children?”

George finally gave up on his cousin. He’d never get Mrs. Beryll now that she had a fortune at her disposal and he wouldn’t be guided into sound business moves.

He methodically finished his dinner. He had chosen this place because the food–perfectly edible and good for strengthening the teeth–was cheap. He was tired of buying his cousin meals. There would be no more.

George rose. “I must go,” and he walked out.

Alex shook his head. Devilish moody fellow, his cousin. He spied a piece of cheese left on George’s plate and popped it into his mouth. He was still hungry. He’d best go to the Baskinville’s rout tonight. They always had a good table. Perhaps there’d be lobster patties. Maybe he’d see Lady Helen there. He smiled and felt warm as he thought of her charms. If only that curst valet of his hadn’t left. He’d better find another. And first he’d better find some money.

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