Being a prostitute was hard work. Catharine poked a finger under the feathered mask she wore, trying to target an especially itchy spot near her hairline.
Correction: posing as a prostitute was hard work. An honest-to-goodness lady of the evening wouldn’t have to wear this blasted mask. The itching was driving her to distraction, never mind the sweating. It was a good thing she never took off the feathered confection, even when entertaining. The sight of her red, shiny face would have been enough to drive off even the most, ahem, enthusiastic of gentlemen.
Of course, an honest-to-goodness lightskirt would also have to have honest-to-goodness relations with any number of men, so on balance, what was a little itching? The wig was no better. She glanced around the overheated drawing room, taking a deep breath and fighting the urge to tear the flame-orange, elaborately -coiffed contrivance off her head and hurl it into the fire.
At least the discomfort provided a welcome distraction from her nerves. Here she was, nearly a month in, and she still felt that same fluttering in her stomach before the first gathering. And she wasn’t the nervous type—far from it. She was Catharine Chambers, the Viscountess Cranbrook, for God’s sake. Slightly scandalous widow, woman of action. Not that anyone here knew that, hidden as she was by her disguise. Still, she had not expected to find herself a nervous mouse every time. Didn’t expect it, and more to the point, didn’t like it.
Several young men filed in, talking quietly among themselves, joining the handful already present in the crowded room. Good. Once the gathering began, she could lose herself in her role. It was never as bad as she imagined, once the evening got underway. No, in truth, it was usually very dull—that was the great irony of the whole absurd situation. Sitting straighter, she turned her head, displaying the white length of her neck to best advantage. Suppressing a sigh, she affected a bemused smile.
The ten o’clock crowd was typically young, eager, and always the politest of the evening’s three groups. The men she sought were not likely to possess any of those qualities. Why did she even bother with the first gathering? Because Blackstone insisted? He was rarely here to check up on her and would never know if she slipped away to her room for a nap—just what she needed to fortify herself before the midnight gathering.
A footman entered with a tray of champagne glasses, a sign of Madame Cherie’s imminent arrival. Too late to escape. Resigned, Catharine accepted a glass, willing her hand not to shake. A sense of obligation would have kept her here anyway. Yes, she appeared dutifully at the ten o’clock gathering twice a week because underneath her scandalously low, black-ribbon-trimmed bodice beat the heart of a patriot. A very nervous patriot.
Noble motivations and stage fright aside, this was supposed to have been entertaining. That was the whole point, really. In that sense, it was all very disappointing. Who knew that in addition to being exceedingly itchy, prostitution could manage to be so very dull?
The door opened, and Madame entered with an elegant young gentleman on her arm. Catharine heard her own sharp, involuntary intake of breath. She quickly looked away, studying the patterns of shadow and light thrown by the fire on the scarlet silk walls. Even as her heart thrummed, she forced her face into a placid expression, opening her fan and idly fluttering it. Only then did she cast a look back toward Madame’s guest. A head taller than the others, he was dressed in black from the broad woolen shoulders of his coat to the tips of his shining Hessians. Even his hair, which he wore cropped close to his head, was dark. It was only a white shirt and perfectly starched cravat that softened the imposing effect.
His bright green eyes darted around the room for a few seconds after he entered, as if he were unsure where to settle his gaze. Unlike her, he hadn’t learned to hide his unease. He was new, and he was, simply, beautiful.
The gentleman gained control over his lovely eyes and began to survey the room in a more measured, calmer manner. Catharine tried to see the place as a newcomer would. A few of the girls were already upstairs entertaining regular clients, so there were only half a dozen others besides her in attendance, perched on settees and chairs throughout the room. And of course there was Amelia, draped over a chaise longue in a manner that bordered on the ridiculous. With her heavily painted eyes and rouged nipples peeking out of an elaborate emerald lace bodice that was so low it practically met the high waist of her dress, Amelia offered gentlemen the caricature of a courtesan. She even affected a French accent and introduced herself as Amélie. Of course, presenting herself like this had made her the most popular girl in the house, both with the gentlemen and with Madame Cherie, who took great pains to present the entire establishment as French and therefore fashionable. Madame exhorted the girls at regular intervals to display a little je ne sais quoi. Amelia was the only one among them who equated je ne sais quoi with nipples, but there you had it.
