Authors: Tiffany Clare
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Victorian, #General
Because this is now written down forever and ever and
I love you, this one is all for you, Scotty-poo!
I couldn’t have finished this book if not for my partner in crime (and your bazillion read-throughs), Elyssa Papa.
A special thank you for all my readers for this book and previous ones: Debbie Hajdukovic, Kristina, Maggie, Elena, Janga, and Santa. If I forgot anyone, it’s ’cause I’m terrible at remembering these things until it’s too late.
Helen, you always offer a bright light in my not-so-bright moments. Monique, thank you for sticking it through the really sucky, to the less sucky, and finally to the—I knew you could do this. Holly—I really don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t harass you, sometimes on a daily basis!
And the biggest hug and kiss go to my friend, Alex Borovoy, for reminding me when it was tough that writing is about rewriting. Without that mantra I wouldn’t have done what needed doing in this book that I will fondly remember as hell.
You never write to me. I don’t even know your whereabouts in the world.
“You can’t go in there with me, Grace.” Emma Hallaway-Mansfield, Countess of Asbury, tugged her sister’s hand away from the latch on the carriage door.
Grace studied her with furrowed brows. “Emma, you asked me to come here with you. I won’t abandon you in your time of greatest need.”
“You have no choice.” Emma had to go in there by herself. “If anyone should recognize us, our reputations will be in shambles.
can’t risk that.”
“I don’t care. You’re my sister. You would never ask me to go into such a place on my own.”
“Think of Abby, Grace. If my reputation is completely ruined, I’ll not be able to help find our sister a husband … you, on the other hand, will.”
“You don’t know the things that happen in such a place.”
“And how would you know?”
Though Grace probably did know better than she, since her late husband had actually spent a great deal of time in her company. Which was more than Emma could say for her marriage. Emma refused to think about her marriage, or lack thereof, right now.
She’d been sitting here too long in indecisiveness—she was already running a few minutes late—and their nondescript carriage was drawing unwanted attention.
“Take the carriage around the square a few times. I won’t spend more than twenty minutes inside.”
“I ought to come with you. Waverly had no right in courting me, and then to turn around and do this to you.”
“Believe me, I know.” Emma sighed heavily and twirled her locket between her fingers as she tried to think of another solution. There was none. She was stalling at doing the inevitable. “But it can’t be changed.”
She had to find Waverly—the lying scoundrel—soundly reprimand him for his audacity, and then demand that her portrait be returned. A portrait she should have never painted. Or at least never have sold, since the subject in the nude was her.
With a deep breath, she tied a beaded velvet mask around her head to cover the top portion of her face. Not the greatest of disguises, but it would have to do.
“If you’re not back in twenty minutes, I’ll have no choice but to follow you in,” Grace said.
Kissing her sister on the cheek, Emma said, “Twenty-five minutes, no more.”
Emma turned up the latch on the carriage door. When her feet were on solid ground, her stomach turned into a jumble of nerves. She gave one last look in the dark window of the hack before turning away.
Night had fallen, but Haymarket was busy with foot traffic. She’d never been to this part of town. It was a place where gentlemen indulged in the sorts of wicked things a lady wasn’t supposed to have knowledge of. Emma hadn’t reached the ripe age of seven and twenty without discovering some of life’s idiosyncrasies, particularly where men were concerned.
After a couple of deep breaths, her stomach steeled against her anxiety, and she moved grudgingly forward. Standing before a great wooden door with iron detail of a medieval design, Emma lifted the horned-devil knocker and rapped it once.
A small peephole slid open and was followed by the gruff voice of a man. “Pass.”
“Balderdash,” she answered.
The door creaked open, giving way to a beefy man with bare arms bigger than the width of her cinched waist. Goodness, he was a veritable giant. Emma barely resisted the urge to take a step back and flee to the safety of the carriage. Scars marred one side of his face; his blue eyes were like shards of ice cutting through her as he gave her a once-over.
She stood taller, showing her determination to enter a bawdy house, and met his rigid gaze with her resolute one. She would not be refused entry. Nothing would stand in the way of saving the loosening threads of her reputation.
“Ain’t yer type o’ place,” the giant said.
“I’m sure it’s not.”
The giant took a step to the side, moving from the doorway with a firm scowl in place. “Don’t usually have yer kinder flashies. But yer gots yer pass.”
Emma looked around the amber-lit foyer. Rich Chinese silks and heavy Italian brocades hung on the walls in a conflicting mishmash of sheer and woven materials. Foreign perfume lingered in the air; it was so powerfully sweet, it burned her nostrils and had her holding her breath intermittently. The hallway was narrow and had no rooms on either side. A set of darkly stained wooden stairs loomed directly in front of her.
she told herself. She needed to pretend just for tonight that she had the courage to confront her nemesis. She couldn’t imagine what Waverly thought to gain in blackmailing her here. His purpose was obvious; the whys were not. Ascending the steps quickly, she opened another, less forbidding door at the top of the stairs.
