London, England 1826
“May I speak to you, sir?”
“Of course, Ambrose. What is it?”
Christian Delornay looked up from the accounting book he was studying and considered the worried face of his normally unshakeable aide-de-camp. According to the clock on the mantelpiece it was already well past midnight, but the noise from the upper floors of the pleasure house had not yet abated.
He directed a frown at Ambrose. “Why are you still here? You are supposed to be off duty.”
Ambrose shrugged. “Because there were matters that required my attention. Why are you still here?”
“Because my mother is not, and she’s left me with all the monthly bills to pay.”
“You like it when she’s away. You fight less.”
Christian found himself smiling reluctantly at that truth, but Ambrose didn’t smile back. “What exactly kept you?”
“There’s a woman in the kitchen.”
Ambrose’s upper class drawl held a hint of the warmer cadences of his West Indies homeland that only emerged when he was perturbed.
“There are always women in the kitchen.” Christian put down his pen. “Should she not be there?”
“She is asking to speak to Madame Helene.”
“Did you tell her my mother isn’t here?”
Ambrose hesitated and came further into the room. “I did not. I think you should see her yourself.”
“Because she is sorely in need.”
“Of what? A man?” Christian grimaced. “Then she hardly needs me. There are plenty of willing guests upstairs for her to choose from no matter what her tastes.”
Ambrose shut the door behind him with a definite click and advanced on Christian’s desk. “That wasn’t the kind of help I had in mind.”
“Does she want money then, or worse, a shoulder to cry on?” Christian’s smile wasn’t pleasant. “I’m not known for my soft heart. I leave that to my mother and sister.”
Ambrose held his gaze, his warm brown eyes steady. “I would still ask that you see her.”
Christian leaned back in his chair. “She obviously had quite an effect on you.”
“She…” Ambrose hesitated. “She reminds me of how I was before you took me off the streets and offered me a job and a home.”
“She’s a pickpocket and a thief, then?”
Ambrose’s smile flashed out, his teeth white against his dark skin. “I doubt it. She seems to be a lady, but there is something in her eyes that reminds me of how it feels when you can see no future for yourself. I’m not sure if she has the will to last another night.”
Christian sighed. “A lady you say? I can scarcely fail to help a damsel in distress. Send her in.”
Ambrose paused as he opened the door. “You will be gentle with her, sir?”
“As gentle as I was with you when I caught you picking my pocket all those years ago.”
Ambrose chuckled. “You threatened to strangle me and drown me in the Thames.”
“Ah, that’s right.” Christian nodded. “I promise I will listen to what she has to say. Will that satisfy you?”
“I suppose it will have to. I’ll go and fetch her from the kitchen.”
Christian returned to his accounts books half-hoping that the woman had taken off, preferably without stealing anything too valuable. He was soon engrossed in the complex figures, and it was only when he heard Ambrose gently clear his throat that he remembered to look up again.
The sight that met his eyes wasn’t unexpected. Working, as he did, on the less salubrious edge of society, he’d seen plenty of desperate women. But Ambrose was right–she was different and he’d been trained to notice the smallest details. Her clothes, although soiled, were of high quality, and her skin was as pale and unlined as a lady’s. She briefly met his gaze and then raised her chin as if he was beneath her notice and looked beyond him to the window.
Her profile was quite lovely and reminded him of a Titian angel. Christian yearned to stroke a finger down her jawbone and touch the shadowed hollow of her cheek. Her hair was dark and braided tightly to her head. She was far too thin, of course, and probably on the verge of starving.
“Mr. Delornay,” Ambrose said. “This is Mrs. Smith.”
Christian nodded. “Thank you, Ambrose. I’ll call if I need you.”
He received another stern look from Ambrose, but refused to respond to it, his attention all on the woman in front of him.
“Mrs. ‘Smith’, it is a pleasure. How may I assist you?”
Her gaze came back to meet his and he noticed her eyes were slate grey without a touch of blue to redeem their steel.
“I was expecting to meet Madame Helene.”
Her voice was low and cultured with a slight French accent that only underlined her status as a lady.
“My mother isn’t here tonight. I’m Mr. Delornay. May I not help you instead?”
