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"That is the fifth gentleman this week to demand his money back." Mrs. Tong, resident procuress of The Temple of Venus, strode into the opulent boudoir with a hissing swish of angry silk skirts. "One hundred guineas that cost me!" She put her hands on her hips and viewed with utter exasperation the woman sitting at the dressing table. "You are supposed to be an investment, madam!" Her genteel accent was slipping under duress. "I hired you as a novelty, an attraction, the most notorious woman in London. I did not expect a shrinking virgin." She threw her hands up. "He said that you were so cold you unmanned him. You are supposed to be scandalous, so behave scandalously! If Lord Bor-rodale wanted a block of ice in his bed he would be at home with his wife!"
Lottie Cummings sat silently under the tirade pressing her hands together to prevent them from shaking. In the week that she had been under Mrs. Tong's roof she had learned that the mistress of the bawdy house was prone to these bouts of anger when her girls upset her, and what could be more upsetting than an unsatisfied customer demanding a refund? Money was Mrs. Tong's lifeblood; no wonder the bawd was furious.
Lottie hated this place, hated this work with a deep loathing that stalked her from the moment she woke to the moment she tried to escape the nightmare through sleep. She had never imagined that being a courtesan would be like this. She had thought herself so sophisticated, so experienced. She had evenGod help herimagined that she might take to the world of the demimonde like a professional. After all, how difficult could it be? She was a woman with a certain degree of confidence and worldly knowledge. She had once believed herself quite talented in the amatory arts. Before she had seen the reality of a courtesan's existence she had even thought that she could take the customers' money and enjoy their attentions.
Her bravado was in tatters now. Her confidence had failed her. She had known nothing.
Nothing of the degradation of being spoken of as though she were not there, discussed, dismissed, like a piece of meat. Nothing of the contempt customers would show her, exercised over her because they were paying and so they could behave as they wished. Nothingif she was being brutally honestof the downright repulsiveness of some of the men. She had only ever slept with good-looking men before and that had been no hardship. She had chosen her lovers. Now they chose her.
She could not bear this. She thought that if she remained one minute longer in that house she would run mad.
But where could she go?
There was nowhere. Her family had cast her out and her friends disowned her. She was not qualified to perform any job and she was too notorious to be offered one. Plus she owed Mrs. Tong a considerable amount of money: There was the bond taken as security against her health and the tire money to trick her out to look like a whore. She had been caught in a net of debt designed to ensure she never escaped.
She looked around the boudoir with its golden chairs shaped like seashells and the bed draped in swathes of purple. All the colors were loud and shockingly tasteless. She would have hated the room for its tawdry pretense at glamour had she not already hated it far more deeply for representing everything she had become.
"I don't understand you." When Lottie did not speak, Mrs. Tong sat down heavily on the purple bed. The mattress gave a sigh. "Gossip has it that you were giving it away for free to all and sundry during your marriage," she continued sharply, "yet now you are to be paid for it you act the outraged innocent."
Lottie set her lips in a tight line to prevent the words of repudiation from spilling out. She could not afford to antagonize Mrs. Tong further if she did not wish to be thrown on the streets. That was her reality now. Sell herselfor starve. And she could not be too particular about the purchaser.
She fidgeted with the pots on her table, with the rose- and lavender-scented creams for the skin, which were so strongly perfumed that they made her want to sneeze violently, and with the bright, harsh paints and cosmetics that were supposed to enhance her beauty but which in reality marked her out so brashly as a courtesan that she might as well have worn a placard.
She wanted to smash her hand down and scatter them to the floor.
"I find it difficult," she said, "that is all."
Mrs. Tong's face tightened into disapproval. "God knows why. How many men have you had?"
"Not so many."
Not as many as the scandalmongers said.
Mrs. Tong sighed. For a brief second there was a glint of something softer in her eyes, the memory, perhaps, of what she had once been before she had bought and sold other women to make her fortune.
