“Am I really so pathetic?” Peter Howard murmured.
He turned to his companion and discovered she was attempting to hide a smile. He mock-frowned at her as he refilled his champagne glass from the bottle that sat between them.
“I do not think you pathetic, my friend.” Madame Helene toasted him with her glass and then bent to kiss the cheek of the naked young man who lounged at her feet. “Why do you say such a thing?”
Peter gestured at the crowd of revelers in the large public salon behind them. The gold and scarlet décor provided a perfect foil for the more daring members of the ton, many of whom were in a state of undress and engaged in riotous sexual pursuits not often seen in public. Madame’s exclusive House of Pleasure offered every erotic experience a man or woman might dream of.
“You rule over an excellent establishment, Helene, but there is nothing here that excites me anymore.”
Helene put down her glass and began to stroke the young man’s long black hair. “What do you crave then? If you can imagine it, I am sure I can provide it.”
“I’m not sure I know what I want.” Peter noticed a disruption at the far end of the salon where Lord James “Beau” Beecham and his disreputable companions were seated. “Perhaps it is because all my erstwhile drinking companions are settling down. The Harcourt twins are both married and so is Valentin.”
Of course, he was still welcome in Sara and Valentin’s bed but somehow it no longer seemed enough. He frowned as the noise in the salon increased and looked over his shoulder. Beau Beecham stood on the table now, his hands cupping the breasts of a half-naked inebriated duchess. His cronies shouted crude suggestions as he deftly removed the lady’s corset.
When Peter turned back, Joseph, Helene’s latest conquest, was trying to crawl onto the chaise lounge between them. Even the sight of Joseph’s well-muscled buttocks and erect cock failed to arouse Peter’s interest.
“Perhaps I am getting old,” Peter said, as Helene ran the tip of her index finger around the crown of Joseph’s erection. Her blond hair fell in soft ringlets around her face. Her gown was so sheer that her pert and youthful body looked naked in the candlelight. Peter had no idea of her true age, and he wasn’t fool enough to ask.
Joseph moaned as Helene’s long nail flicked over his engorged flesh.
“You are not old, mon ami.”
Peter drank more champagne. In his thirty-five years he’d probably had more sexual partners than anyone at Madame Helene’s. Not all of them by choice. Being enslaved in a Turkish brothel for seven long years had ensured that his sexual expertise was limitless and that he never wanted to be owned or forced by anyone again.
Helene bent her head to lick Joseph’s cock, her small pointed tongue as dainty as a kitten’s. When she straightened, her lips glistened with pre-cum.
“Jaded, you?” She regarded Peter closely, one hand lazily working Joseph’s cock. “Maybe you just want different things.”
Peter grimaced. “Like a wife and a family? Who would have me? I’m employed in trade and have no aristocratic blood to make me eligible. The only reason I have an entrée into the ton is because of Valentin’s high-and-mighty connections.”
Lord Valentin Sokorvsky was not only heir to a marquis, he was Peter’s best friend and occasional lover. They had been slaves together until their release at the age of eighteen. Their strong bond had helped Peter survive the brutal, sadistic world of the brothel and supported him through the difficult years of his return to the almost-forgotten land of his birth.
Valentin had found a woman who loved and accepted him and his scarred past. Peter had no reason to believe he would find another such paragon. He wasn’t even sure if that was what he truly wanted. He’d always enjoyed sex in all its forms, craved it even, but now he found it impossible to decide what he needed.
Helene pushed Joseph away as he tried to suckle at her breast. He slid to the floor in an untidy heap and pouted. She leaned forward to touch Peter’s arm. “Do you wish to talk to me privately?”
Peter glanced down at Joseph, who had wrapped a hand around his cock and was busy pumping himself to completion. Joseph would pay for that act of disobedience. Helene preferred to control the sexual outpourings of her chosen lovers.
“No, I think I’ll go home and drown my sorrows in a bottle of brandy. I’m sure I’ll feel better tomorrow.”
Helene stood up and grasped his wrist. “Peter …”
He studied the narrow fingers that encircled his wrist like a dainty manacle. “Helene, let me go.”
Her grip tightened, and he fought off a now-familiar choking sensation.
“Why? What are you afraid of?”
“That I have become nothing more than a pity fuck for my friends and that that is all I will ever have in my life.”
Damnation. He hadn’t meant to speak the truth. Strange that after all this time his composure could be shaken so easily. Helene let go of his wrist and stepped back.
He drew in a deep, steadying breath and forced a smile. “Please accept my apologies. I must be drunker than I realized.”
She nodded, her expression as carefully blank as his own. “Of course. I will accompany you down to the front hall. I need to show my face around the salons again this evening to make sure everything is running smoothly.”
Joseph grunted as his cum spurted through his fingers. Helene swept past him without a glance in a swirl of diaphanous draperies. She snapped her fingers and one of the footmen appeared. She pointed at Joseph.
