Gentlemen Behaving Badly
By Michelle Marcos
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 Michelle Marcos
All rights reserved.
My dear Lord Prescott,
It has taken me a long time to find the courage to write this letter. I beg your forgiveness for corresponding with you without first having made our acquaintance, but this is a matter of greatest urgency. To put it plainly, I need you.
You see, as a lady of leisure in the employ of Madame Fynch, proprietress of the Pleasure Emporium, it is my duty to provide entertainment for the members of our exclusive club for gentlemen. The Madame has told me that I am idle and do not try hard enough. It is my belief that the ardor of my gentleman callers is evidence of my work, and I told her so. She was furious with my impertinent response and forced me to find a gentleman who would implement a course in humiliation under which I would learn to treat better those charges which she appoints me.
I know I've been very naughty in the past, but the Madame says this time she is prepared to discharge me for my insolence. She has given my performance here bottom marks, and she says that my only hope of reprieve is to have an impartial observer judge my innocence or guilt in the matter. I therefore come to you. If found guilty in your eyes, I am to submit to whateverbrand and expression of discipline you see fit, even if it means you must give me "bottom marks" as well. Between us, sir, I will do anything — anything at all — to be able to remain here. Please come at once, and exercise your ruling. You have only to decree how grateful I should be.
Mina Halliday smirked wickedly as she folded the stiff blue paper. Whetting a man's appetite for sex was so very easy, especially when you knew precisely what form his appetites took. And at this incendiary invitation, this particular man would certainly come. She'd stake her entire collection of erotica on it.
With a practiced hand, she tilted her candle over the flap, and the red wax pooled into the shape of a heart. She glanced at the shelf above her writing desk, where a row of monogrammed seals sat like tiny soldiers awaiting orders. She ran her finger down the line until she found the right one, and then she pressed it firmly into the warm wax — L.
With customary neglect of the rules of propriety, Lollie flung open Mina's bedroom door, carrying two cups. "Ye didn't come down for tea, so nice as I am, I brought it up for you."
Mina smiled broadly. "I've got a good one for you, Lollie," she said, the gleam in her eye intensifying as she waved the letter at her. "And this quill is very special indeed. To both of us."
Lollie pursed her generous lips as she snatched the letter from Mina's hands and sat down on her bed. "'Lord Roderick Prescott.' Never 'eard of 'im."
"You'll meet him soon enough, if my letter does what it's supposed to. I can promise you that he's got pots and pots of money. You want to take your time with this one, Loll. In fact, I wouldn't doubt it if he brought you a shiny bauble or two to relieve your discomfort."
"Relieve my —" Lollie's expression dissolved from puzzlement to dismay. "Oh, no ... not another spanker!"
Mina held up her hands to calm her. "He's very rich, and —"
Lollie jumped off the bed, her pretty blond curls bouncing against her shoulders. "No! I told you I don't want them kind o' quills. Give 'im to Serafina. She goes in for all the harsh ones."
Disappointment contorted Mina's features as she grabbed Lollie's skirt. "Please, Lollie. It's got to be you."
Lollie pinned a fist to her hip, broadcasting her blatant irritation. "Why?"
"Because ... because ..." Mina fumbled for a coherent order to express all her pent-up emotions. "Because I think this may have been the man who had my father arrested."
Mina sat Lollie next to her on the bed and leaned forward conspiratorially. "First, you've got to swear to me you won't breathe a word of this to the Madame."
Lollie's graceful eyebrows drew together in concern. "'Course I won't."
Mina glanced at the door. Though the other courtesans would be dressing for the evening, the Madameoften made her rounds of the house to make sure all was ready for the arriving gentlemen. "Before I came to work here, my father was a jeweler on Fulsom Street. One day, a man came to his shop and brought with him a tiara. It was a lovely thing, lots of diamonds and a great big sapphire in it — I saw it later when Papa was working on it. Well, this man asked Papa to replace the expensive jewels in it with semiprecious stones. It was a curious thing to ask, devaluing such a fine article. But he paid well for the job — in advance — so Papa thought nothing of it. When he had finished the job, Papa turned over the tiara and the precious gems. The man left, pleased with my father's work. A few hours later, the constabulary came to the shop and arrested my father, saying that one of his clients had brought a tiara in for cleaning and it was returned to him with substandard jewels in it. Within four days, my father was convicted of thievery and fraud — and shipped to Australia's penal colony."
"The crooked sod! Who was he?"
Mina's eyebrows rose. "I don't know. I never saw him. I wasn't even at the shop when Papa was arrested. And none of the authorities would tell me the name of the man who accused him. The clerks at the Old Bailey all tell me the same incredible thing ... the case is a matter of national security and they can reveal nothing about it. National security! They won't even tell me where I can write to him! It's been three months since he was arrested, three months since I've laid eyes on him. I don't even know if he survived the voyage."
