Gentle Rogue Page 46

It was visions of her young sister resorting to begging on the streets to help out that had prompted Kelsey to ask, albeit in a mortified whisper, "Do you know of some man who would be willing to—to pay enough if I—if I agreed to become his mistress?"

Elliott had looked so hopeful, and so damn relieved, even as he'd replied, "No, I don't know a single one. But I know of a place in London that the rich lords frequent, a place where you can be presented to receive an excellent offer."

She'd stood there, silent for a long while, still so hesitant about such a monumental decision and so sickto her stomach that this did, in fact, seem to be their only option. Elliott actually broke out in a sweat before she finally nodded her consent.

And then he'd tried to console her, as if anything could just then. "It won't be so bad, Kelsey, really it won't. A woman can make a great deal of money for herself this way if she's smart, enough to become independent—even marry later, if she chooses."

That wasn't a bit true, and they both knew it. Her own chances for a good marriage would be gone forever. The stigma that would be hers when she went through with this would follow her for the rest of her days. She'd never be welcomed in polite society again. But that was her cross to bear. At least her sister would still have the future she deserved.

Still in a state of shock over what she'd agreed to, she'd suggested, "I will leave it to you to tell Aunt Elizabeth of this."

"No! No, she mustn't know. She'd never permit it. But I'm sure you will think of something reasonable to tell her to excuse your absence."

She had to do this, too? When it was doubtful that she'd be able to think of anything other than the appalling truth of what she'd agreed to?

She'd been ready to finish off that bottle of spirits herself by the time she left him. But she had come up with a weak excuse to tell the others. She'd told Aunt Elizabeth that Anne, one of her friends from Kettering, had written that she was seriously ill, the doctors not offering much hope. Kelsey had to visit, of course, and give what comfort she could. And Uncle Elliott had offered to escort her.

Elizabeth hadn't noticed anything amiss. Kelsey's pallor could be credited to worry over her friend. And Jean, bless her, didn't badger her with her usual hundreds of questions simply because she didn't recognize the name of this particular friend. But then, Jean had matured a great deal during the past year.

A tragedy in the family had a way of interrupting childhood, sometimes permanently. Kelsey would almost have preferred the hundreds of questions from her twelve-year-old sister that used to test her patience. But Jean was still mourning.

And when Kelsey didn't return home from the visit to Kettering? Well, she would have to worry about that later. Would she ever even see her sister or Aunt Elizabeth again? Did she dare, when they might discover the truth? She didn't know. Right then, she only knew that nothing would ever be the same for her again.