"You should pull yourself together," she said, with rough sympathy, "or you'll be selling yourself for a shilling outside the theaters, and that won't suit your ladyship, either. At least here you have a roof over your head." Her cynical gray gaze flicked over Lottie. "You're not getting any younger, are you? And what else can you do now you're divorced and disgraced?"
"Nothing," Lottie said. "Nothing," she repeated quietly. Goodness knows, she had thought about it. She had searched desperately for an alternative. All doors were closed to her, all respectable trades impossible. Working for a living had once seemed laughable, something that other, less fortunate people did. Now it seemed her only choice was to make a living on her back.
"I'll try harder," she promised, attempting to keep the desperation from her voice. She did not want Mrs. Tong sensing her near despair, did not want to give the other woman an even greater hold over her.
"See that you do." The bawd rose to her feet. "There's a party tomorrow nighta few of the girls and a few of my most select gentlemen." Her eyes bored into Lottie. "I shall expect you to play your part."
Lottie felt a wave of horror and sickness rise in her throat. She swallowed hard and nodded dumbly.
I will not be sick. I will not.
There was a knock at the door, and Betsy, one of the other girls, small, dark and plump, stuck her head around.
"Begging your pardon, Mrs. Tong, but Lottie's next customer is here."
"Ah." Mrs. Tong sounded gratified. "Well" she cast Lottie a sharp glance "see you send this one away satisfied."
The door swung wider. Out on the red-and-gold carpeted landing, Lottie could see a man waiting. He was wearing a green coat and an excited, lascivious expression. John Hagan. He was an acquaintance of hers from her previous life, a man who had always wanted to have her and was now prepared to pay to fulfill his fantasy. She could not refuse him. Panic clawed at her chest. It made her catch her breath.
Mrs. Tong turned on her as swift as a striking snake. "Then you can leave now."
It came then, the despair, crushing her, sapping her will. So many times in the past few months she had been close to it and had not quite given in. At first, when Gregory had said he was to divorce her, she had thought there had been some terrible mistake. Then he had sent her away, refused to see her, returned all her letters unopened with chilling ruthlessness, and she had realized that there had been a mistake and it had been hers. She had broken the unwritten agreement between them, become too indiscreet. The press had reported on her exploits and made her husband a laughingstock. She had damaged Gregory's reputation too openly, too flagrantly, to be forgiven. She was to be punished.
She had written to her family but they had chosen not to help her. Her friends, it seemed, were not friends at all, for they did not want to know her anymore. The only two people who might have helped her were abroad and out of reach. Gregory had paid handsomely for the case to be hurried through the courts, and on the day that the divorce had been granted he had served notice on her to leave her house. She was destitute. And through all of the long, painful process of the divorce she had not quite believed it was happening.
She believed it now, now that she was ruined.
Hagan was approaching, chest puffed out, his tread confident. Mrs. Tong was wreathed in smiles now, bowing him into the room. Lottie clutched the folds of her negligee to her throat.
"My dear Lottie, what a delight to see you once more " Hagan was fulsome in his triumph, bowing over her hand with pretense of gentlemanly conduct, this hypocrite who had watched her fall into the gutter and now came to exploit her. His eyes roved over her transparent wrap, dwelling on the swell of her breasts and dropping lower. Lottie's mouth felt dry, her heart beating so hard she shook. She bent her head and fixed her eyes on the riotous pattern on the carpet.
"One hundred guineas," she heard Mrs. Tong say and saw the madam hold out her hand for the money.
"My dear Mrs. Tong " Hagan sounded pained. "I have heard stories that our little harlot here" spite colored his voice "can be somewhat disappointing. I'll pay afterward, not before, and only if I am satisfied."
Mrs. Tong was hesitating. Lottie could feel the heat of Hagan's palm on her shoulder through the thin material of her wrap. She shuddered deep inside. When it had come to a choice between starving to death or selling the one remaining commodity she still had, she had not hesitated. It had been her choice, if one could dignify a decision to which there was no alternative with the word choice. She had sold her body in order to survive and she would have to do it again, over and over until she was old and raddled and nobody wanted her. And that would not be long, for as Mrs. Tong had pointed out she was scarcely in the first flush of youth . The cold shudders rippled down inside her again as she thought of the future.