Catharine startled a little when Madame rang the silver bell that signaled the start of a gathering. At that moment, the gentleman’s gaze swung to meet hers. The combination of the bell’s shrill tone and the stranger’s insistent green stare sent a chill down her spine, and the tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood on end under her wig. She pressed her palm to her chest, feeling the bumpy gooseflesh there. His eyes followed her hand, and she snatched it away.
She was accustomed to the bald, almost clinical gazes gentlemen deployed in this place, but his was different, more intimate. Could he be the one?
Then, inexplicably, he smiled. Not the ironic, leering smirk she would have expected, but a genuine, wide smile that lit up his emerald eyes. She breathed deeply, her tightly corseted lungs suddenly in need of a great deal more air than they were receiving. How very…surprising.
A final trill drew her attention to Madame Cherie. A petite, dark woman, Madame was still a beauty despite her fifty-plus years. Unlike some of the older girls, she had allowed the silver streaks in her hair to advance unimpeded. The silver and black tresses, twisted into an elegant chignon and her modest, though highly fashionable, copper silk gown belied her profession. If Catharine had met her in a Mayfair ballroom, she never would have believed the woman was the proprietress of London’s most exclusive house of ill repute.
Madame lifted her glass. “Bonjour, mes amis!” A general rumbling of acknowledgment ran through the ranks of the assembled gentlemen. “Welcome to my humble home.” A hint of a French accent tinged her speech when she switched into English, though Catharine knew Madame didn’t have a foreign bone in her body. Blackstone said she was the daughter of a blacksmith from one of the home counties.
“We have some new guests today.” Madame turned to nod at the dark gentleman whose arm she still held and at the cluster of younger men Catharine had noticed earlier. “So allow me to acquaint everyone with the traditions that govern our establishment.
“We gather three times an evening, at ten o’clock, midnight, and two o’clock. I invite you to mingle with my dear ladies at any or all of these gatherings.” She gestured around the room at Catharine and the others. “And what fine ladies they are, are they not?” Turning to the tall stranger, she patted his arm before dropping it, not waiting for a response. There was that smile again, but this time he tempered it and dipped his head slightly as if to signal his agreement that, yes, they were fine ladies indeed.
Madame moved to stand near the hearth. “Should you come to an agreement with one of them, please visit one of my associates to arrange your visit.” A trio of elegant, liveried, and extremely large men entered the room on cue and stood, faces blank, against the far wall. It was difficult to tell—by design—whether they were footmen or something else entirely.
“You are welcome to make arrangements for two hours and to join us again at midnight. Or you’re free to arrange a longer interlude. And of course, please feel free to make use of our gaming, dining, or billiards rooms at any time.”
Catharine cleared her throat as delicately as she could, trying to catch Madame’s eye. The older woman often “forgot” to remind the guests about the special rules that governed an encounter with Lady V.
“Yes,” Madame said, eyes narrowing slightly. “There is one more thing.” She glided over and laid a hand on Catharine’s shoulder. “This, my friends, is Lady V, a genuine Mayfair lady. Highborn.” She lowered her voice for dramatic effect. “She very likely knows you.” A few of the younger men shifted uncomfortably. “Not to worry, my dears, Lady V is sworn to secrecy. It’s not in her interest to reveal how she finds her evening entertainment. She would be ruined if her true identity came to light.” Madame began to stroke Catharine’s neck with the back of one hand. “I have tried and tried to convince her to change her stance on this matter, but she remains adamant. Your time with Lady V will include only…” Tension mounted in the room as Madame deliberately trailed off, building anticipation.