Emma’s eyes went wide at the sight before her. The place was hot and crowded with at least fifty people—more people than she had expected. The room was wide and open, sporting high ceilings that did not dim the ruckus of everyone talking at the same time. Settees and deep couches were set around the room for patrons to repose on. The men in attendance all seemed to be of means if their pressed, finely cut suits were anything to go by.
Bawds mingled wantonly and freely amongst the crowd. Some were bare-chested while others wandered around without skirts and bodices to decently cover their unmentionables. Her hand clenched around her locket.
A small twinge of comfort enveloped her on noticing she wasn’t the only one sporting a demi-masque. She wasn’t the only one who needed to protect her identity.
On closer inspection of the debauched scene around her, patrons she thought were relaxing on the sofas were actually
Eyes wide with that revelation, Emma reeled and nearly went back through the door to escape the scene unfolding around her. She stopped herself short of reaching that goal.
She couldn’t leave. First, the direction on the letter had been a firm demand that she attend this place. Second, her sister would have taken the carriage around and would arrive back in fifteen minutes at the most. Emma would not stand in the streets of Haymarket. It wasn’t safe for a proper lady to do so.
Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for the scene behind her, Emma tried to act as if she’d been in a place like this before and held her chin up unashamedly as she turned back around.
A few naked women would not scare her away. She was no stranger to the female form, since she painted it on a regular basis. As for the men engaging in all sorts of wicked acts, she’d just have to pay them no mind.
Despite the low décolletage of Emma’s pale cerulean evening gown, it was obvious she wore too many clothes
to be noticed by every man in the room. The other women of the upper echelon wore rich, dark tones, the gowns swept low off their shoulders. Emma was surprised their breasts didn’t spill right out of their dresses.
Emma skirted toward the private rooms. Taking a deep breath, she pressed open the first darkly painted door to reveal a couple bent over a red velvet divan in the throes of passion. A fat, squat man heaving to and fro in some mockery of the primal dance held a fistful of yellow hair at the back of the woman’s head.
Emma’s breath faltered, her will to do this sinking faster than a rock thrown in water. She shut the door with a snap, hoping she didn’t remember that horrible image for the rest of her days. Certainly married women didn’t participate in such untamed, wanton things.
The letter had been clear that she was to find the
door on this floor. She wasn’t thinking clearly when she most needed her wits about her.
Turning away from the line of doors, Emma looked about the room, hoping no one watched her. She hadn’t thought it possible for her day to get worse, but it had. Her eyes locked upon a gentleman she wished she could forget as easily as he had forgotten her.
Putting her hand to her mouth, she hoped she didn’t lose her meager dinner as she gazed at the man who had abandoned her a dozen years ago. He was like a predator lying in wait, all sleek and masculine where he lounged. Her heart stuttered in her chest at the sight of him. Swallowing past the lump in her throat was near impossible.
He wouldn’t recognize her. Or would he? She’d never have recognized him except for the fact that he looked like a younger version of his father.
There was no mistaking that strong Roman nose of his, or the tussled waves of light brown hair that brushed the open collar of his shirt. His face was weatherworn and tanned, evidence he spent most of his days in the sun. The boy she’d known had grown into a distinguished gentleman.
How she wished it wasn’t
But there lounged her husband—whom she hadn’t seen in twelve years—with a bawd atop his lap.
What a farce this was.
Words escape me. Why is it I’m helpless but to bleed ink onto paper, even if I never deliver the final version of this letter?
Her husband. Emma wanted to scream.
A pained noise escaped her mouth before she could quell the hurt building in her chest. She dug her nails into her palm, hoping the physical pain would narrow her focus, erase the pain splintering her heart unbearably. It felt like the whole world was falling away from beneath her feet, ready to swallow her into a chasm of nothingness.
Unlike the other men milling about the room, at least
had the decency to keep his trousers done up. His head tilted back to the sofa, his eyes were closed. He watched no one, not even his ladybird.
however, was not idle. Her hands massaged his chest. His shoulders.
Emma forced her feet to move back to the private rooms, but she couldn’t keep her mind on the task she was supposed to be focused on. It was impossible to keep from turning back and staring at her husband.
She peeked around one of the supporting beams that shot through the floor before going into her appointed room. She trailed her eyes over his form one last time, absorbing every detail she could. He wore no necktie. His shirt gaped open where the buttons were released, revealing the hollow at his throat and the speckle of light brown hairs on his chest. A fresh dusting of hair stippled the lower portion his face.
Her husband would rather have the company of a prostitute than spend any time with his wife. Hadn’t it always been that way? He had never wanted her. Tears welled in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall.
Then his eyes snapped open; his dark brown gaze stared straight at her, nearly pinning her to the spot, sending a shock through her system. It was not the gaze of the young man she remembered, but of a man who had lived.
lived. There was a knowing expression in that gaze.
Caught watching him, she turned hurriedly away. She was naught more than a well-dressed woman in a den of iniquity. He’d most certainly not recognize her after all their time apart.
Opening the door to find the private room empty, she stepped inside to shut out the image of her husband.