Hagan's hand slid to her breast, fumbling. She could hear his breathing change and grow heavier with excitement.
The future starts here.
They all jumped.
A man was standing in the doorway, one shoulder resting against the jamb. He was in black-and-white evening dress, and against the raucous color of the brothel with its damask walls and peacock drapes he looked stark and almost too plainly attired. He was tall with black hair cut short and eyes of a startling, striking blue in a lean, watchful face. Lottie felt Hagan stiffen, as though sensing a rival.
"Sir" Hagan withdrew his hand. His face had reddened. "You intrude. You must wait your turn."
The stranger's eyes met Lottie's. His gaze was so bright and piercing that she felt her breath catch. Odd, she thought, that in that moment there was something in his eyes that looked almost like reassurance. Odd and impossible, an illusion, for then he smiled and any impression of gentleness was banished. He strode forward, self-assured, dangerous.
"Oh, I do not think so," he murmured. "I don't wait in line."
Hagan opened his mouth to speak but it was Mrs. Tong who intervened now, a sweep of her hand silencing him.
"My lord " Lottie could not quite place the tone in the bawd's voice. There was deference there, certainly, but something else too. Wariness? Lottie had known all manner of men, from overrefined dandies to brutish bucks, but she had never met a man whose presence felt quite so elemental. There was danger in the room. She felt it in the air and with a prickle down her spine. Suddenly the atmosphere was alive.
"I am sure Mr. Hagan would not mind waiting," Mrs. Tong said smoothly. "If you would be so good, sir Can I offer you a glass of wine perhaps? On the house?" She was already shepherding Hagan toward the door. The newcomer stood aside with studied amusement to allow him to pass. Lottie let out her breath on a sigh she had thought was silent until the man cast her a quick, appraising glance.
The door closed.
"You are Charlotte Cummings?" the stranger asked.
"No," Lottie said. "Not anymore." The only thing she had wanted from Gregory was money. He could keep his name. It was no use to her. "I am Charlotte Palliser now," she said.
The man inclined his head. "I had heard that the Pallisers had disowned you."
"They cannot take my name," Lottie said. "I was born with it."
He did not reply at once. He was watching her with that same acute interest that he had shown from the moment he had set eyes on her. His gaze held no sexual appraisal, only a cool calculation that made Lottie shiver for there was no softness in it at all.
"May I?" He gestured to the armchair. She was surprised he troubled to ask permission. Such courtesy sat oddly with the sense that this was a man who would take what he wanted whether anyone opposed him or not.
He sat down and crossed one ankle over the other knee, lounging back with a casual grace. His whole body, so long and lean, looked elegantly relaxed and yet Lottie thought it would be a mistake to dismiss him as yet another fashionable Corinthian. There was too much forcefulness beneath the surface, too much power and intensity banked down.
"Who are you," Lottie said, "that Mrs. Tong allows you to dictate to her and does not even make you pay in advance?" It appeared that he was not intent on hurrying her into bed, whoever he was.
He laughed. "Ethan Ryder, at your service." There was a wicked spark in his blue eyes. "And I pay afterward." He raised an eyebrow. "I do believe you're blushing. How singularin a courtesan."
Lottie turned her face away. He was right. She felt vulnerable, almost shy. This was a man who seemed to be able to strip her feelings bare with no more than a look, and she, no matter what people said, was no brass-faced strumpet.
"Mrs. Tong called you 'my lord,'" she said. She knew that she sounded doubtful. He looked more like a horse master than an earl, for all his fashionable attire. At one time she had known the entire peerage and she had never met him before. She knew that she would have remembered him.
"How quick of you to notice." He still sounded amused. "It's no lie. I am the Baron St. Severin. Oh, and the Chevalier D'Estrange for good measure."