The clock on St. Paul's Church was chiming the hour of ten as Margery went down the servants' steps into the basement of Mrs. Tong's brothel. She had not intended to arrive so late. Normally, she called at the Temple of Venus during the day when there were no customers and the courtesans were resting in their rooms in anticipation of a busy night ahead. Mrs. Tong's girls were generous, which was more than could be said for Mrs. Tong herself. They let Margery into their rooms and let her take away their discarded gowns, hats, gloves, anything they had finished with, in return for the fresh pastries and sweetmeats that Margery made herself.
Tonight Margery had brought candied pineapple and marzipan treats, sugar cakes and tiny Naples biscuits made of sponge and jam.
She made her way up the back stairs to the boudoir on the first floor. The room was a riot of color, silk cushions in purple and gold, red velvet curtains drawn against the night. The air was thick with chatter and the scent of perfume and candle wax. The girls were ready for their night's work but they almost swooned with greed and delight when they saw Margery with her marketing basket. They ran to fetch scarves and gloves to trade for the cakes.
"Girls, girls!" Mrs. Tong bustled in with the air of a circus trainer rounding up her performing animals. "The gentlemen are arriving!" The madam clapped her hands sharply. "Miss Kitty, Lord Carver is asking for you. Miss Martha, try to charm Lord Wilton this time. Miss Harriet" she permitted a small, chilly smile to touch her lips "the Duke of Tyne is very pleased with you."
Mrs. Tong tweaked a neckline lower here and a hemline upward there, then sent her girls down to the salon. They left in a chatter of conversation and a cloud of perfume, waving farewell to Margery, licking the sugar from their fingers. Margery watched them flutter down the main staircase like a flock of brightly colored birds of paradise. Accustomed to coming and going via the servants' passage, she had only once glimpsed the brothel's reception rooms; they had seemed lush and mysterious, a dangerous and different world, draped with bright silks and rich velvets, adorned with the prettiest and most skillful courtesans in London.
The room emptied, the chatter died away. Mrs. Tong's dark, beady gaze passed over Margery dismissively, as if she was a trader who knew the price of everything and could see nothing worth her time. Margery knew what Mrs. Tong was thinking. She had seen that thought reflected in people's eyes for years. She was small and plain, a mouse of a creature, all shades of brown. No one ever wasted a second look on her. She was used to it and she did not care. Good looks, Margery had often observed in her career in service, so often led to trouble.
"You'd best be on your way." Mrs. Tong popped one of Margery's marzipan treats into her mouth and blinked in ecstasy as the sugar melted on her tongue. "Make sure you take the back stairs," she added, sharply. The sugar had not sweetened her mood. "I don't want any of the customers thinking you work for me." She caught the corner of a golden gown that was trailing from Margery's basket. "Is that wasteful strumpet Kitty throwing this away? There's plenty more wear in it." She tugged and the gown fell to the floor in a waterfall of silk and lace. "Go on, be off with you. And leave those pineapple candies."
"No gown, no pineapple," Margery said firmly.
Mrs. Tong rolled her eyes. She bundled the gown up and threw it at Margery, who caught it neatly. Mrs. Tong pounced on the packet of candies.
"I'll take the marzipan, as well," she said, snatching it from the basket.
Margery's last glimpse of Mrs. Tong, as she closed the door and slipped out onto the landing, was of the bawd slumped in a wing chair, wig askew, legs akimbo, stuffing sweetmeats into her painted face as though she were a starving woman.
The landing was quiet and shadowed. The girls were downstairs now, plying their customers with wine and flirtatious conversation. No doubt Mrs. Tong would be joining them as soon as she had recovered from her excesses. Margery could hear snatches of music and laughter from the open doors of the salon. She trod softly toward the servants' stair, her steps muffled by the thick carpet. Even had she lost the golden gown through Mrs. Tong's miserliness, she would still have had a good haul tonight. There were three pairs of gloves, two hatsone of which was squashed flat, rolled upon in an amorous encounter, perhapstwo more gowns, one ominously ripped, a beautiful silk scarf that was a little stained with wine, and an assortment of undergarments. These had surprised Margery; the girls had told her they wore none.
