She was sitting at the scarred wooden table in the center of the kitchen, waiting for the tea to steep, when she heard a sound from the hallway. It was too early for even the sprightliest kitchen wench—the bread wouldn’t need to be started for another hour—and Melisande froze in sudden fear. Only to see Emma stick her head in the room, her worried expression brightening when she saw Melisande.
“I heard you go out,” she said, coming into the room and grabbing a thick white mug from the shelf. “I assumed you were Violet, but she’s sound asleep in bed, looking like the perfect angel.” She snorted.
“Probably not for long,” Melisande said, pushing the plate of biscuits toward her.
“No, probably not. You can’t save them all. Not if they don’t want to be saved.”
For a moment Melisande busied herself with the teapot, pouring mugs of hot tea as Emma took the seat opposite her. “I don’t understand it. Why wouldn’t they be happy to get away from all that degradation? When there’s a decent way to live without having some man pawing you all the time, why wouldn’t you jump at the chance?”
A small smile curved Emma’s mouth. She was a beautiful woman, Melisande thought dispassionately. It would make a lot of sense if their names were switched. Melisande should be a raven-haired beauty; Emma should be the brown wren.
“There’s a surprising amount of pleasure to be had in bed.” She took a sip of her tea.
Melisande made a sound of disdain. “I find that hard to believe. It’s not as if I hadn’t…as if I were still… I have experience, you know.”
“Of course you have.” Emma’s voice was soothing. “But you will admit, not quite as much as I do.”
“We’re the same age,” Melisande said, knowing she sounded childish.
“You’re a century younger. Be glad of it, my dear.”
“But you just said there was surprising pleasure to be had in bed.”
“And you’ll find it. With the right man.”
Melisande shook her head. “I don’t think so. And you’ve eschewed the company of men to live here, as well. Don’t you miss this purported ‘pleasure’?”
“What brought this up?”
“Nothing. Just something Violet said when I found her at Viscount Rohan’s.”
“And that was?”
For a moment Melisande hesitated, and then she spoke. “She said she liked it. Now I could see that if one was to enjoy the act with anyone then Viscount Rohan would be the man…” The words were already out of her mouth before she realized how damning they were.
“He’s a very handsome man,” Emma agreed gravely, but there was still a twinkle in her eye. “All the Rohans are beautiful and wicked and irresistible. It’s only natural you would have a tendre for him.”
“Not likely,” Melisande said, reaching for another biscuit. “As you said, he’s a handsome man—I’d have to be dead not to notice, and I’m not dead. That doesn’t mean I want to go anywhere near him.”
“But the question is, are you tempted?”
Melisande hid her instinctive reaction. “Of course not! And I’m not the kind of woman Viscount Rohan gets involved with. Thank heavens!”
“Thank heavens, why?” Emma pursued. “If you’re not tempted then why would it matter whether he was interested or not?”
The very thought of Benedick Rohan turning those dark eyes on her with anything less than the annoyance or, at best, indifference, was enough to make her blood run cold. And hot. “When did you become such a matchmaker?” she demanded.
Emma smiled. “Seven years running a house of ill repute gives me a great deal of experience. I can tell when someone’s interested, and I can tell when it would be a good match.”
“Well, I’m not interested.”
“Of course you aren’t.” Emma’s eyes were alight with merriment.
“You’ll see. Sooner or later I expect I’ll run into him again, and I’ll have a chance to prove I don’t care. Though I’m not going after Violet again. This is her last chance.”
Emma shook her head. “She won’t stay.”
“No. And Viscount Rohan is welcome to her.” Melisande rose, yawning. “I don’t know whether I should go back to bed or give it up and dress for the day.”
“You’ll dress for the day,” Emma returned. “You’re the most active creature I know—you’re bound to have a hundred things you could accomplish before noon.”
“Am I that predictable?”
Emma remained at the table long after Melisande had left, staring into her teacup. She wished she could read the leaves. She knew her past—it would be lovely to have the assurance that the future would be a calmer, safer one.
There were a thousand excuses for what she’d become, she thought coolly. A hysterical mother who’d thrown herself off the third-story roof of their ramshackle house in Plymouth. A cold, withdrawn father, obsessed with sin and salvation, whose attention took the form of beatings and ritual scrubbings. And a grandfather who touched her, who wanted to be touched, who whispered that it was her fault—she was the wicked one to lure him so, that she would burn in the flames of hell, and at the age of eleven she had believed him.