The crowd, which had grown silent, erupted in exclamations and good-natured jeers. The overdressed Amelia sighed theatrically as Madame Cherie, enjoying the drama, continued. “Yes, my dears, you pay for Lady V’s company, but not, alas, her body. If you want her, you’d better act quickly, as she’s fast becoming my most popular girl.” The neck stroking had turned to rather insistent tapping. “Inexplicably so.”
Disengaging herself from Catharine with a final tap, Madame seated herself on a chair near the fire. “Please enjoy yourselves, gentlemen.” She nodded toward the pianoforte, and the young girl seated in front of it launched into a waltz. A shopgirl with a gift for music, she played in exchange for lessons from one of London’s most highly regarded music masters, a personal client of Madame’s.
So, to work. Catharine was fairly certain none of the new clients would be of interest, but that wouldn’t prevent Blackstone from quizzing her later.
Catharine felt the dark gentleman’s regard, but one of the new young men approached before she could decide on her first move. Perching on an arm of her chair, the boy filled the frame of her vision with his youthful golden presence. Ironically, this was exactly the sort of man she collected as Lady Cranbrook. Young, enthusiastic, not looking for a serious entanglement. A month ago, in another setting, she would have enjoyed the boy’s attentions.
“That’s an interesting necklace you’re wearing.” She smiled blandly and fingered the long, heavy gold chain she always wore around her neck here, feeling the comforting heft of the hidden ruby that hung from the end of it, nestled between her breasts. “I’d like to see what’s hanging from that chain.” He reached a hand out, as if to tug the necklace out.
She swatted his hand. “Then you shall be disappointed,” she said, smiling to temper her annoyance.
“Is it a gem? Perhaps a key?”
Shrugging coyly, she contemplated sending her young admirer on an errand. The refreshment table wasn’t far enough away, though.
He lowered his voice. “Whatever it is, I wager it will look spectacular lying on the sheets beside you, cast aside.”
This happened sometimes. A man, having heard the rules, decided to regard her as a challenge, flattering himself into thinking he would be the one to break them. “Ah, but I never remove it.”
“Not ever? Not even when you bathe?”
“Not that it’s any of your affair, but no.”
“It was a gift from my husband.” She amused herself sometimes by doling out little bits of the truth. But she’d alarmed her poor admirer quite a bit more than she’d intended, judging by the startled look on his face. “My late husband.”
He recovered quickly. “How long have you been widowed?”
“Nearly two years.”
“And you’ve worn that necklace every day since then?”
“That is correct.”
“What would your late husband think of you being here?”
He would be proud of me. Proud that I was doing something important, something for England. But of course she couldn’t say any of that, settling instead for, “I am enjoying widowhood.” It wasn’t a lie. She mourned Charles, of course, but she loved being a widow, adored the freedoms that came with it. It was the first time in her life she had been free to make her own choices, to do more than be swept along by the actions of the men around her.
The boy leaned over to speak in her ear. “Are you sure we can’t come to some sort of private arrangement? I could pay you directly.”
She widened her eyes, playing innocent. “A private arrangement?”
“Yes, for more than, ah, conversation.”
She raised her fan, creating a barrier between them. “No, I’m afraid that won’t be possible, but I do thank you for your interest. I’m quite flattered.”
“It’s just that…”
My, he was a persistent one. She summoned her best icy look and lifted her brows as high as they would go—an instinctive response that was, of course, lost behind her mask.
“I cannot help but think that perhaps you have been waiting for the right gentleman to come along. Perhaps you have not had the opportunity—”
“Not had the opportunity?” A deep voice cut in, and a dark presence inserted itself into their small circle, contrasting dramatically with the golden boy. It was the green-eyed gentleman. “The lady passes her evenings in a whorehouse, so one would imagine she contends with a nearly unlimited supply of…opportunities.”