Billy would be pleased with her. There was a great deal of material that could be reused and clothing that could be resold. Margery's brother and his wife ran a shop in Giltspur Street that traded in secondhand clothes and various other things. Margery never enquired too closely into the nature of Billy's business interestsshe suspected he was a fence for stolen goodsbut he was fair to her and gave her a cut of the profits on the materials she brought in.
Tomorrow, on her day off, she would deliver the clothes and join Billy, Alison and their brood of infants for tea. Tonight, though, she had to get back to Bedford Square. Lady Grant was the kindest of employers but even she might be taken aback to learn that her lady's maid visited the London brothels on a regular basis.
Margery was halfway along the landing when her foot caught in the Turkey carpet and she stumbled. The basket lurched from her hand. The golden gown, which she had quickly stuffed on top, unrolled like a balloon canopy, tumbled through the gaps in the wrought-iron banister and floated slowly and elegantly down to land in a heap on the marble floor of the hall below.
Margery stood transfixed. She did not want to lose the expensive silk gown, and she had traded three packets of sweetmeats for it.
On the other hand, she did not want to get caught venturing into those parts of the brothel that were forbidden to her. Mrs. Tong was quite capable of refusing her entry ever again if she broke the rules, and then a very lucrative source of income would be lost to her.
Very slowly, very carefully, Margery started to tiptoe down the broad main stair, all senses alert to discovery. She was halfway down the steps when there was a sound from above and she froze, pressing back into a shadowy alcove among erotic statues of naked frolicking nymphs and shepherds. Something long and hard prodded her in the ribsa phallus belonging to a marble satyr with a particularly dreamy expression on his face. There was no wonder he looked so happy. Margery looked critically at his physique. She had no firsthand knowledge of such matters but common sense told her that it simply could not be life-size. Perhaps all Mrs. Tong's statues were overendowed. Margery hoped they did not make the customers feel too inadequate.
Margery took another cautious step down, then another. Only three more to go and then she would be standing on the black-and-white-checkered floor of the brothel's hall and the beautiful golden gown would be within her grasp. She would grab it, stuff it back in the basket and scoot through the green baize door that led to the servants' quarters below stairs.
It was a simple plan and it almost worked.
She'd almost reached the entrance to the servants' quarters when she saw that someone was blocking her way. It was not Mrs. Tong, full of righteous indignation, but a man, lounging in the shadows. He did not move. Nor did he speak.
The candlelight skipped across his face, emphasizing some features, concealing others. Margery could see that he had black hair but not the precise shade. It needed a cut. His face was thin and brown with high cheekbones that reminded her of the carved stone statues she had seen in churches. He had a groove down each cheek where he smiled and a groove in his chin, as well. An odd shiver rippled through her, for this was a man with a saint's face but with sinner's eyes, dark, wicked eyes, hiding secrets. His brows were strong and dark, too, and his mouth neither too thin nor too wide. When he smiled, Margery realized that she was staring at him, staring in fact at his mouth, which looked tantalizingly firm.
A bolt of heat streaked through her, fierce and unfamiliar, like the burn of spirits. It made her tingle and set her head spinning. She took a step back, trying to steady herself. It was very hot in the brothel. Perhaps that was why she felt so faint all of a sudden, or perhaps she was sickening for something, as her grandmother would have said.
Still the gentleman did not move. He looked at Margery. She looked back at him. He was a gentleman; there was no doubt about that. He was beautifully dressed, something Margery, with her eye for style and color, was quick to appreciate. His cravat was tied in a complicated arrangement she did not even recognize, and held by a diamond pin. A jacket of elegant proportions fit his shoulders without a wrinkle, in much the same way that his tight buckskins clung to his thighs. A dandy, Margery thought. She had a servant's finely honed instinct for recognizing various qualities in men and women. This was a man of fashion, but she sensed that there was more to him than that, something dark, deep, dangerous perhaps, in a way she could not begin to understand. She shivered.