He’d died soon thereafter, and that had been her fault, as well. She’d prayed for his death. Evil creature that she was, she’d prayed that he would die and she wouldn’t have to let him put his gnarled, painful hands on her. And so he had died, because she had asked for it, and her sins had been compounded.
She had run away when she was fifteen, after her father had dragged her into her Spartan bedchamber by her hair, stripped off her clothes to expose her wicked, temptress’s body, and washed her. Washed every part of her, roughly, and then slowly, and the shame had paralyzed her, shame and fear, and she knew she had brought even her holy father to sin by her wanton form, and she’d run, before she could tempt him further.
She’d had enough money to get her as far as London, and old Mother Howard had been there to meet the stagecoach, as she so often was. A sweet, elderly figure with a comforting smile and soft hands, she’d offered her a safe place to stay while she found work in the teeming city, and Emma, who’d never known a woman’s kindness but was at least certain that her looks would elicit no demon’s temptation, had gone with her, grateful and expectant.
She always wondered at what price the old hag had sold her virginity. She only knew the bitch had chortled as someone had held her down and administered enough of the drug to keep her compliant but still awake, that the sum outstripped anything she had received in the past.
At the end of that hideous night she’d been returned to the room full of sullen girls, and she’d lay in her cot, weeping, wanting to die. Until someone sat down beside her and spoke in a matter-of-fact voice.
“Crying won’t do you no good, my girl,” Mollie Biscuits had said. “I’d tell you that the worst of it is over, but that might not be true. Old Mother Howard has some clients who like to hurt a girl in order to get it up, but the good news is that even more of them like to be hurt themselves. You’ll end up with the chance to whip some of the men who want to hurt you, and there’s revenge to be had with that.”
Emma didn’t lift her head, but her tears had stopped, and she listened.
“Many of them will only want you to pleasure them with your mouth, and that won’t take long. Some will want you for the night, but if you know a few tricks you’ll find you can tire them in less than an hour and then spend the rest of the night sleeping in a better bed than this one. Some want strange, unnatural things, and you go along with it, because you have no choice.
“But, lass, she’s old and sick. I’ve heard her coughing, late at night, and she’ll be dead before Whitsuntide. I won’t say you’ll be free then—her bully boys will try to keep you on. And for most of us, we have no place to go. We’ll stay here, and do what we know how to do, because otherwise it’s the streets, and that’s a short ride to an ugly death.
“But you can go home again. Mother Howard will make certain there are no babies, and you can return to whatever country town you came from and forget any of this ever happened.”
Emma had lifted her head then, and her tears had stopped. The woman sitting opposite her was large and comfortable-looking, older than the women who watched her with wary sympathy. “I can’t go home…. That would be worse.”
Mollie Biscuits had nodded. “Then you’ll make the best of it here. We’ll help you, won’t we, girls? There are tricks of the trade, so to speak. And Mother Howard’s sister isn’t as hard a soul as the auld bitch. If she takes over we’ve got half a chance to make things better in this place.”
Emma had sat up then, looking around her. The attic dormitory was cold and dirty, the narrow beds lined up against the two walls. The food she’d had so far was foul, there was no way to wash and the privy was disgusting. Worse, she thought she could feel bugs crawling on her skin.
“No choice, my girl,” another woman, a young redhead with an Irish accent had said. “May as well make the best of it.”
And something had hardened inside Emma right then, a core of steel she’d never known she’d had. They were right—there was no choice. Her father had always told her she was born to tempt men; her grandfather had told her she would be a whore when she grew up. It was her fault, she’d been born that way and there was no escape.
But she could make things better. She didn’t have to live in hunger and filth. “Yes.” Her cool, elegant voice had hit a note of determination. “We can make the best of it.”
Mollie Biscuits had chuckled comfortably. “Well, listen to ’er ladyship talk! You’re a right proper one, aren’t you? Must be some toff’s bastard to end up like this, but we don’t worry about where any of us come from. From now on, we’re your family. I’m Mollie Biscuits, this is Agnes and Long Jane, Jenny and Agnes and Thin Polly. I’ll introduce you to the others when they wake up. We look after each other, we do. Warn each other of the bad ones. Some of the girls like some tricks better than others, and if we’re careful we can trade off. Mother Hubbard doesn’t mind, as long as the gentlemen are satisfied, and her sister will be easier to get around. And once you’re used to it, it’s not hard work.” She let out a wheezing laugh. “At least you’re not on your feet all day.”
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