"Poor duck," she said, placing her hand on Mina'sshoulder. "And you think this Prescott bloke is the one what turned yer father in?"
"That's what I want to find out. The man who accused him had to have had some political influence. No one gets sentenced so quickly. And to have a closed-door trial, where even I'm not allowed to testify on my father's behalf? Who can arrange that quick a conviction? It has to be someone high up in government."
"How do you know it was Prescott?"
"Well, I don't. Not for sure. But Papa had only a handful of clients with so much power. In fact, only two men that I know of. The only thing I know about Mr. Tiara is his predilection for aggression, because he had been bragging to Papa about a woman he had taught a lesson to the night before he came to the store. So I have to find out for certain which of these two men is the one who ruined my father."
Lollie blinked her large blue eyes. "What are you going to do if it's 'im?"
The question hung in the air as Mina's anger filled the room. "Ruin him back."
Lollie's porcelain features twisted into a grimace. "So what do you want me to do?" "You have to find a way to get him to admit to it. Talk to him. All night if you have to."
She harrumphed. "I can see you've never been with a quill, 'specially not a spanker. Believe me, you don't want to entertain them all night. You'll be wanting them in and done with ... right quick."
Mina shoved a lock of her straight brown hair behind one ear. "No. I mean, keep him in the salon. Sit atthe bar, talk to him. I'll keep plying him with drinks. This way, I can listen in on your conversation."
"What am I supposed to do? Ask him if he had the owner of Halliday's jewelry shop arrested? He's not going to confess something like that to the likes of me."
"Of course he would. One of the most astonishing things I've seen since I started working here is how incredibly talkative these quills are with you girls. Men talk to courtesans as if you were the most discreet and sympathetic of confidantes. They share things with you they would never tell a father confessor, or even their own spouses. They brag about even the most depraved and wicked things they've done, because they think you've no right to judge them. I'm sure you can get something out of Lord Prescott. All you need to do is get him to talk about jewelry. Show him your necklace. Ask him what he thinks about it, or how much he thinks it may be worth. We'll see whether he brings up my father's name or his shop."
Lollie shook her head. "I don't know, Mina. If this is so important to you, why don't you take this quill yourself?"
Mina backed away, her expression sobering with unspoken emotion. "You know that's impossible." Mina had long since accepted that she was no beauty. Of the dozen courtesans in the Madame's employ, none was less than flawless. With such a dazzling array of gorgeous women to satisfy the lust of a man's eyes, no one paid any attention to Mina. She might as well be part of the furniture. "Please, Lollie. This is important to me. I'll give you a week's wages if you do this for me. A month's. Anything you ask. Please."
Lollie sighed noisily, her petulance only adding to her charm. "All right. But this better be the last perverted quill you get for me. The next one better be a good-looking prince eager to marry a Covent Garden trollop."
Mina exhaled her relief. "I'll start making inquiries right away."
That evening, Mina went downstairs to the Pleasure Emporium's main salon. On Saturdays, clients filled the salon early.
Madame Fynch strode up to Mina as her foot hit the last step on the staircase. "How many?" The Madame was a tall woman. Her dark hair had blanched to gray, and she wore it neatly tied in a chignon. Pale, flaccid skin draped over a skeletal face. Her eyes were tiny gray dots, and wrinkles cut into her thin lips. Her gauntness and conservative dress, which seemed so austere and forbidding to all of her girls, lent her a certain stateliness and respectability that clients never challenged. Her bearing spoke of a person who was pragmatic and worldly, and there was no trace of judgment in her voice when she conversed with men. But when she spoke to the girls, her voice was sharp enough to skewer meat.
Mina quickly reached into the pocket of her pinafore. "Twelve, Madame. One for each girl." She placed the letters into the Madame's outstretched hand.
"Hmm. Impressive. You've been prolific today."
Mina beamed. It was nearly impossible to please the Madame, and a compliment from her was a rare token of esteem. Still, Mina had much to be grateful for.
When her father was arrested and his jewelry shop seized, Mina was out of house, family, and prospects. Her father's life was not the only one ruined. When she came to the doorstep of the Pleasure Emporium looking for work, the Madame could have easily turned her down. After all, Mina lacked both the beauty and the experience to be one of the Madame's courtesans. But Mina offered the only thing she did have — her writing ability and her naughty imagination — and it seemed to have paid off.
The Madame placed the sealed letters inside the portfolio in the crook of her arm. "Now ... explain your tardiness."
"You're late to the bar tonight. Clients have been here for fifteen minutes, and Charlotte has had to pour them drinks. I don't want a courtesan to serve drinks like a common barmaid. It diminishes their value to the gentlemen. Is that clear?"
