The Temptation of Laura
- Book info
- Author updates
Laura Robinson has always been dazzled by the glamour of the stage. But perhaps acting and selling one's favors are not so different—for Laura must feign pleasure with the men she beds to survive. Now, with her only friend at death's door and a ruthless pimp at her heels, escaping her occupation seems impossible. Hoping to attract a gentleman, she attends the theater. Yet the man Laura captivates is no customer, but a rising star and playwright. . .
Adam Lacey has been driven to distraction since the moment he saw Laura. She is his ideal leading lady come to irresistible life—and so much more. Certain they can make the perfect team on and off stage, he is determined to win her heart—and discover her story. But that is precisely what Laura fears. And she has no idea that Adam harbors shameful secrets of his own. Will the truth free them to love—or destroy all their dreams. . .?
Release date: February 20, 2014
Print pages: 244
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
The Temptation of Laura
Laura Robinson stared along the steep descent of Milson Street and fear for tomorrow skittered up her spine. The hazy October moon rose in the distance, announcing the end to another day of lost opportunity. The people of Bath milled around her. The gentry mixed with the poor and the marketers with the city’s best tailors—an avalanche of profession and possibility. Would any of it ever be hers?
“Excuse me, love. Did you want one bag or two?”
She blinked and turned to the stallholder. The white-haired woman gripped a ladle of gleaming brown chestnuts.
“Two.” Laura smiled. “If I can’t take a bag for me and a bag for the most special person in my life, there isn’t much point carrying on, is there?”
The woman returned her smile, revealing more gum than teeth before emptying the ladle full of nuts into a second paper bag. She twirled the ends and handed both bags to Laura with a flourish. Laura put some coins in the woman’s outstretched hand. “Thank you.”
“Enjoy.” She turned to the gentleman waiting in line behind Laura. “Can I help you, sir?”
Duly dismissed, Laura put the bags into her basket along with the baking soda, flour, potatoes, and four measly carrots she’d managed to get for the lowest price possible as the shops closed for the day. She’d whip up some food for her and Bette for tonight and tomorrow. She exhaled a shaky breath. The day after would be dealt with soon enough.
Keeping her head bowed against the risk of recognition, Laura hurried on through the market, her skirts drifting atop the few puddles left after the early-evening downpour. The skies had opened on this unseasonably warm night, reminding her that fall would soon come to an end, leaving winter to stretch its gloom over the city. The next worry would be keeping her and Bette’s “two-up, two-down” house warm enough so their fingers and toes weren’t frozen upon waking.
She hurried along, fighting to clear her mind of the negative thoughts that had harangued her since the early hours. She passed Charlotte Square toward the theater, even though she and Bette lived on a much quicker route in the opposite direction. Guilt lingered as dreams of the impossible bloomed once more.
She should get back before Bette woke and found her gone. She didn’t want her friend to worry a single moment in her current ailing state. Yet, Laura’s dreams and aspirations burned like fire behind her ribcage and she continued ever closer to the theater.
If only she could . . . She silently berated herself. If only she could what? Be whisked away into a world so far from hers it was laughable? Heat pinched her cheeks. Lord knows, if she became an actress, she’d pay back every penny, every meal her friend had ever earned, stolen, and borrowed for her.
She’d take away their worries and have the money to pay the best physician in the whole of Bath to make Bette well again. She cursed the tears that stung her eyes. Her beloved friend had to get better. How would Laura go on without her most trusted mentor and protector by her side?
Irritation fanned her stupidity and she swiped her fingers beneath her eyes. Women like her didn’t cry. They survived. They brought friends back from the brink of pneumonia to full-blown health. Crying was for people who’d lost everything. For people who thought their days were numbered. Not people like her and Bette.
She stopped at the steps of the Theater Royal. The lavish façade shone beneath the gas lanterns above the windowed doors, and the ruby red carpet of the foyer and the stairs glistened and sparkled with cleanliness and opportunity beyond. What promised excitement lay within those four walls!
The sepia fliers pasted to the billboards caught her eye. The current play featured Adam Lacey, a rising star and as handsome as they came.
