One Summer of Surrender(5)

By: Jess Michaels


She trailed off, and Vivien said, “It seems the one of least resistance. And it will allow you to retain some autonomy that a marriage would not.”

“Yes,” Elise whispered.

“I understand,” Vivien said, leaning forward. “But you may not. Now I must ask you some rather indelicate questions. Did you like sex?”

Elise jolted at the very direct and unexpected question. But Vivien held her gaze steadily and it didn’t seem that this was a way to make her uncomfortable. She just wanted to know.

“I—once,” Elise admitted, her mind going to one glorious night that felt like a lifetime ago. Hands on her, a mouth on her, eyes that were filled with love that seemed to pierce to her very soul. She shook it off and jumped to her feet, pacing away before she added, “But I also know a great deal about enduring.”

Vivien stood and faced her. “Most men do not want a mistress who endures. Or at least looks like she is.”

Elise swallowed hard. “Well, I suppose it would be nice if I…”

She broke off, and for the first time Vivien smiled gently at her. “If you liked the man?” she finished for her.

Elise nodded slowly. It was hard for her to imagine that could be so. It was hard to think how she wouldn’t compare any man who offered to protect her to the one she had been married to…or worse, to the other man she’d loved. The one she tried so hard not to think about.

But maybe it was possible.

“I’ll do my best, Elise,” Vivien said, moving toward her. “Now, why don’t you go out into the party? Grow accustomed to the…the public displays. Just your appearance here will generate some interest and I will think on the prospects available and see what I can do to help you.”

Elise almost sagged with relief, even as sheer terror gripped her stomach. She forced a smile. “Thank you, Vivien. I appreciate it more than you could possibly understand.”

Vivien nodded. “I’ve asked one of my guards to watch you. No one will bother you. And if I find someone tonight, I’ll have you meet with him in a private room. Not to consummate a bargain, of course. But to get to know him. Will that suffice?”

Elise let out a broken sigh. “Yes.”

Vivien motioned her toward the door. She followed the silent instruction and exited into the hall and walked toward the main room. This was not the future she had pictured for herself so many years ago.

But this was where she was. And she would have to come to grips with it and do the best she could.





Stenfax stepped into Vivien’s closed off foyer and approached the guard at a table in the vestibule. The man looked up. “Good evening, sir. Your name?”

“The Earl of Stenfax,” he said, tossing his card on the table.

The man picked it up, examined it a moment and then began to flip through a long list before him. He glanced up. “I’m sorry, sir, you don’t seem to retain a membership in Miss Manning’s club. Would it be under another name for anonymity?”

Stenfax pursed his lips. “No. I’m not a member. I haven’t been here in a long time, actually, but Miss Manning and I are acquainted.”

The man looked him up and down, sizing him up, looked at his card again and then nodded. “I see. Well, wait here, will you? I’ll have someone check.”

Stenfax nodded as the man scurried off, card in hand, to talk to another guard at the entrance to the main house. The second man left as the first retook his position at the door. Stenfax paced off rather than taking a seat in the vestibule, looking over the painting that hung in the foyer. He shook his head with a chuckle.

Vivien was still Vivien. The painting had been done by one of the most popular portrait painters of the day, but this painting was of a naked lady, legs spread lewdly as a man knelt before her, almost in prayer. Stenfax wanted to feel something as he looked at it, but there was nothing that stirred in him.

Nothing but vague memories that he pushed away with internal violence.

“Stenfax.”

He turned at his name and found Vivien, herself, had come out to greet him. She was a beautiful woman, with a lush body and thick blonde hair. She also wore a swooping neckline that left very little to the imagination. And still he felt nothing.

This was going to be an embarrassing waste of time, it seemed, but he stepped forward. “Vivien,” he said, taking her hand and placing a kiss against her knuckles. “You look lovely.”

“Thank you,” she said, and motioned him to follow her into the hall. They walked the length, past rooms where moans echoed and halls where Vivien’s pleasure parties were in full swing. She took him to her small office in the back, and when he entered he stopped dead.

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