He was blocking her escape.
"May I help you, sir?" she asked, wanting to bite back the words as soon as they were spoken, for she realized that they were perhaps not the most felicitous choice in a brothel.
Something flared in his eyes like the shimmer of heat from the candles. He straightened and took a step closer to her. Margery involuntarily tightened her grip on the handle of her basket. The wooden struts creaked.
"I am sure that you can." His voice was very mellow. He sounded amused. His mouth had curled into another slow smile. It crept into those dark eyes and lit them with warmth that made Margery's face burn. The strange awareness drummed more persistently in her blood.
This is a rake. Take care
"I don't work here," she said quickly.
He paused. His gaze slid over her in a slow, thorough appraisal. Oh, yes, this was a rake. He knew how to look at a woman. There was an expression in his eyes that Margery had seen before. She had seen it in the eyes of many men looking upon the beautiful scandalous ladies for whom she had worked. She had also seen it in the gaze of people looking at her homemade sweetmeats. It was a mixture of greed and speculation and desire.
No one had ever looked at her in that way. No one had looked at her as though they wanted to eat her up, sample her, taste her and savor that pleasure. Such an idea was absurd, impossible.
Except that it was not, for this man was looking at her with acute interest andshe gulped, her throat suddenly drydefinite desire.
There had to be some mistake. He was confusing her with someone else.
"You don't work here," he repeated softly. He took a step closer to her, put out a hand and touched her cheek lightly with the back of his fingers. He wore no gloves and his hand was warm. Margery's skin felt even hotter now.
"I'm only visiting," she said in a rush.
His eyes widened. That smile, like sunshine on water, deepened. "There's nothing wrong in that," he said.
"No! I mean" Margery floundered. "I'm not here to" She stopped, wondering how on earth to describe the many and varied sexual practices that Mrs. Tong's customers indulged in and she did not.
"I'm a lady's maid," she blurted out.
"Of course, you wish to be incognito." The stranger shrugged. "Don't worry. Mrs. Tong caters to all tastes. Many ladies enjoy dressing up as maids. Marie Antoinette, for example." He smiled. "The marketing basket is a nice touch."
"I'm not dressing up," Margery said. She whispered it because he was now so close that she seemed to have lost the power of speech. "I really am a lady's maid."
The stranger laughed. "Then it is enterprising of you to supplement your income like this."
Oh, lord. Now he thought she worked part-time as a lightskirt. It was not unheard of. Margery knew plenty of maidservants who sold their favors. It was more lucrative than scrubbing floors. It was whispered about Town that Lord Osborne had once visited his favorite brothel only to be confronted with his housemaid, who was working as a courtesan on the side. Margery had never considered supplementing her income that way. When she had left Berkshire for London it had been with her grandmother's warnings ringing in her ears.
"London is a cesspool of vice," Granny Mallon had said. "You take my word for itI've been there once. Keep yourself nice for your husband, my girl."
Margery had not cared much about finding a husband but she did care about keeping herself nice. It was important to her.
Besides, no one had asked her to give up her virtue anyway. Lady Grant's twin footmen were too pretty and too much in love with themselves to notice anyone else, and the rest of the male staff were too young, or too old or too unattractive. And they were her friends. Margery had not felt a single amorous flutter toward any of them.
She did have a servant follower, Humphrey, who was the second gardener at the house next door. He brought her flowers and moped about the kitchen inarticulately, staring at her and reddening if she spoke to him. Humphrey reminded Margery of a stray animal. She felt pity for him and a kind of impatient affection. He did not make her tremble, or cause her knees to weaken, as they were weakening now. He did not make the breath catch in her throat or her heart beat like a drum, as it was beating now.
But Margery had also been warned about handsome gentlemen, men who preyed on naive country girls. Granny Mallon had not been wrong. London was indeed a home to every vice beneath the sun, and Margery was fairly certain that this man was intimately acquainted with quite a number of them. There was something downright wicked about him.