Barely twenty-nine, with dark blond hair that curled at his collar and even darker chocolate brown eyes, he was an actor with the world at his feet. Tall, strong, and muscular, he wore an air of quiet confidence and possessed a flash of a smile that could curl a woman’s toes.
She leaned forward to get a closer look and smiled. Darn, if the man didn’t have the clear sparkle of a rogue in his sinfully dark eyes. Dragging her gaze from their careful, confident study, Laura sighed at the beauty of his costar’s frock. She imagined it to be emerald green and made of the most luscious velvet. Monica Danes looked beautiful. What it would be to wear such a gown! They made an unfairly handsome pair—and she wished them all the future luck in the world.
Who was to say it wouldn’t be her name on a billboard one day, starring opposite someone equally as handsome as Mr. Lacey?
She tipped his smiling image a saucy wink and grinned. Surely a man like him wouldn’t mind treading the boards with a woman who’d once been an orange seller, step scrubber, glass collector, and since the age of fifteen . . . a whore.
She bit back a laugh. The man would no doubt run a mile from the likes of her. If not, she could be damn sure he’d toss her a coin to share a half hour of her time.
Laura lifted her shoulders. She could dream, couldn’t she? Life could change in a single day. Wasn’t that what Bette had told her ever since a brutal winter threw them together seven years ago, for the need of warmth and a shared corner under the shadow of Pulteney Bridge?
Sadness enveloped her. Yet, for all their efforts for a better life, a moral decision on Laura’s part had left them once again struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Their earnings had meant a comfortable life for a while—and now by doing the right thing, she’d caused hunger to knock inside their bellies once more. She tilted her chin. She refused to regret her decision to see a violent man imprisoned.
“Excuse me, young lady. May we get past? I assume you’re not going in?”
She turned. The man stared her up and down, his face twisted into an expression of one surveying a dog turd. She scowled, but when his eyes met hers, she plastered on a wide smile.
“No, sir, I’m not.” She glanced at the woman on his arm and her smile stretched to a grin. Well, well, well. “Hello, Ellen. Going up in the world, I see. Good luck to you. Never say that once you’re a whore, there’s not the possibility of becoming an upper-class whore, eh?”
“Why you—” The man lifted his hand as if to strike her.
Laura deftly caught his wrist in hers. “I don’t think so, do you, sir?”
Their eyes locked as his arm tensed in her grasp. He pulled away and tossed her a violent glare. Satisfaction warmed her blood as Laura stepped back and gestured with a wave toward the door.
“You have a good evening, sir.” She turned to her old friend. “And you, of course, Ellen. I’m mighty happy for your promotion.”
Ellen lifted her nose in the air as though smelling for her next unsuspecting victim and flounced inside with her newest and maybe even exclusive client. Laura smiled through the glass doors until they disappeared up the grand carpeted staircase.
Exhaling a long breath, she hurried toward home as a strange fire simmered inside. Possibility was everywhere. Especially in a city like Bath. The theater. Upper-class gentlemen willing to spend money on a whore and a play. Her mind raced. She couldn’t help thinking what was good enough for Ellen could be just as good for her. . . .
“Bugger.” Laura sucked in a breath and put her cut finger into her mouth to stem the bleeding. “This knife’s sharper than a pirate’s sword. What did you sharpen it on, Bette? Your tongue?”
Having expected an immediate retort, she spun around. “Bette?”
Fear ran up the back of Laura’s neck as she rushed toward the bed where Bette lay, her thinning body as still as stone beneath the tangled sheets.
“No, no, no.” The mumbled words tumbled from Laura’s mouth as she leaned over Bette and pressed the back of her hand to her friend’s perspiring forehead. When she’d arrived home, Bette’s skin wore the red flush of fever; now it shone a pale, pasty gray. “Bette? Bette, please. Don’t do this to me.”
Seconds passed like minutes before Bette emitted an explosive coughing fit that wracked her body and almost shook Laura off the side of the bed. Bette’s spittle dashed Laura’s cheeks and she hastily swiped at them, glancing at her fingers. She released her held breath when they came away clear rather than bloodied.
“Oh, love.” She gathered Bette in her arms and smoothed her hand over her back in gentle circles. “Come on, now. It’s all right. Everything’s going to be all right.”
