Authors: Barbara Palmer
In memory of author
For his masterpiece,
Belle de Jour,
one of the great literary classics
I’m most grateful to my publishers: Leslie Gelbman (Berkley), and Nicole Winstanley (Penguin Canada), for the opportunity to write
. It’s been an exciting journey and one I couldn’t have managed without the guidance of my very talented editors, Cindy Hwang and Adrienne Kerr.
No book is an island; it’s the product of the foresight and hard work of a whole team of people in copyedit, sales, publicity and marketing. I’m so thankful to work with the expert staff at Penguin U.S. and Penguin Canada. Kudos as well to my North American and international literary agents.
Thank you to a former escort who helped me enormously to shape the novel’s content and hats off to my friends and family for their sage advice.
Claudine’s appointment was for eight
., and by design, she arrived precisely two minutes late. She stood between two elaborate topiaries under a portico at one of the residences making up the grand flank of white stucco town houses in London’s Grosvenor Square, Belgravia. It was a pleasant evening, if over-warm for April. She fanned herself and pressed a tentative finger to the bell. Chimes echoed inside. She smoothed the plain gray skirt that reached just below her knees, adjusted her glasses and pulled in her stomach. She fought back a flurry of nerves at the sound of steps approaching the entrance.
The door opened. A housemaid in stark black shirt and slacks gave her a quick, appraising glance and beckoned her inside, accepting the business card Claudine presented as she passed through a wide rotunda. “This way, please,” the maid said without warmth, leading her to a room on the right. “The earl
will be with you presently.” The door closed behind her with a soft click.
The room had all the trappings of a male den, with bronze leather wingback chairs, somber oil paintings, an Oushak rug on the glossy parquet floor and a bar. Heavy damask drapes across the front window hid the room from prying eyes out on the street. Silver-framed photographs of a woman and three boys cluttered an antique davenport desk, and glass-fronted mahogany cases filled with books stretched across two walls. This wouldn’t be the earl’s main library, she surmised, but it was an impressive display.
She sat in one of the deep leather chairs, kept her spine ramrod straight and crossed her legs primly. Her oversized faded leather bag lay across her lap; she noticed with dismay the fraying straps, tucked them inside the bag and took a deep, steadying breath. Had she dressed appropriately? Was she too dowdy? Or would her severe apparel give just the right impression of a young librarian applying for access to the earl’s substantial book collection? She took out her compact and gave herself a quick once-over. Her naturally long lashes required no mascara but she wondered if she should have softened her features with nude lipstick and a little blush.
Claudine waited; checked her watch. It had been over fifteen minutes. She got up from the chair with the intention of surveying the volumes in the nearest case. She’d just plucked a handsome calfskin folio from the shelf when the door opened and the earl strode into the room.
“Ah, there you are,” he said with a posh accent that hinted of exclusive clubs. “How do you do?” He gave her a friendly nod. “I’ve kept you waiting. I appreciate your promptness.”
Claudine inclined her head in greeting and returned the book to its place. “Very pleased to meet you, sir.”
He gave her a long look. “Splendid. Let’s have a drink, shall we?”
Since it was the evening hour and she wanted to appear collegial she obliged. “Yes. That would be fine, thank you.”
A quick smile lit up the earl’s features, and he went over to the bar. She took in his large blue eyes, thick hair—blond generously sprinkled with gray—and a ruddy complexion that made him look athletic and outdoorsy. Quite handsome, in an affluent, imposing kind of way. His smart burgundy smoking jacket with silken lapels was securely belted around his waist over dark trousers. He wore oxblood leather loafers.
He held up a bottle of Campari, the bitter ruby red liquid sloshing a little as he did. “An Americano, in honor of your native country?”
“Perfect,” she replied. In truth, she hated the taste of the sweet vermouth he added to the drink.
He shot the drink with soda from a seltzer bottle, then fixed a whiskey, neat, for himself. He handed her the glass, took a seat in a leather wingback and motioned for her to settle in its mate.
“I didn’t expect a librarian to actually look like one.” He surveyed her modest skirt and glasses with approval.
She risked a cheeky comeback. “Occupational hazard. Does that mean you’ve decided to grant me access to your collection?”
He relaxed, crossed his legs. Claudine got a whiff of his sweet, smoky cologne. “Let’s not jump to conclusions just yet. Tell me, why should I trust you with my very valuable books?”
“I believe you’ve already reviewed my résumé but just in
case, I brought a copy with me.” As she bent to retrieve the papers from her purse, he waved his hand in the air.
“That won’t be necessary. In your own words, please.”
“Well,” she began, “I’ve always loved books. As a child I . . .”
“And you spent your childhood where?” he interrupted.
“Boston. My parents were high school teachers who encouraged my love of reading. I studied English at Wellesley and took my masters in library science.”
“Wellesley, did you?” He swirled the whiskey in his glass. “They must pay high school teachers very generously in America.”
“Scholarships,” she answered a tad too sharply, hoping he wouldn’t detect the lie in her words. “Is your full collection housed here?”
“Goodness, no. It’s a library of over twenty thousand volumes. The bulk of the collection, natural history and English letters, is kept at our family estate in Cheshire. This is only a small, eclectic selection.” He finished his whiskey and rose to pour another. She had barely taken a sip of her drink. “My wife and sons are settled there now,” he said, with his back to her.
“I see. It must be quite lovely, especially as summer comes on.”
“Excuse me, my dear,” the earl said, settling down once more in his chair. “I’m a touch nearsighted and wonder if you’d consider removing those glasses. I want to take your measure.”
“Look you square in the eyes. Examine your character.”
Claudine folded her glasses and tucked them carefully into her purse. She had a way of widening her eyes that had a hypnotic effect. It worked its magic on the earl.
