Mollie Biscuits hadn’t looked like she was born to tempt men. She was plump and plain and cheery. The other women didn’t look like evil sirens either, just tired young women, most of them pretty enough. Clearly they weren’t the cause of their downfall, only the victims.
But Emma had known she was different. She knew in her heart she was evil, and she belonged in this life.
But she could make it better. For herself, and for the others. And she had.
Mollie Biscuits had been right—Mother Hubbard had died soon after Easter, and her sister had taken over. It had been easy enough to start helping out. For one thing, it got her out of having to provide for as many of the gentlemen who showed up at the White Pearl. For another, as Emma had slowly gotten Mrs. Timmins, who’d never been married, to clean up the place and serve better meals, she’d been able to charge more for her stable of girls. Emma had convinced her to put the extra money into sprucing up the building, bringing in a better class of customer and correspondingly higher fees, and it had gone from there. By the time Mrs. Timmins had died Emma was nineteen years old and more than ready to take over the reins of the business. She’d dismissed all the bully boys but one, and she’d kept him on to keep the girls safe from unruly customers. She’d instituted baths and good food and most of the money going toward the girls.
She’d sold their bodies, even though they were willing and grateful for her care, and she had to pay penance, for that and for the sins her body had forced from her family. She had no doubt it was that sinfulness that had caused her mother to kill herself. She’d known what a demon she’d given birth to.
And so she’d taken to going to St. Martin’s Hospital every few days, to help out, and Mollie Biscuits would go with her. No other women ever went to the public hospital—only whores were considered suitable for such work. She’d done what she could for the sick and the dying, the soldiers home from the Afghan wars with arms and legs missing, with eyes clouded with madness from the horror they’d lived through. Most of them died, and she found she couldn’t be sorry. It was the only relief they could look forward to.
She’d done what she could to help keep the rooms clean; she helped change dressings, ignoring the foul stench of putrefaction. She’d helped when the doctors had taken off limbs, sitting on the chest of a screaming patient while others held him down. She’d cradled the dying in her arms, singing old Welsh lullabies in their ears as she’d rocked them. She’d washed the dead and she’d fed the living.
And she’d met Brandon Rohan one stormy winter day, and life hadn’t been the same.
Brandon Rohan leaned heavily on his cane as he moved down the narrow corridors of the caves riddling the countryside at Kerlsey Manor in Kent. He was dressed in a monk’s robe, though he found that particular conceit quite ridiculous. Everyone would know him by his limp, even if his head and face were covered with a cowl. But the Grand Master had decreed that they would no longer show their faces when they met, and he had no choice but to obey, and part of him approved. The meetings of the Heavenly Host were for darkness and privacy. He had no wish to face his fellow celebrants later at his mother’s house, and, given the people who had belonged to the Host’s notorious roster, it was always a distinct possibility.
No, discretion was wise. Nowadays he didn’t even know who led the Host, nor did anyone else he bothered to ask. It didn’t matter. The Grand Master was one of them, and that was what counted. He made the rules, set the dates and locations of the gatherings, and with his guidance their membership had swelled.
They’d been meeting in Kent ever since Brandon had first been able to get around by himself. Kersley Hall had been largely destroyed by a fire, and then abandoned by its indigent owner. Enough remained of the structure that they could meet, and the series of chalk caves beneath it proved most utile. There were an infinite number of rooms leading off those twisting caves, and one could do anything one pleased within those walls.
And the screams never carried to the surface.
He knew a moment’s doubt, but he quickly pushed it away. He wasn’t particularly interested in the unwilling partners some favored, the ones who were well paid for the honor. He preferred women who didn’t fight him. Witnessing it had been horrifying enough.
But he wasn’t going to think about that. If the others preferred their whores to simulate resistance, then who was he to judge? They were well paid, and if, by any chance, some of that resistance was real, it was hardly his concern. “Do what thou wilt” was their motto, and none of the members passed judgment upon each other.
He wondered what Benedick would think of it. Their own father had been involved in the Heavenly Host when he was young, and his father before him. Benedick would probably disapprove, but Brandon was only following in the family footsteps. If his dour older brother disliked it, he could go back to Somerset.
He could hear the low rumble of voices from a distance. They had already started, with their silly attempts to raise the devil. Brandon didn’t believe in the devil, believe in hell. He’d already looked into the face of it in the Afghan.
He needed to get off his bad leg. He needed someone to distract him from the pain. He needed opium to dull the worst of it. He would find those things at the end of the corridor.