The younger man sat close to her, so the newcomer must have been near in order to overhear their conversation. She smiled brightly at him. “Don’t let Madame Cherie hear you calling this a whorehouse, sir. She’ll take offense and have you thrown out.”
Unamused, he frowned. “Isn’t it, though?”
“What? A whorehouse?”
“Of course, but as a patron, you of all people should understand the importance of euphemism in these sorts of situations.”
The golden boy watched their exchange as if he were taking in a game of badminton. Though she knew it was rude, she ignored him, keeping her eyes fixed on the intriguing dark gentleman.
He cocked his head slightly. “I don’t believe in euphemism.”
“Oh? And what do you believe in?”
“Precision. Authenticity. Exactitude.”
“Perhaps, then, sir, you find yourself in the wrong place this evening.”
“No, I think not.” He glanced around until his gaze settled on one of Madame’s oversized footmen. “I shall make arrangements and return presently.”
The golden boy leaped from his perch.
“Unless,” said the mystery gentleman, “you feel you have a prior claim? It did rather sound as if perhaps you’re in search of more than the lady is prepared to offer this evening.” He fixed the younger man with an icy stare that caused the boy to bow and hurry off.
Her new client watched the boy retreat, then turned toward her and nodded. He stripped off his kidskin gloves, deposited them on her lap, and turned on his heel.
Sitting back, she blew out a breath and reached again for the royal blue silk fan that matched her dress, right down to the black ribbons trimming it. She was slightly dizzy. Was it the overheated room? The exhilarating volley of conversation they’d shared? The gentleman himself? She rather feared she was about to find out.
Knowing he needn’t worry about performing should have made James Burnham less anxious. Given that conversation was exactly why he’d come this evening, it should have been a relief to meet a woman who didn’t want to have relations. Instead, as he followed Lady V up a winding staircase, he had to consciously tamp down a rising unease.
He should have foreseen how emotions might complicate things. A logical, well-thought-out plan was one thing—a model in his mind for how the evening would unfold. Questions would be asked, observations made. But it was difficult to account for emotions in a model. The scientific method didn’t have much to say about nerves.
The swishing of the woman’s skirts sounded like thunder to his oversensitive ears. He looked at her bare white shoulders, their blades undulating as she walked. Then again, perhaps it wasn’t nerves so much as attraction. He was not made anxious by much in this world, so, yes, he must conclude that the physical symptoms he was experiencing signaled attraction. It was to be expected, a rational response to a stimulus. The key was to remember his greater purpose and not let it be sabotaged by runaway feelings. Emotions were transitory, ephemeral, certainly not worth risking all his hard work for.
He forced his legs to continue climbing the stairs behind the mysterious Lady V. The last flight of stairs, up to the top of the house, was narrow, steep, and lacked railings. No doubt the servants who slept at the top of the house had originally used it. The sharp incline meant his face was level with his hostess’s blue-silk-wrapped derriere—and a shapely backside it was. He watched it sway as she climbed, the swishing of her skirts still roaring in his head.
At the top, she stopped in front of an unremarkable white door. There wasn’t enough room on the small landing for both of them, so he waited several stairs below, bracing his hands against the unadorned plaster walls on either side of him.
She turned and smiled. Without preamble, she reached down, and in one fluid movement, hitched her skirts up almost to her waist, putting a leg clad only in the sheerest stocking, topped with an expanse of firm creamy thigh, mere inches from his face. His heart began to thud.
“Madam!” His own voice sounded strained to him, prudish, even, and he regretted the outburst. He had to take care not to sound too judgmental. Thankful for the dim lighting and his position below her on the stairs, he turned slightly toward the wall to disguise the bulge in his breeches that had suddenly, mortifyingly, appeared.
His beautiful companion, ever silent, leaned down and extracted a large golden key from her garter. Straightening, she shook her skirts back into place, unlocked the door, and preceded him inside.
“Take off your coat,” she called over her shoulder. “And make yourself comfortable. There’s no need to observe formalities here.”