She swallowed and brought her hands together into a tight clasp under her breasts. She had no gloves, pelisse or bonnet. Her only outer garments, a thick woolen shawl and muddied half boots soaked through with filth. She’d probably pawned the rest of her clothing. The question was why? What had brought her to living on the streets?
“I need employment, Mr. Delornay.”
Christian sat back and studied her. “And you thought my mother might provide it for you?”
“I was told she might, sir.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, you look a little frail to manage either a job in our kitchens or as an above-stairs maid.”
She moistened her chapped lips with the tip of her tongue. “I understood that this was a brothel.” She glared at him. “Doesn’t a brothel always need new flesh?”
Christian slowly raised his eyebrows. “You are a whore?”
“I am whatever I need to be to survive, sir.”
Christian poured himself a glass of brandy. “But my mother does not run a brothel. She runs an exclusive pleasure house, which is available to the very rich for an extortionate fee and even then she personally vets every member.”
“But surely these men still need women to… to…”
She flinched at the word and he wondered whether she might run. “If you are indeed a whore, my dear, you should hardly be shocked by my language.”
“I’ve heard that word before, sir. I’m no shy virgin.”
“That might be true, but you are scarcely a common trollop either, are you? You look more like a rich man’s mistress.” He waited but she said nothing. “What happened? Did your lover abandon you?”
Her smile was small and desperate. “Alas, I almost wish that were true.”
“Then what is the truth?” She pressed her lips together and stared at his desk. “You expect me to employ you without telling me anything?”
“I was widowed. My husband’s family were unwilling to support me, so I left.”
“You left?” Christian frowned. “What an incredibly stupid thing to do.”
“I had no choice, sir.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
A small choked laugh escaped her and Christian tensed.
“Do you truly believe I would be standing here begging you for the opportunity to sell my body to any man who wants it if I had another choice?”
“As I have already told you, this is not a brothel. No one sells themselves. In truth, they all pay a great deal for the privilege of having sex with anyone they want.”
“Why would anyone want to pay for that?”
Christian smiled. “Because they can?”
She shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist. “Then you have nothing to offer me?”
She was shaking now, her whole body swaying like a willow tree in a storm and he feared she might swoon. “I can offer you a hot meal and a decent bed for the night.”
She raised her head to look at him. “Your bed?”
He considered her for a long moment until a faint blush stained her pale cheeks and then he smiled. “In your present pitiful state, I fear you wouldn’t survive the night, my dear.”
“But then you know very little about me, don’t you?” She stepped forward until she was almost at his side. “I am quite happy to prove my worth to you.”
She started to descend to the floor. Christian reached forward and grasped her by the elbows, bringing her back to her feet. He kept hold of her and stared into her gray eyes. Ambrose was right. There was no hope there, only desolation and desperation.
“I’ll keep your generous offer in mind. When did you last eat?”
She blinked at him. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I can scarcely throw you out on the street in this condition. My mother’s reputation would be ruined.”
“Mine is already beyond redemption.” He patted her shoulder and moved away from her to ring the bell. “We will talk again when you are rested.”
While he waited for Ambrose to reappear, Christian retreated behind his desk and picked up his pen again. His visitor was visibly shivering now, one hand gripping the back of her chair as if she would fall without the support. He kept a wary eye on her until he heard Ambrose’s welcome footsteps in the hall.
“Yes, Mr. Delornay?” Ambrose asked.
“Would you provide Mrs. Smith with a warm meal and a bed in the servant’s quarters? I will see her again when she is restored to health.”
Ambrose bowed. “Of course, sir.” He smiled encouragingly at the woman. “I would be delighted to assist you.”
Mrs. Smith continued to stare at Christian. “I’m not sure why you are being so kind to me, sir.”
“I’m not being kind. As I said, you appear to be at death’s door. I cannot afford to cast you out and have your lifeless corpse found anywhere near my mother’s pleasure house. It would be bad for business.”
She nodded and Ambrose took her by the elbow to lead her gently out of the room. Christian sat back in his chair and contemplated the silence. Mrs. Smith, and somehow he doubted that was her real name, was a mass of contradictions. Her blunt offer to sexually service him had confounded his previous opinion that she was a well-brought up woman down on her luck.