“That’s better. You can tell much from a face, you know. And
I see your eyes are . . . dazzling. A most remarkable green.” He threw back a generous slug of his drink.
“Getting back to my suitability, I graduated summa cum . . .”
“Yes, yes,” the earl said, his voice clipped and impatient, “your credentials are excellent. Yet few references. Why is that?”
“Discretion is essential to my work. Clients are understandably concerned about their private affairs becoming public. Though you might be surprised by
secretive some are about their collections.”
He stared her down.
She’d worn a fine-gauge knit cardigan over her crisp white blouse and sweat trickled down her spine. She shifted uncomfortably in the chair.
“I warrant this room is a trifle hot,” the earl continued. “I’m sure that sweater is making you warm. Please don’t stand on ceremony. Feel free to breathe a little.”
“Thank you. I am a bit overheated.” She took a quick sip of her drink, recoiled inwardly from the tangy taste and set it down again. She fumbled with the tiny buttons and shrugged off the sweater, arching her back slightly, which caused her breasts to press against the thin cotton of her blouse. The earl’s gaze fastened on her chest. She quickly rounded her shoulders to mitigate the effect. “As I was saying, the private collectors I’ve worked for don’t wish to be contacted; however, I forwarded a very good reference from the New York Public Library.”
“Where you worked as a summer intern. That’s neither a satisfactory nor sufficient reference in my view. But let’s leave that topic for now. What brings you to London?”
“I’m surprised at your question, sir. For anyone who admires
books as much as I do, London is the center of the universe. The hours I’ve spent at the Bodleian have been pure paradise! I planned a year’s stay in the city. Unfortunately I miscalculated the cost and will be forced to return sooner than I wanted to. That’s the reason for the urgency of my request.”
“The Bodleian’s in Oxford.”
“Only a quick train ride from London.”
He tossed back the rest of his drink. “Well”—he slapped his thigh—“I find I’m ready for another glass. And look—you’ve barely touched yours.” As he stood up, she noticed his jacket fall open, revealing a prominent bulge at his crotch. She quickly averted her eyes.
While he busied himself once more behind the bar, Claudine tried to collect herself. The interview was progressing reasonably well, though she was growing uncomfortable under his scrutiny.
When he returned with a freshened drink, she saw his belt had come loose and the smoking jacket was still open. He flopped back into his chair. “It is damn hot in here. Young lady, please forgive my brusque manner. You don’t take umbrage, I hope?”
She gave him a tentative smile and shook her head.
“Excellent. One must have a strong character to impress me. I’ve been told I have a tendency to steamroll over people. If it’s any consolation, I might add that so far your answers have been admirable—except, of course, the lack of suitable references.”
His words boosted her confidence. “I’m glad you find them so. I think you’ll learn I can be quite assertive if the occasion calls for it. And I prefer frankness to subterfuge.”
His blue eyes twinkled. “Well, then. In the spirit of
directness, I have a request. I’d like to see what lies beneath that blouse you’re wearing. It’s buttoned right up to your neck. Very constricting, especially in this heat. And if you venture to whet a man’s appetite, you must not leave him hungry.”
She scrambled to her feet, indignation causing her color to rise. “You’re implying I’m deliberately tantalizing you? That’s in your imagination, sir. What you’re suggesting is totally improper. And offensive. I’m beginning to think you agreed to see me under false pretenses.”
“All the same, I must insist.”
“But this is the twenty-first century,” she protested. “Men can’t take that sort of advantage anymore—no matter what their station in life.”
“You see I remain seated in my chair,” he said. “I’m not intimidating you or threatening you in any way. It is a request only. Whether or not you choose to comply is entirely up to you. You’re of age. What harm can there be in that?”
She paused as though weighing the pros and cons and sighed. “Very well, then.” She slowly undid each button and her blouse fell open, revealing a pretty white lace bra. She had big breasts; her nipples poked against the thin white fabric. “There,” she said. “I trust that’s satisfactory.” A tiny smile tugged at the corner of her lips.
As she began to rebutton her blouse, the earl held up his hand. “Come, come. Now you
being deliberately provocative. The brassiere must come off.”
Her full lips parted slightly. He caught a glimpse of her small white teeth. “No, sir. That is going too far. I’m afraid the interview is over.” She plucked her bag from the carpet.
“Do you expect me to beg for it? I will, you know.” His smile
faded and he caught and held her eyes. “You’re a total stunner, Claudine. Worth every penny.”
She gave a little huff, half-exasperated, half-amused. She tossed her bag to the floor and shrugged the blouse from her shoulders. It fell around her heels. She reached for the catch at the front of her bra and flicked it open to reveal perfectly round breasts with rosy nipples. The earl’s eyes narrowed.
She walked toward him, her breasts swaying hypnotically above her narrow waist and slim skirt. “This is too unfair,” she teased. “You have the upper hand, and I don’t care for that at all. I have just as much right to judge as you.” She stood in front of him, her breasts level with his eyes. His nostrils flared, and she knew he could smell her perfume rising with the heat of her skin, a scent of roses in bloom with a peppery undertone. He tried to rise but she pushed him down. His large hands reached for her breasts and she brushed them away. She squatted, stretching the fabric of her skirt taut over her thighs, and ran her forefinger over the bulge in his trousers.
“What have you hidden in there?” She looked up at him through her long lashes with an expression of mock surprise. He took her hand and pressed it against his cock.
She felt for the zipper and found only a placket, an open seam. She reached in and gently exposed his prick: thick, humid and engorged. She regarded his cock quizzically, as if she’d never seen one before. Kneeling before him, she spread his legs apart and ran her fingertips over the skin of his shaft. He placed his hands on the pearly skin of her shoulders to bring her closer. She could smell the whiskey on his breath.