Her voice was low, confident. He hadn’t heard it since they’d bantered earlier, before he’d purchased her time. Purchased her. The whole thing was so unseemly, degrading for all parties involved. However, the bulge in his drawers didn’t seem to be getting the message. Ordinarily, he would be loath to take off his coat. It felt like much-needed armor, a reminder that even in this immoral place, it was possible to display manners, to comport oneself with dignity. On the other hand, if he took it off he could use it as armor, a shield to disguise his excitement. And she was a doxy, or at least playing the part rather convincingly. It wasn’t as if the rules of polite society applied here. Besides, he’d already taken off his gloves downstairs, unceremoniously—and rudely—throwing them on her lap. At the time, he’d been overcome with a desire to mark her as his, to make sure none of the young dandies so obviously entranced with her would claim her.
He couldn’t stand on the threshold, paralyzed by indecision. Now was not the time to indulge his habit of overthinking everything. Stripping off his coat, he held it in front of him as he bounded up the last few steps into Lady V’s room.
“Room” didn’t seem to be the right word to describe the sanctum, though. It both did and did not accord with how he’d imagined the setting. On the one hand, a fire blazed, surrounded by opulent cream silk chairs. On the other side of the room, an enormous bed stood on a raised platform. He had imagined scarlet, purple, perhaps a royal blue to match the deep tone of her attire. But the room was done almost entirely in shades of white and cream: the bedclothes, the counterpane, the upholstery. Bathed in candlelight, the room was cozy, it being late and the cold autumn having recently moved into London.
It was a room to put one at ease. He would be able to do this, after all. Or at least get started, find out enough to know if further investigation was merited. Lady V, who had been moving around the room lighting branches of candles, turned toward him with a smile, a genuine smile. Gone was the half leer he’d seen on the stairway.
“May I take your coat, Mr…?”
“Burnham. Dr. James Burnham.” He saw no need to give a false name. A highborn lady amusing herself by playing the role of a courtesan wouldn’t have heard of him. Indeed, most of the beau monde wouldn’t know his name. Other men, more prominent than he, drew attention to their cause. And, yes, he could indeed surrender his coat now, everything having settled back into a less…embarrassing state.
She cocked her head as he handed over the garment. “James Burnham of Society for the Comfort and Elevation of the Poor and the Betterment of Their Children? Author of Vanquishing Vice? And of Crushing Contagion?”
His stomach dropped. She knew him? It should have been impossible! While one part of his mind began churning, assessing escape routes, another recognized the importance of carrying on. “Don’t forget Eradicating Idleness. Although I admit that the alliterative qualities of the latter are, strictly speaking, somewhat lacking.”
She laid his coat on a nearby chair and clasped his hands between hers, drawing him toward the fire. “I always assumed pamphleteers weren’t real people, that they were only names affixed to publications, false identities created to house the collected opinions of gentlemen who preferred to remain anonymous.” Positioning him in front of a settee that faced the fire, she unceremoniously pushed him back into it before joining him, sitting close as she curled her legs up under her gown and turned toward him, eyes shining through the holes in her feathered mask. The jaded siren he’d seen downstairs was gone, replaced by a completely different woman.
He cleared his throat. This was not unfolding as he’d imagined. He was supposed to be the one asking the questions. “Yes, well, here I am. In the flesh.”
She pressed a palm against her heart, drawing his attention to the porcelain skin of her exposed chest, to the heavy golden chain that rested on it, to her elegant collarbones, to the deep V between her breasts. Whatever hung on the end of her chain disappeared into that dark V. Was that the inspiration for her pseudonym?
She leaned so close he felt her breath on his face, and his senses were flooded by the rose-scented perfume she wore. “It is a pleasure to meet you, sir.”
He made an effort not to shrink from her. “Thank you. I hope I won’t offend if I confess to being slightly surprised that my reputation precedes me.” He glanced around the airy room. “Here.”
“In a whorehouse?” She leaned back a little, providing some much-needed breathing room.