And he didn’t like being wrong.
He found himself smiling. As Mrs. Smith said, desperation made a hard master, but he wasn’t sure how he could help her within the confines of the pleasure house. Luckily, his circle of acquaintance was extremely wide, and he was certain that he would be able to find her some form of employment if he couldn’t persuade her to rejoin her family.
The thought of trying to convince her of anything made him smile. Despite her bedraggled state, he’d sensed a core of steel that had impressed even his cynical cold heart. For the first time in a long while he was looking forward to meeting someone again and matching his wits with theirs.
“Mrs. Smith? Are you well?”
Elizabeth struggled to focus on the anxious face hovering over her. The struggle not to swoon in front of the obnoxiously handsome and silver-tongued Mr. Delornay had used up the last of her meager resources. He’d seemed far too perfect to be real—until he’d revealed a dark sense of humor that she’d been unable to deflect in her present state. Now all she wanted to do was lie down in the nearest gutter and give up.
“I am quite well, Mr. Ambrose.”
He guided her down onto a bench in the warm kitchen where she’d accosted him earlier. The smell of baking bread and pastries curled around her and she was suddenly nauseous. There was no sign of any of the staff she’d seen before and she was glad not to be observed.
“Call me Ambrose. I don’t have another name. Now bide her while I fetch you something to eat.”
That stirred her interest, but she didn’t have the resources or the energy to question him now. She folded her hands on the solid pine table and stared down at them. Her nails were ragged and despite her best efforts, her skin was never quite clean. She’d never considered water a luxury until she’d been forced to do without it.
“Here you are, ma’am.”
Ambrose slid a bowl of porridge topped with brown sugar and milk in front of her. Elizabeth swallowed convulsively as he handed her a spoon.
“Take it slow, ma’am and you’ll be fine.”
“I’m not sure if I can eat anything anymore.”
Ambrose took the seat opposite her and smiled. “Yes you can. Your stomach is probably the size of a walnut, but you can at least manage a few spoonfuls.”
Her eyes filled with tears at his unexpected kindness. “How do you know that?”
“Because I’ve been starved myself.” His smile died. “If it hadn’t have been for Mr. Delornay, I would’ve died on the streets.”
Elizabeth licked the rough brown sugar from the spoon and some of the porridge and wanted to moan at the influx of rich tastes against her tongue.
“Does Mr. Delornay make a habit of rescuing waifs and strays?”
“Despite what he might claim, he follows his mother in that respect. No one is ever turned away from the pleasure house without a crust or a coin.”
“Or a bed for the night in my case.” Elizabeth ate two whole spoons of porridge and for the first time in weeks she felt warm inside. “I am very grateful for that.” She glanced across at Ambrose. “I had no more coin to pay my rent and my landlord took all my remaining possessions until I could come up with the money.”
“We can probably get them back for you.”
“I’m not sure how.” Elizabeth sighed and ate another spoonful of porridge. “I still have no money.”
“I’m sure Mr. Delornay will have some ideas about that too when you talk to him.”
Elizabeth put down her spoon as her appetite deserted her. “He said I was too weak to work here in a menial capacity and that he didn’t employ whores.”
“With all due respect, ma’am, he does have a point. You are indisputably a lady.”
“And ladies whore in different ways, don’t they?” she whispered. “They are sold into marriage and cannot deny their husbands sexual congress.” She stared at him. “I think I’d rather whore myself and at least receive some financial compensation in return for my efforts.
Ambrose stood and came around the table to her. “I think you should go to bed, ma’am. I will escort you.”
She took his proffered hand and looked up into his face. She reckoned they were of a similar age. “If you are just Ambrose, will you call me Elizabeth?”
“If that is your wish, I would be honored.” He kissed her hand. “And now let’s get you somewhere safe and warm to sleep. If you leave your clothing outside the door, I will arrange for it to be laundered and returned to you tomorrow.”
“Safe…” Elizabeth sighed as he walked ahead of her. Mr. Delornay was right. She’d been a fool to run away without taking the things she valued the most. Getting them back seemed impossible now—unless she could truly earn enough money to return. She swallowed down another inconvenient wave of tears. It was impossible to think in her current state, but at least she didn’t have to worry about anything until the morning.