“Please make sure that this ‘gentleman’ is sent home. And make sure his name is added to the list of those who are no longer welcome here.”
“That was rather harsh, Helene.” Peter strolled at her side as she began her tour of the large, noisy salon. “He seemed very young.” They stopped at the magnificent buffet. Helene picked a fat purple grape and popped it into her mouth.
“Joseph is an ignorant fool. He is too intent on gaining his own pleasure to have any regard for mine.” She sighed. “His stamina is remarkable. I thought to train him, but it seems he is simply too selfish to learn.”
Peter realized he was almost smiling again. Helene had a gift for understanding men and their less-than-complicated natures. “Is that how you see your role? To teach the young males of the ton how to bring a woman pleasure?”
She raised an eyebrow. “It is not my primary purpose. But it is a useful one, <em>non</em>? Society should be grateful to me rather than pretending I don’t exist outside of these doors.”
His gaze wandered over the ornate room, the expensive fittings and fixtures, the lavish buffet.
“Is it enough for you, Helene? Is this what you want?”
He frowned. What was wrong with him tonight? When had he ever cared to think of the future? As a slave he had simply endured. But since Valentin’s marriage two years ago, he had started to change, started to want something more.
Helene shrugged, the gesture French and totally feminine. “I have built this place with my own hands. It is enough for now.”
He nodded as they continued around the perimeter of the room. Like recognized like. In her past were secrets that resonated with Peter. He could understand her deep need to make herself financially secure. She never spoke of her youth, yet he knew she had suffered as much as he and Valentin. She touched his cheek.
“You know that you are welcome to share my bed tonight, if you prefer not to go home.”
He swung around to face her, his good humor evaporating. “Did you hear what I said earlier? I refuse to end up in anyone’s bed just because they feel sorry for me.”
She pouted, her blue eyes filled with amusement. “Actually, I was feeling sorry for myself. With Joseph gone, I have no one to fuck.”
He started to laugh. She had a reputation as a voracious lover. He’d never had any desire to find out if the rumor that she could wear out three strong men in a night and still manage a fourth for breakfast was true. He kissed her hand.
“It’s an intriguing offer, but I must decline. I have few friends in this world and you are one of them. I’d hate to lose years of friendship over a night of ill-judged passion.”
She glanced around the packed salon. “Oh well, I suppose I’ll just have to find someone else. Joseph was black haired so I’ll try for a blonde or a redhead.”
“Do you collect their scalps as well?”
Helene rapped his knuckles with her fan and headed toward the noisiest corner of the room. “Of course not. I wouldn’t have room to display them all.” She pressed Peter’s arm and pointed at the man who stood on the table in front of them. “What about him?”
“Beau Beecham? I’m surprised you haven’t had him already. He seems to have fucked every other woman in town.”
Peter studied the tall, commanding figure of Lord James Beecham, the heir presumptive of the childless Duke of Hertford. He wore a dark brown coat that almost matched his eyes and thick curling hair. A black waistcoat, buff breeches and shining top boots completed his immaculate dress.
Helene glanced up at Peter. “You do not like him?”
“I hardly know him. But he has a reputation as a rake and a gambler.”
“Mon Dieu, he is a devil indeed.”
Peter shrugged. “I suppose he is no worse than any other pampered sprig of the nobility.”
“But still, you do not like him.”
“He treats women despicably and yet they still flock around him like mindless sheep.” He groaned. “Dammit, I <em>am</em> beginning to sound like a Methodist preacher.”
“It is not like you to judge a man so quickly, Peter,” Helene murmured. “I know of his reputation but, in truth, he rarely entertains a woman here.”
Lord Beecham jumped down from the table and came toward them, a smile on his handsome face.
“Madame Helene, what a pleasure. And may I say that you are looking particularly beautiful tonight?”
Peter pretended to yawn behind his hand before taking out his pocket watch and studying it. Something about Lord Beecham always set his teeth on edge. Not, God forbid, that he was jealous of the man; his reaction was far more instinctive than that.
“And Mr. Howard, how are you this fine evening?”
“I’m well, my lord.” Peter pointedly took Helene’s hand and kissed it. “Don’t worry about seeing me downstairs. I can find my own way out. Why don’t you stay and see if Lord Beecham can manage to come up with something more original to say to you?”
To his surprise, Lord Beecham laughed. “I fear I have drunk too much wine to be original. I’ll stick with the tried and tested compliments in case I make an even bigger fool of myself.”
Helene smiled at them both. “Why don’t we all sit down and share a bottle of wine?”
Peter tried to catch her eye as she towed him inexorably toward a vacant couch. He sat with extremely bad grace. Did Helene expect him to act as her chaperone while she decided whether she intended to offer the insufferable Lord Beecham a space in her bed? Or was it simply some absurd feminine resolve that he and Lord Beecham should be friends? He started to rise.
“Madame, I need to go.”