“That’s not what I—”
“It is, though. It is what you meant. And it’s what you said earlier.” She moved again, putting a few more inches between them. “You don’t think a whore can be well-read enough to know of you, can have enough Christian charity in her heart to know of the work of your Society.”
“It’s a moot question, isn’t it, as I am given to understand that you’re not really a…”
He could do nothing but incline his head. The fire, which a moment ago had seemed to impart a warm, cozy glow now cast a heavy, oppressive glare on the room.
“I keep company with whores, so what’s the difference?”
“For the gentlemen downstairs being informed of the rules, I gather the difference is quite substantial.”
She stared at him for a moment. Then, in a swoosh of silk, she stood and moved to a small sideboard near the hearth and began pouring dark liquid into crystal glasses. “Forgive me, Dr. Burnham. I seem to have forgotten myself. A good whore understands the importance of separating business from pleasure.” She handed him a glass and sat back down. “And I imagine even social reformers get lonely.” With that, she raised her glass, clinked it against his, and threw her head back, drinking deeply. He could trace the path the brandy made down her throat as she swallowed. Truly, she was beautiful. Pale, almost ethereal skin, delicate chin. Pale blue eyes nearly obscured by the riot of many-colored feathers affixed to the mask she wore. The bright red-orange wig wasn’t the right color for her, and it irked him not to know what her hair really looked like, but still, against her fair skin, it made quite a statement. Draining her drink in a final swallow, she met his eyes, issuing a silent challenge. He quickly threw back his own drink, seeking the calming trail of fire it would bring.
“There now. Let us start over. You have, after all, paid handsomely for my time. You should use it as you see fit.” She sprawled back on the velvet settee and lifted her legs onto his lap, exposing a pair of slender, elegant ankles. Somewhere along the way she had removed her shoes.
It was a relaxed pose, not a seductive one, even though it was highly improper. But once again, the interpretation offered by his brain was not registering in other areas of his anatomy. How humiliating. She noticed and flashed him a smirk, eyes sparkling. He wished he could see the rest of her face so he might decipher her intent. Was she mock-scolding him? Trying to debauch him? He felt the need for an excuse. “A logical response to being in close proximity to a beautiful woman.”
The smirk disappeared. “How flattering.”
He had been trying to gave an excuse for his…obvious enthusiasm, but was it not needed? Did she expect that they would be intimate? “I thought you offered only conversation. Was I mistaken?”
She pulled away, slowly. The sensation of her legs sliding against his thighs was torture, exquisite agony that made him harden even more. Folding her limbs back underneath her, she shrugged. “Let’s say I could be persuaded to be somewhat flexible for the right gentleman. But if it’s conversation you want, by all means, let us converse.”
He could only stare at her mutely, unsure how to explain that conversation was what he wanted, just not of the sort she probably imagined. How could he possibly have believed this a good idea? Why had he ever thought this worldly, flame-haired beauty could tell him anything of use? He was so far from what he wanted to know that he might as well end this charade now.
He stood. “Lady V, you will forgive me, but I must go.”
“You must go?” Her mouth formed into the most alluring pink O. “But it can’t have been more than a quarter hour since we arrived. You’ve paid for two hours.”
He paused, uncertain, glancing around the room for his coat. He didn’t want to offend, but he didn’t want to remain here, either. Sitting in front of a warm fire in a comfortable room with a beautiful—and well-read—lady masquerading as a courtesan wasn’t right. This had been a mistake. He would have to concede that Mr. Phillips and the others had been correct all along. Admitting defeat seemed a small price to pay to get out of here.
“Please, Dr. Burnham.” She’d risen to join him, and a small hand slipped into one of his. Tugging him away from the fire, she pointed him toward an armchair near the bed. “It’s so warm by the fire, don’t you think? Let’s move over there. Lie on the bed and make yourself comfortable. I think it’s possible that you’ve had a trying evening thus far. You’ll forgive me. I sometimes get caught up in playing my role. It’s something that most of my…companions enjoy. If you would be so kind as to position this chair so that it faces the bed, I’ll seat myself there. You shall be quite safe.” She squeezed his hand. “And we shall spend the next hour and three quarters conversing, as advertised.”
