She smiled. “I know.”
This was no idle compliment. Despite being almost twice his age, the countess was indeed one of the most magnificent women Harry had ever seen. The only person ever rumored to have eclipsed Lady Quinseley’s beauty was her husband’s longtime mistress, a soprano who had become famous first for her voice, and then for her ability to tempt a man away from a face as fine as the countess’s.
Rumor had it, Lady Quinseley had retaliated by arranging a loose axle on her husband’s favorite coach-and-four. The next time he’d attempted to squire his mistress about instead of his wife, the carriage had separated from the horses and sailed off a bridge, killing both its passengers on impact.
Suspicious, they said, that the driver managed to leap to safety but did not have the wherewithal to shout a warning to his doomed passengers. Suspicious, they said, for such an accident to occur right after a loud and embarrassing argument.
“They” could say whatever they wished. Perhaps Lady Quinseley was mercenary. So was Harry. He was not here to debate her ethics. He was here for her money.
“How may I be of service?”
She folded her hands over her lap. “Are you aware that my husband fathered a bastard?”
All of the ton was aware. The earl had made no attempt to hide his indiscretion, and indeed had acknowledged his daughter openly, even going so far as to arrange for the girl to make her bow, and to champion her entrance into society.
His untimely death had put a halt to that trajectory.
“I have heard rumors of a daughter,” Harry answered slowly.
“She is called Bianca White. I want her destroyed.”
Harry blinked. Destroyed, as in… resting in a coffin after a second suspicious carriage accident? No, even if that was what the countess wanted, she was too clever to attempt the same maneuver twice.
That’s what Harry was for.
“I’m listening,” he said carefully.
“You’re the Huntsman. She is your new prey. I order you to bring me her heart in your hands… and break it.” Lady Quinseley’s smile was terrifying. “I am hosting a soirée tomorrow night. Do it then.”
“To be clear… You are not suggesting physical harm?”
“Only to her maidenhead. You are the seductor of innocents, are you not? I want you to ruin her.”
“I have a personal policynotto seduce innocents,” he clarified. “It is the only way to avoid the parson’s trap.”
“Then you are in luck,” said the countess. “The chit is an orphan with no family to force you to the altar. What’s more, she is a lowborn commoner. We all know what those are like. You will be of no obligation whatsoever to make an ‘honest’ woman out of a housemaid.”
This was true enough. More than one aristocrat took advantage of his female servants because there were no legal or societal consequences to worry about. But Harry had always turned up his nose at such depraved behavior.
It was one thing to enter into an emotionless contract with someone who consented to the trade—a purse for a title—and something quite different to take the virginity of a young woman who would lose her dreams and her future as well as her maidenhead.
“None of your missish expressions,” chided the countess. “I’m asking you to break her heart, not bring the still-pulsing organ to me on a platter for my dinner. Though it does sound tasty”
Harry was not at all comforted by this being the second option to occur to the countess.
Then again, if he did not agree, she would simply find someone else. “How much money are you offering?”
“Ah.” A calculating smile curved Lady Quinseley’s lips. “I knew I could count on you.”
And she named a number he could never refuse.
At five minutes until seven, Bianca put away her dust rag and dressed in her best gown. The yellow silk was a little loose and two years out of fashion, but it would have to do.
Here in Lady Quinseley’s home, there was no one to help Bianca with her hair, so she had been forced to forgo her usual neat braids in favor of a simpler, more natural style. She pinned up her thick black curls and allowed it to erupt in a cascade of ebony ringlets down her neck.
There was nothing to be done about the streak of white at her temple that insisted on springing free as a snowy spiral tendril down the side of her face.