Slowly, the coughing passed and Bette collapsed against the pillows. Her once-vibrant blue eyes were shadowed with deep charcoal smudges beneath, her once-ruby-painted lips so pale they were hardly visible. “You know as well as I do, nothing ain’t right. I need to get out of this bloody bed and get some work.”
Laura shook her head. “Don’t talk daft. We’ll manage. Things have a way of sorting themselves out. Isn’t that what you’re always telling me?”
“And look where that got me. God saw fit to strike me down with pneumonia. Bam, there you go, Bette Windsor, things have bleedin’ well changed.”
Laura tightened her jaw and pushed off the bed. “Stop with the sassing. This isn’t like you. Don’t let this damn pneumonia beat you.” She fisted her hands on her hips. “We’re going to get through this.”
“Yeah? And how’s that with me not working because no man wants to come within fifty feet of me, and you not working because you’re too scared you’ll find me dead when you come out of that back bedroom. We’re going to die of starvation or living rough on the streets come November.”
Laura glared. “I’m not leaving you. Not until I know you’re better.”
“And what happens if I don’t get better?”
Her words were no different than what Laura had asked herself a million and one times over the last month. The signs were clear. Bette was fading fast, and if the number of men, women, and children who had been taken by bronchitis leading to pneumonia was anything to go by, it would kill her too. The lack of color in Bette’s face over the last twenty-four hours sent a bolt of ice through Laura’s blood, but she had to stay strong.
“We’ll be all right. I just haven’t figured out what to do yet. I don’t want you listening to me grunting and gasping my way through the next bit of cash when you should be resting. Something’ll come up. We’re not in a situation where I have to go back to dropping my drawers in an alley either. At least not yet.”
Bette’s gaze hardened. “I ain’t asking you to do that.”
“I know you’re not. You know what the streets are like as well as I do. I’ll find another way.”
The atmosphere in the dimly lit room pressed down on Laura’s chest like a lead weight. Everything was going from bad to worse, and her friend dying would be the last straw after a year of endless struggle. It had been an age since she’d stood up in court and testified against one of her clients—thus sending their regulars scarpering like rats back to their damn upper-class drainpipes.
A ruckus drifted through the open window from the alley outside their door. Someone kicked over something metal, followed by a woman’s shouting and the slap of a hand on flesh. A child cursed the sky blue and then nothing.
Laura smiled. “Life goes on, eh?”
Bette grinned. “It certainly—”
A cheery whistle and a knock at their door froze them. Laura stared at her friend. No one had knocked at their door wanting business for close on a week. She glanced at the carriage clock on the mantel. Certainly nobody past nine on a chilly October evening.
She slowly pushed to her feet. “Who—”
“Answer it.” Bette lifted her chin and smoothed the bedclothes over her body. “Take him in your room. We need the money, darlin’. You’ll have to leave me. Let’s hope he’s a quickie. Do what you have to and get him back out there. It’s you I’m worried about, not me. You’re wasting away. We need money. You need to eat.”
Laura stood and stared through the living-room doorway to the bolted front door. The silhouette of a man’s head and hat showed through the misted square of glass. “That’s not a client.”
Bang, bang. The caller hammered on the door.
Laura put her finger to her lips for Bette to button it and moved across the room. Snatching up the plank of wood she kept behind the dresser, she gripped it in both hands and crept toward the window.
“Open up, Laura, my girl. I know Bette’s poorly and you need me.” His voice drifted through the locked front door.
Laura cursed and squeezed her eyes shut. Malcolm Baxter was the last person she needed. A pimp to at least thirty other prostitutes who worked in and around the lower end of Bath. She and Bette hadn’t needed him for the last five years and they wouldn’t start now. She opened her eyes and faced Bette. Her friend shook her head.
Laura smiled. There was desperate and there was desperate. With a curt nod, she inhaled a long breath. “I don’t need you any more today than I did yesterday. So get away from here and stay away. I know where you are if I change my mind.”
“Everyone knows what you did, Laura. You ain’t gonna get no more business when people know you shopped a client to the law.”