Though it took him by surprise, her change in demeanor made him think perhaps something of the evening could be salvaged. He moved the chair as she asked, and she settled herself into it, pulling the counterpane off the bed and wrapping it around herself. Seeing her covered up, curled in the chair like a girl, made the situation seem less threatening. She was right: he’d paid for her time. He’d paid a small fortune, in fact, for answers he wouldn’t get if he left. Happily, the counterpane covered Lady V’s lovely bosom, obscuring the mysterious golden chain and making it easier to focus on his thoughts. Yes, this he could manage.
“There now.” She smiled as he sank back into the feather bed and extended his legs, which reached all the way to the foot. “What shall we talk about?”
She turned her head and waved a hand at him, as if rejecting the idea.
“Yes,” he said, dismissing her objection. “Let’s start with how you came to be familiar with my work.”
“I’ve read all your pamphlets.”
“So I gather, but how did you learn of them to begin with?”
“A friend of mine is a patroness of the Society.”
“You will recall that I’m not actually a courtesan.”
“And who is your friend?”
“Her name is Daisy. I’m sure you don’t—”
“Daisy Watson? Mrs. Robert Watson?”
She sucked in a breath and frowned. He could almost imagine creases appearing between her eyebrows, underneath her mask.
“I shan’t tell her I met you here,” he said quickly, wanting to put her at ease.
“I would appreciate that very much, Dr. Burnham. I wouldn’t want her to know that I…”
“Consider us even. I wouldn’t want her to know that I…either.”
She nodded, and graced him with a genuine smile. “Then I shan’t tell her I met you here. I admire your work too much to endanger it.”
“Then why don’t you join us? Your friend Mrs. Watson has been enormously helpful. We can publish any number of pamphlets, but having patrons among the ton is the surest way to advance our causes in Parliament.”
A corner of her perfectly pink mouth curled up, and her eyes twinkled. “Well, let’s just say that my interests have taken a different turn than Mrs. Watson’s.”
He laughed, despite himself. “Why do you do it?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. One can only attend so many balls, receive so many callers, have the same insipid conversations over and over again before one begins to lose one’s mind a little.”
“Haven’t you a family? A husband?” He knew the answer to the latter question, having overheard her telling that annoying young cub as much earlier in the evening, but he didn’t want to admit to eavesdropping.
“I haven’t had a husband for two years now.” She stared at him, issuing a silent warning to probe no further.
He obeyed, but marveled over the enormous risk she was taking, being here like this. If she really was a highborn lady, even a widowed one, discovery would mean ruin.
“And what of you?” she asked. “What brings you here? It can’t merely be a desire to converse.”
He tried to make a jest of her question. “You said it yourself. Even social reformers get lonely.”
“I would imagine especially social reformers get lonely. Holding oneself to the impossible standards you suggest we should hold the poor to must grow tiring.”
Her words, and the sharp tone they were delivered in, stung. “I thought you said you admired my work.” He tried not to sound defensive.
“I do, but that’s not the same as saying I agree with all of it.”
Maybe she could help him. “Tell me about your life.”
“What’s there to tell? I live in a large house with lots of servants. I have many friends and admirers. I go to parties. I invite the occasional gentleman over for…conversation.” She smiled and glanced around the room. “And two nights a week I come here.”
“How much money do you make?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I paid eight pounds to be here. It’s an outrageous sum. How much of it do you see?”
“Why does it matter? I’m already rich.”
“Not you, then. The others. How much do they make? Do they have children? Does Madame Cherie treat them well? Do they work here because they haven’t anywhere else to go? To what extent do they choose this life?”
She stood. “I think I will have another drink.”