He winced as she kicked him sharply in the ankle. “I’m sure you can spare me a few more minutes of your valuable time, Peter.”
He smiled, showing his teeth. “Unlike most of your guests, dear Helene, I have to be at my desk in the morning and it is already past midnight.”
“Ah, that’s right. You are Valentin Sokorvsky’s business partner, aren’t you?” Lord Beecham sat forward. Having anticipated an aristocrat’s usual distaste for the idea of a man engaging in trade, Peter found he could do nothing but nod.
“Valentin told me to come and talk to you about investing in one of your next cargoes.”
Peter faked a smile. “Unfortunately, Lord Sokorvsky is away in Southampton at the moment. I’m sure he will be delighted to attend to you on his return.” Helene kicked him again. “Of course, if you are unwilling to wait, I will be in our offices for the next few days.”
He handed over his business card. Lord Beecham studied it and then placed it carefully in his pocket.
“You might wonder why I am particularly interested in your company when there are so many other ventures to choose from.”
His sudden descent into sobriety intrigued Peter. Lord Beecham either sobered up faster than any man Peter had ever encountered or he had deliberately pretended to be drunker than he was.
“I wish to investigate trade routes to the West Indies. I am particularly interested in companies that do not engage in the traffic of human life.”
For the first time, Peter looked directly into the other man’s dark eyes. Good God, Lord Beecham seemed sincere. Peter and Valentin had vowed never to trade slaves. Their own experiences would never allow such misery to sit well on their consciences. He replied automatically, his gaze still locked with the other man’s. “You are correct. It is our policy not to deal with the slave traders or their associates.”
Lord Beecham nodded as he offered Peter a cigarillo.
“Would it inconvenience you if I called on you tomorrow with my man of business?”
“Not at all.” Peter accepted the cigarillo and allowed Lord Beecham to light it for him from his own. “I will be available from noon onward.” As Lord Beecham bent toward him, Peter inhaled his spicy cinnamon cologne and a pleasing masculine scent. He blew out a cloud of smoke as the other man continued to watch him.
“Is there something else I can do for you, my lord?”
Lord Beecham sat back, his smile undimmed by Peter’s less-than-enthusiastic tone. “A game of cards, perhaps?”
Peter glanced over his shoulder at Lord Beecham’s companions, who were still busy fucking the enthusiastic duchess. “Won’t you miss your turn?”
He wanted to go home. He wanted to escape the noise, the raw smell of sex and the drunken laughter. Sometimes, if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he was back in the brothel. It was hard to remember that everyone at Madame Helene’s paid an exorbitant membership fee to be allowed to behave like this.
Lord Beecham continued to study him. “I have no desire to fuck her. In truth, I would much rather play with you.”
“Why?” Peter was beyond politeness now.
“Because I have heard you have the luck of the devil at piquet and I would like to see if I can beat you.” He shrugged. “Of course, if you are too tired…”
Helene clapped her hands. “Peter, you must win Lord Beecham for me.” She blew a kiss at Lord Beecham. “If Peter succeeds in beating you, I’ll expect to see you in my bed tonight.”
To Peter’s surprise, Lord Beecham didn’t look as delighted as Helene might have expected. Perhaps he too had heard the rumors about what she did to her lovers. Peter thrust his hand into his pocket and brought out a gold coin.
“I’ll play for you, Helene. Lord Beecham looks as if he might benefit from your erotic tuition.”
He hid a smile. Perhaps he could keep Helene happy and make it another condition of winning that Lord Beecham promised never to approach him again.
Helene beckoned to a footman, who brought over a new pack of cards. Lord Beecham broke the seal and started to sort out the pack.
“I must go and circulate, but please let me know what happens.” Helene kissed Peter’s cheek and left him facing his adversary. “I will also make certain that your friends don’t bother you again, Lord Beecham.”
Peter hoped she had seen the promise of retribution in his eyes. Her hasty departure indicated that she had. Lord Beecham glanced after her.
“She is a fascinating woman.”
“She is indeed.”
Lord Beecham shuffled the pack, his attention fixed on the play of the cards through his long fingers. “Have you bedded her?”
“I haven’t had that pleasure.”
“I hear she is a demanding bed partner.”
Peter raised an eyebrow. “As I said, I wouldn’t know. But I’m sure you will soon have your answers, if you survive the night, that is.”
Lord Beecham stared at him, a challenge in his dark eyes. “You are so certain you will win then?”
“I very rarely lose.”
“But if you lose, will you take my place in Madame’s bed?”
“No. You will have to think of something else to claim as your prize.” Peter held up a sovereign and tossed the coin in the air. “Call.”
Lord Beecham called heads and won, which gave him the slight advantage and the right to deal. Peter accepted the cards he was dealt and settled back to review his hand.
By the time the first hand was played out, he discovered that Lord Beecham was an extremely capable and intelligent opponent. Not as good as he was, but certainly no amateur.