“He deserved it. I’ve got no regrets. Now get out of here.”
“You’ll regret it when Bette dies because you can’t get work to pay the doctor to come see her. You’ll regret it when you have to move out of here and find yourself sleeping in a shop doorway.”
His words slipped into Laura’s blood. “Get lost.”
“There’s nowhere else in this city you can afford, Laura. You’ll be homeless, mark my words.” Malcolm laughed and slapped his hand to the door. “I’ll come by again tomorrow.”
His silhouette moved from the glass in the door and disappeared. She put down the wood and peered through the scrap of material at the window. Malcolm sauntered down the alley, tipping his hat to the beggars at his feet without tossing them a meager coin from his overflowing pockets.
She stepped away from the window and turned to Bette. “He’s gone.”
“Tomorrow is a new day.”
“Yeah, and what will we do with it?”
The Theater Royal and Adam Lacey filtered through her mind. “I don’t know yet, but giving in to Malcolm Baxter isn’t the answer. I’ll work something out.” She moved to her friend’s side and smoothed Bette’s hair, damp with perspiration, from her face. “Let me warm up some broth and we’ll worry about tomorrow when the sun comes up, all right?”
Bette’s eyes drifted closed, her face pale with sickness and exhaustion. “He’s right, you know.”
Laura frowned. “Baxter?”
Bette nodded. “I wish we didn’t need him, but I’m dying and it ain’t making my passing easier knowing you’ll be all alone with him sniffing around like a dog in heat.” She opened her eyes.
Wisdom shone in her friend’s gaze. Did Bette know? Did everyone know when their time was nigh? Had her father known? Her mother?
She shook her head, a single traitorous tear breaking over her lashes. “Don’t say that.”
“We have to think what to do. And think fast. My time’s coming.”
Ignoring the pain that slashed across her heart, Laura busied her shaking fingers by straightening the bedclothes, tucking them in warm and secure around Bette’s thinning body. “Don’t be daft. You’re no more likely to give in to this than I am that bastard Malcolm Baxter.”
Bette cupped a hand to Laura’s jaw. “Look at you. You’ve got hair the color of polished bronze and eyes more violet than blue. If I had my way, you wouldn’t be whoring at all. There never should’ve been a day you laid down with a man without his heart wanting to worship every inch of you. Find something else to do with yourself because I can’t leave you until I know you’re all right.”
Taking her hand, Laura brought Bette’s knuckles to her lips. “That’s fine by me, because I don’t want you to leave. Ever.”
Bette’s breath rasped as she huffed out a laugh. “I’ll be leaving. Just not in peace until I know you’re looked after.”
Laura stared as tears fell from Bette’s eyes and crawled like liquid silver down her cheeks. Seven years. They’d met on the street and never been apart since. In all that time, Laura had never seen Bette cry or falter. Her friend was dying.
Silently, she drew her legs onto the bed and gathered Bette in her arms. She laid her head beside Bette’s on the pillow as they each lapsed into silent thoughts, fears, and plans. The minutes passed and eventually Bette’s breathing slowed to the soft murmurs of slumber. Laura stared at the ceiling as twilight streaked through the window, casting the room in a soft semidarkness. Tomorrow she’d find work. New work. No more whoring. No more men.
Bette was right. Enough was enough.
Adam Lacey moved in a ghost-like state toward his dressing room at the Theater Royal. His strained smile fixed in place and his heart beating fast, he continued forward, strangely numb to the shoulder slaps and handshakes he received from his fellow actors, the director, and the producer.
The corridor was rife with jovial laughter and chatter. The gas lanterns cast a golden hue, lighting the delighted faces and illuminating the company’s satisfaction. Yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling his performance could’ve been better. Should’ve been better.
He entered his dressing room, shut the door, and dropped back against it.
With the matinee over, only tonight’s performance and one more week remained before the end of the show. The month-long run of performances had been better received than the company could have anticipated. The rave reviews in newspapers and favorable caricatures in shop windows all over town were testament to the play’s success.
That was all well and good, but after the final performance, then what? He had no more work lined up. No producers waiting in the wings to grab him hungrily by the collar before anyone else thought to do so.