Damn it. He’d pushed too hard, barraging her with questions. She paused at the sideboard, neither moving nor speaking. He shifted, uncomfortable, unsure if he should apologize. But then she began moving again, pouring from the crystal decanter.
When she returned her eyes were blank, cold. She handed him a drink he hadn’t asked for. He sat up and set it on the bedside table. One had been enough; he needed to keep his wits about him.
“You’re writing another pamphlet, aren’t you? What’s this one to be called? Plotting Against Prostitution? Withdrawing from Whoredom?” She took a sip. “No pun intended.”
“No, of course not. I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”
“The women who work here are human beings, you know. Not problems to be solved, vices to be suppressed.”
He’d offended her, apparently quite deeply. “I know. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. If you’ll allow me to explain—”
Still standing, she pulled him up to join her, pressing a finger against his lips. “No. Social reform isn’t on the conversational agenda this evening. In fact, I find I don’t want to converse any more at all, and yet I feel that you should get your money’s worth.”
Her short, clipped tones said she was upset, yet she moved to stand so close to him that he could feel her legs beneath her skirt, brushing against his. He felt his own spark of annoyance. She was clearly trying to unsettle him with her sudden aggression, to scare him and his questions away. Her bosom pressed against his chest and, looking down, his eyes were drawn once again to where the creamy white skin gave way to a dark chasm. To the V. Which, despite his better judgment, he very much wanted to trace with his fingertips. Or his mouth.
She tilted her head back and licked her lips. “Eight pounds is an outrageous sum.”
He had angered her, and she was punishing him, baiting him. Fine. He would not allow himself to become flustered—he could play this game as well as she. Games he understood. They had rules, and he was good at rules. But he wagered she wasn’t prepared to follow through with her teasing. “It is indeed. What do you suggest?”
Standing on her tiptoes, she placed her hands on his shoulders to steady herself. She leaned up and in, and he could feel the tickle of the mask’s feathers against his nose. Her mouth touched his, ever so lightly. “I suggest this,” she whispered.
He inhaled deeply, filling his nose with her rose scent. But there was something else there too, something lighter, a fresh scent almost completely obscured by the roses. Lemon? He couldn’t put his finger on it. She was not exactly the wanton she pretended to be. Her combative words were at odds with the tentative, almost chaste kiss she offered. She was giving him the opportunity to back away, to end things here, and she would follow his lead, but he was not a saint. And she was right about one thing: social reform was a lonely business.
He kissed her back.
Snaking his arms around her, he lifted her off her feet a little. Her kiss had been light, tentative. His, as he crushed his mouth against hers, was nothing short of demanding. He knew it was wildly inappropriate, but he didn’t care. He wanted for one moment to possess this lovely, mysterious creature, to forget about his measurements, his statistics, his examinations and just…live.
She exhaled against his mouth, a little mew that went straight to his groin. He nudged her mouth open with his tongue, though he didn’t have to do much persuading, as hers met his eagerly, soft and demanding at the same time. He groaned. She was delicious. And a masked lady playing the part of a whore, he reminded himself. Someone who valued her own entertainment above decorum, propriety—above what was right. He was supposed to be here in service of a greater cause.
He disengaged and gently pushed her away, despite the angry protestations of every part of his body. It seemed he could not escape the confines of his controlling mind, after all. Forgetting was not a particular skill of his.
One of her cap sleeves had fallen down her arm, exposing a pale shoulder. Sighing, he reached out and righted it, then stroked the side of her face with the back of his hand, starting at her hairline, drifting down over her mask, and then, finally, making contact with her skin where the mask stopped below her cheekbones. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I must go.”
He half expected her to object, but she merely nodded and stepped away, clearing a path for him. Moving around the room, he collected his coat and gloves as quickly as he could and made his way to the door. He paused and turned back to where she stood near the bed, watching him. Once more, he allowed his eyes to fall to her décolletage. “What does the V stand for?”
She was silent for a long moment. “Viscountess.”
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