"Yes, Madame," she replied, silently piqued by the insult. She might not be the most valuable employee at the Pleasure Emporium, but her success at bringing in clients lent her some worth, too.
"Now, prepare two whiskeys for Evie and Sir Horace. Then bring a bottle of champagne for Serafina and Lord Fewell. Look smart about it."
"Yes, Madame." Mina dashed across the salon to the far end and ducked behind the bar to prepare the drinks, grateful to be free of Madame Fynch.
The Madame walked across the room to welcome a visiting gentleman. Enfolded in her left arm were two things: a ledger of the clients' accounts, and a blackportfolio that she called "La Carte." On it was printed, in gold lettering, the menu of her ladies' services. Whenever a new client came to the bordello, the Madame would escort the gentleman to her office and explain what the poetic euphemisms in the booklet were. She would describe, in a detached and unemotional way, what manner of fellatio was offered in the Fire and Ice, the Waterloo, and the Turkish Bath. Men who liked to watch sexual acts would be offered one woman, the Lonely Maiden, or two women, the Errant Schoolmisses. If a man desired variety — and had the wherewithal to pay for it — he could choose the Persian Harem, in which several ladies would join him in his bed. Men loved these terms, collecting each adventure like rare coins they would later brag about and exchange among themselves. Madame Fynch exuded the air of an architect as she elaborated to the client in detailed terms how she intended to build the cathedral of his fantasy. It was widely rumored that after hearing the selections from La Carte, no gentleman ever prevaricated about opening an account on the spot.
Madame Fynch had a practiced mind for business. She had managed her husband's finances and supervised his legal staff when he was too drunk to do it. When he passed away, his law practice went with him, but he had left her a somewhat substantial inheritance and the freedom to manage her own money. She invested part of her remaining wealth in purchasing a dilapidated brothel, which had achieved some notoriety thanks to a scandal two years before involving a scullery maid who had married a marquis. It had remained an establishment of some curiosity among theton, so she decided to capitalize on its fame. She took over the tobacconist's shop that once stood next door and remodeled them both into a single beautiful maison, serving only the wealthy and the fashionable.
To the casual observer, the parlor, card room, and conservatory looked respectable enough, like most others of their kind in any house of means. In the salon, a large chandelier dripping with crystals hung from a large white medallion. The candles in them projected their light onto cornflower-blue walls. Upholstered chairs in brocades and striped fabrics were clustered around the expansive room. It was a place where a man of wealth and breeding would feel right at home.
But the real Pleasure Emporium was a flight up the stairs. The bedrooms.
The Madame had personally decorated each room to offer a different experience for her clientele. For those with a taste for the exotic, there was the Pasha's Bedchamber, a room draped with curtains and lined with silk cushions; for those of a primitive bent, there was the Grotto, a cavelike dwelling where food was served on the floor; and the piquant could enjoy the accoutrements of the Stable, a place filled with leather implements and a saddle with a protruding pommel. Fantasies of every kind were dutifully tended to and celebrated.
Despite the meticulous attention she'd given to enhancing the erotic ambience of the upper floors, Madame Fynch's courtesans were so skilled that they actually spent very little time in the bedchambers. It was a testament to their seductive talents that they could so enrage a man's passions through conversationand touch, by the time they escorted a gentleman to the rooms, he required little more stimulation to make him climax.
Nevertheless, the rooms would be filled tonight, Mina noted. The salon began to swell with the regular clientele, plus one or two new faces. Mina bustled about, filling glasses, lighting cigars, and taking gentlemen's hats and walking sticks when they came to the door.
"Good evening, Your Grace," she heard the Madame say as she walked up to the white-haired man who leaned heavily on his cane. "I daresay we haven't seen you in over a month. I do hope you haven't tired of playing our little games."
"Not at all," he responded, his full voice belying his advanced years. "I just got back into London, and was looking for some jovial company."
"Shall I see if Cordelia is in?"
"No, by Jove, I don't think I could manage her tonight. I was thinking of some redheaded spice to flavor my tea."
"I know just the girl. Let me show you to the salon. Mina, a glass of Madeira for our guest."
Mina went to the bar to fetch the drink. She watched as Charlotte slithered over to the duke wearing a clinging dress of sheer muslin. There was a grace and ease about her movements, acquired over years of practice. Her auburn hair was lush and silky, the best feature among her many beautiful qualities. She curtsied low before the duke, making sure he could see well down the front of her dress. Charlotte was mesmerizing. It was like watching a skilled artisan ply her craft. The duke seemed well pleased with his companion. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Gentlemen Behaving Badly by Michelle Marcos. Copyright © 2008 Michelle Marcos. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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