He pushed away from the door. His name was on the billboards outside the theater. His face graced the pamphlets. Yet, neither did anything toward alleviating the panic and fear his success could be ripped from him in a heartbeat.
Weeks of scraping around for new work, auditions, and rejection stretched in front of him, and fear clutched like a fist in his stomach. Where did he go next? How many people had told him the theater business was no better than a continual fistfight? Bare knuckles and blood were part of their world—success did not come to an actor taking handouts. Hard work and tenacity gave the only chance of longevity in the acting world.
He closed his eyes as self-hatred swept over him in a hot wave.
Were shortcuts not what he chased? Was that not the person he had become? Someone so impatient for elevation, he had made himself a rich widow’s man-whore.
“What the hell am I doing?” Adam snapped his eyes open and snatched the powdered wig from his head. He slung it haphazardly upon the stand on his dressing table and dropped onto a blue velvet seat.
The steady thump of a headache snaked through his temples and he covered his face with his hands. Lady Harvard’s money had paved the way for this job but, once again, guaranteed nothing. Taking her benefit had done little more than prove his lowly moral value. Was he not reinforcing everything his parents ever said about the theater business? That it was seedy and unsavory, and had very little to do with talent and hard work.
Raising his head, he looked to the hefty sheaf of papers stacked at the far corner of the table. Drawn together in a neat and tidy pile, and lovingly tied with string, they represented his dreams on parchment. His play. His manuscript. His soul’s work. He ran his hand over the top sheet, before gripping the string until his knuckles showed white.
“One day you’ll see the light of day, Lucinda. One day.”
Frustration furled in his gut and desperation scratched at his sanity. Two years of putting pen to paper and he had created a heroine of such beauty and muster, tenacity and strength, she resided inside him like a living, breathing woman of flesh and consequence. Her story of struggle against adversity would bring him fortune one day. He was sure of it. He had to believe as much or he had nothing.
Standing abruptly, Adam yanked open the buttons on his waistcoat and strode to the wardrobe. Quickly removing his costume, he hung it neatly and turned away. He needed to get out for a while and take in some air. Early that morning, the scent of autumn hung heavy in the trees and the chill of a softly blowing breeze had whispered against his face. Now, as the clock on the fireplace mantel showed five, the bracing evening air would undoubtedly do much to clear his head.
Naked, he sat at the dressing table and seized some cold cream and a cloth. When he’d roughly scrubbed his face clean of makeup, he steadfastly avoided his reflection. There was no need to see himself laid bare. It was painfully clear what he’d find staring back at him.
A failure. A chameleon. An aspiring star who was little more than Lady Harvard’s plaything.
Adam shot to his feet. Cupping his manhood, he rushed to the wardrobe.
“Who’s there?” He grappled his legs into a pair of breeches.
“It is me, silly.” The doorknob rattled. “Open up. I need to see you. I have missed you even though you have barely been a few feet away from me for the last two, excruciatingly long hours.”
He closed his eyes against the fresh slash of pain that assaulted his temple. Lady Harvard. His investor. His believer. His lover.
“I am in the middle of dressing.” He yanked a shirt from the wardrobe. “Why don’t I meet you in the lobby for a glass of bubbly? I will not be long.” He grimaced. The smile in his voice was strained and clearly forced.
The doorknob rattled again. “Open the door, Adam. Now.”
Her chilly tone made him scowl. He was not in the mood for her histrionics, demands, or unique technique of ensuring she got her way. His penis shriveled as he stared at the door.
What was he doing? Why was he bowing and scraping to a woman who treated him as little more than a lapdog? He narrowed his eyes, wishing his glare would burn a hole through the door and straight into Lady Harvard’s damn snooty nose.
Pride swelled behind his ribcage. There had to be another way. He worked hard. He had vision. He inhaled a long breath as his next step became clear. One way or another, he would manage without Lady Harvard’s monetary support. It was time he moved on.
He strode forward and opened the door. She swept into the room before he had time to draw another breath.
“At last.” Lady Annabel Harvard strode directly to his dressing table, her lavish sapphire blue skirts brushing the floor, her eyes flitting left and right. “I thought you m. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...