Harlequin FREE Online Read: An Innocent at the Gentlemen’s Club by Christine Merrill

Celebrate the weekend with a steamy read you won’t be able to get out of your head.

Miss Paulette Montaigne has journeyed from France to sing in the scandalous halls of Vitium et Virtus, the ton’s most decadent gentleman’s club. But she’s conscious her innocence sets her apart and is wary of putting her trust in her bear of a protector, Ben Snyder!

After his days as a boxer, Ben has learnt to use his brain over brawn. But that doesn’t mean the angelic Miss Montaigne is any more within his reach. Can he guard Paulette, whilst also guarding his heart?

***

The nuns would never approve.

The artwork in the entrance hall of Vitium et Virtus was a shocking oil depicting the gods and goddesses of Olympus in mid-orgy. If it was any indication of the rest of the club’s decoration, the place was not so much a near occasion of sin as a direct collision with it.

The sisters who had raised the orphaned Paulette Montaigne had been full of good intentions and bad advice. They had wanted her to be a nun but she could feel no calling for it, no matter how she prayed. Then they had wanted her to marry. But after years of war, there was not a single man under fifty in all of Saint-Suliac. If one did not serve God or serve a husband, one must make a living somehow.

‘There are rooms for the performers on the third floor.’ Her new employer pointed towards the back of the building. Mr Gregory was a dark-skinned man with a charming smile and excellent manners. ‘The entrance is private and can be reached from the dressing rooms.’ Then he turned and swept an arm out to indicate the main stairs in front of them. ‘The rooms above this part of the club are for…intimate entertaining.’

Which meant that it was as she suspected and this club would be no better than Club Plaisirs Nocturnes. It had been foolish of her to leave France to escape dishonour, if she was to end as an Englishman’sputain. She looked at the girls around her.

He noticed her look of alarm and said hurriedly, ‘But do not worry that you will be required to do any such thing. As I promised you when we left Paris, we want nothing more from you but that you sing as beautifully as you did there.’ Then he gave a shrug that was positively Gallic. ‘What you do with the rest of your time is your own business.’

‘Merci,’ she said, trying not to sound too relieved. She was not ignorant of the activities that occurred in pleasure clubs. Bawdy songs and skimpy costumes downstairs and courtesans and liaisons above. But in the place she’d worked in Paris, the owner would not stop hinting that she could make more money offstage than on. To escape him, she had come all the way to London, further from home than she’d ever wished to travel. She would hate to have to move again.

‘The gentlemen who are your guests, are they aware of these rules?’

Mr Gregory looked surprised that she would even suggest such a thing. Perhaps the English really were different from the French and the northern climate rendered them cold-blooded. ‘You have nothing to fear, I assure you. We have female guests as well as males. If any of them expect more than you wish to give, you must speak to any of the owners, and they will be banned from the club. Mr Challenger is especially concerned with the orderly running of the place. Our other friend, the Duke of Westmoor, would never own a place where women were bothered with unwanted advances. All three of us wish the employees to be as happy as the members.’

‘And you are here every night?’ she said, still doubtful.

‘Not always,’ he allowed. ‘But the porter, Mr Snyder, is on duty each night and often during the day. Let me see if I can find him.’ He walked to the corner of the room and gave a sharp pull on the bell rope.

Barely a moment later, she heard heavy footsteps in the hall behind her and turned to see not a man, but a walking mountain of muscle bearing down on her with the inevitability of death. His face might have been handsome had it not been ruined by violence. The nose was crooked, marred by multiple breaks, and a scar bisected one brow and creased the forehead to disappear beneath his thick dark hair.

‘Mr Gregory?’ The ogre’s voice boomed in the small space. Then he noticed her, and turned slowly to fix his dark gaze upon her.

Their eyes met and she felt a sudden rush of unfamiliar emotion. The size of him, the very sight of him, terrified her. Yet she could not seem to look away. It was as if there was some important thing she must learn from him, no matter what consequence the knowledge would bring.

Suddenly, just as Eve had in the garden, she knew.

And though she had never done so in her life, she slipped to the floor in a faint.

 

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