He heard a woman scream, and for a moment he froze, as the sound was quickly cut off. They were well paid for it, he reminded himself coldly.
And he limped onward, toward the dimly lit cavern.
Benedick would have happily forgotten all about the annoying Lady Carstairs had he not run smack into her in St. James Park, shepherding her little flock of soiled doves. He might not have even noticed their presence had it not been for the sudden outraged expression on his future fiancée, the very proper Miss Pennington, and he turned to follow her gaze.
“It’s that woman,” his intended said in a tight voice. “How dare she parade those…those creatures here among the gentry? Has she no sense of decorum, no sense of what is right and proper? Someone needs to take her in hand and explain a few things.”
He looked over at the group lazily. Lady Carstairs was dressed in the same boring clothes she wore before, of cloth and execrable fashion, with that bonnet covering her hair and face. The women following her looked for all the world like overgrown schoolgirls rather than the poor unfortunate, and he gazed at them idly, wondering how many of them he’d bedded before Charity Carstairs had lured them into unfortunate rectitude.
La Violette wasn’t present, and he wondered whether she was being punished. Locked in a dungeon on bread and water, perhaps. It was no wonder she’d jumped at his offer.
“They’re simply enjoying a public park on a fine day,” he said mildly enough.
“If they’re so desirous of the salubrious effect of fresh air, they should take themselves to Hyde Park, rather than these more cultured confines.” Miss Pennington’s eyes narrowed. She had rather small eyes, he noticed for the first time. Hard and unforgiving. “I wish you might go and give the woman a hint.”
“That would hardly be appropriate, Miss Pennington. I believe Lady Carstairs’s home is nearby—it only makes sense that she bring the women here.”
“Sir Thomas must be rolling over in his grave. She’s turned that house into nothing more than a…a brothel.”
“Hardly. I believe the point of the matter is that the women have foresworn their previous…activities.”
“And you see, that’s what kind of trouble she brings among us,” Miss Pennington said, much incensed. “I shouldn’t be discussing this with a gentleman. I shouldn’t even know such women exist, and yet what choice have I, when she constantly thrusts them in our faces.”
He thought for a moment that he might like one of Lady Carstairs’s soiled doves to be thrust into his face. He looked down at Miss Pennington, mentally crossing her off his list of potential brides. Not only did he not want to wake up in the morning and meet those small, disapproving eyes, but he didn’t want his future children subjected to them. And suddenly he wanted to get away.
“If you wish, I could go speak with Lady Carstairs,” he said. “But I would be loath to leave you here without an escort.”
Miss Pennington’s trill of laughter was clearly supposed to remind him what a good sport she was. “Don’t be silly, Lord Rohan. I have my maid and a footman with me. I often have been bold enough to walk on my own with only their company. After all, I’m no longer a green girl. Go on and tell Lady Carstairs that she’s not wanted here. I’ll make my way back home on my own.”
No longer a green girl, he thought, but a bitter old woman, and only twenty-three to boot. He gave her an angelic smile, brought her gloved hand to his mouth and then realized his unruly passion would offend her. “As you wish, Miss Pennington,” he said, bowing as she walked away, and he mentally consigned her to the devil.
He turned, and looked at Lady Carstairs. She was a bit above average height, and he liked that in a woman. It made her a worthy opponent. She was quite deliciously rounded, and for a brief moment he wished his first supposition had been right. He would have enjoyed venting some of his suppressed sexual energy on that soft, sweet body, having those long legs wrapped around his hips as he moved deep within her.
He cursed softly at the sweet picture he’d conjured up and his predictable physical reaction. As an antidote he thought of Miss Pennington’s mean little eyes, and with relief he felt his arousal subsiding.
He considered strolling back home. He had no intention of warning “Charity” Carstairs off—Miss Pennington’s demands notwithstanding. If a gaggle of soiled doves were going to parade around St. James Park he was going to enjoy it.
But at that moment he also had the perfect opportunity to confront Lady Carstairs, and with a grim smile on his face he started toward her.
Melisande was doing an admirable job keeping her girls from flirting with all and sundry as they walked down the length of the ornamental canal. She was a firm believer in the efficacy of fresh air and exercise, though Miss Mackenzie, her former governess and now head of the teaching staff at Carstairs House was usually the one responsible for their exercise. But apparently the girls had been causing too much of a stir, and Melisande knew that there were a great deal too many men with too much time on their hands lounging around Green Park, and she’d decided St. James might be the wiser direction.
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