Read an Excerpt
It was not Delphine's habit to visit bordellos, but she had a duty to ensure that Maisie, who had disappeared from the orphanage, was safely with her mother. Granted, this particular bordello was of a most prestigious kind, but although the location was not beyond criticism, it was certainly no place for a lady. The genteel world of Delphine's mother and sisters, however, had begun to matter less and less of late.
Delphine was usually accompanied by one of her mother's footmen who drove her in the carriage, but today he had duties at the house so she'd gone to the orphanage alone. Two of the children had gone down with temperatures and a rash. After isolating them and on the point of leaving, one of the warders had informed her that Maisie was missing. Delphine had a good idea where she could be foundthere was nothing for it but to go after her.
The evening was warm and sultry and oppressive, the kind of oppression that comes before a storm. Mrs Cox's was an imposing three-storey building, and torchlights burned on each side of the red-painted door. Delphine was admitted to this house of assignation by Fergus Daley, the man Mrs Cox employed to keep order within the house and the rougher elements of the district out. The purple livery he wore looked out of place on his huge frame. The bones of his face were pronounced, with a lantern jaw sharp enough to cut paper. His crooked nose, which had been broken several times during his years as a pugilist, and his eye sockets set deep beneath his heavy brow gave his face a sinister look. But now he smiled, for Miss Cameron was a regular visitor to the house when she was looking for young Maisie.
'Welcome to our house of pleasure, Miss Cameron,' he greeted jovially in a deep, baritone voice, his expression warm and welcoming.
'House of depravity, more like, Fergus,' she replied in hushed tones as she placed her brown-leather bag containing medicaments and dressings on the hall table, 'but don't tell Mrs Cox I said so.'
'Wouldn't dream of it, miss,' he replied, giving her a conspiratorial wink. 'I think I know why you're hereand I don't think it's to sell your body for what pitiful rewards a common man could offer you.'
'How right you are, Fergusnot even for the king himself. I can only hope my parents never learn I come here.'
'Not from me, Miss Cameron, and while you are here, you are solely under my protection.'
'That's a comfort to me, Fergus,' she said, standing back to allow an inebriated gentleman to sway past and disappear into the salon, his clothes in some disarray. During business hours there were always gentlemen present.
'If it's young Maisie you're looking for, she arrived an hour since.'
Delphine uttered a sigh of relief. 'Thank goodness. I do wish she wouldn't run away like that. If only she knew how much trouble she causes. She's just a child. She shouldn't be here.' What Delphine said was true. She'd been doing her charity work in and around the area of Covent Garden and St Giles long enough to know that wealthy and depraved gentlemen of the city would pay a fine price for girls as young as Maisie.
Fergus nodded towards the curved staircase. 'She's with Megor the Luscious Delphine as she's calling herself these days.'
'She does seem to have taken a fancy to my name,' Delphine remarked, laughing lightly, 'although last month it was Gorgeous Louella and the month before that Sweet Angel. I find her peculiar taste in names rather odd. She seems to change it whenever another takes her fancy. It must be very confusing for her clientsbut I suppose it adds to her mystique. Can I go up?'
He nodded. 'She's no clients tonightwhich you can put down to Will Kelly. He was here earlier.'
Delphine glanced at him in alarm. It was no secret that Fergus had no liking for Will Kelly, nor the devious and often brutal way he went about procuring girls for Mrs Cox's brothel. 'Has he hurt her?'
'You'll see for yourselfbut I swear I'll swing for the bastard if he lays a finger on young Maisie and he knows it, if you'll forgive me for saying so, Miss Cameron. Go on up. I'll have to tell Mrs Cox you're here.'
'Then I'll disappear before she sees me.' Delphine was hoping to avoid seeing the strict madam of this establishment.
With such an impressive array of whores available, Mrs Cox's business profited from well-heeled and aristocratic customers. Mrs Coxif that was indeed her namealways dressed plainly in a black gown, her greying hair pulled severely back into a knot at the back of her head: the very picture of respectability. She might have been someone's grandmother, but Delphine knew she was not. Mrs Cox had lived a life and knew how to make it pay.
She was very proud of her establishment. Some of the girls were brought to her from the provinces by the ruthless procurer Will Kelly, who took a fair cut of the profits from the brothel's immoral earnings. Mrs Cox chose the other girls from poverty-stricken backgrounds and girls whose indiscretions had made them outcasts from their own kind. She taught them how to give pleasure by offering clients temptations to which they could yield. Love didn't come into itwhat went on in Mrs Cox's establishment made a mockery of love.
From the spacious hallwhich was hardly what one would expect of a bordello, with its light oak-panelled walls and black-and-white-tiled floorDelphine, hearing excited ribald laughter and raised voices, glanced into the main salon where young women in various stages of undress were lolling about on sofas. She had been to the house several times during the day and thought nothing of it.
Tonight, the sight of scantily clad female bodies both shocked and excited her. The flimsy garments clung to their figures, showing off curves of pearly flesh gleaming in the soft light. The tantalising half-sight of their bodies weaving into the heady scents of perfume was more arousing to the gentlemen pawing them than nakedness would have been. The girls were taking refreshment with clients before going upstairs. Sometimes the gentlemen preferred girls to come to their places of residence, a service they were charged extra forand as for what happened after that, well, it was no business of hers.
The salon was elegant with its dark-blue carpet and crystal chandeliers. Occasional tables and padded chairs were scattered about and scarlet-velvet curtains, deeply fringed with gold, hung at the windows. Venetian mirrors adorned the walls, along with gilded lewd pictures of nudes in elegant poses. There were ferns in jardinieres so tall they almost reached the high ceiling; plinths on either side of the room held beautiful, life-sized Italian marble statues of male nudes of such quality one would expect to see them in the house of a nobleman, not in a bordello.
Lifting her skirts slightly Delphine began to climb the stairs. The air was sweetened by perfumed candles. Reaching the top, she went down one of the two landings, halting at the door at the end. Knocking gently and hearing a voice telling her to come in, she opened the door and entered a rose-pink boudoir. Its furnishings were surprisingly cosy; facing Delphine was a dressing table littered with cosmetic pots, perfumes and a silver-backed hairbrush, the border of the gilt mirror carved with cherubs.
Meg was reclining on a low couch, toying with her dyed red hair. With her big blue eyes, full soft lips and luscious form, there was little wonder men couldn't resist her. Expecting her visitor, for she knew Delphine would come after the child, she gave her husky laugh and stretched luxuriously like a cat, raising a shimmering leg and admiring its shapeliness whilst watching Delphine out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge the effect of the voluptuousness barely contained within her violet-silk robe. When she registered neither shock nor horror in Delphine's countenance, she rose, drawing the robe tight about her body.
'I suppose you're looking for Maisie.' She nodded towards the ten-year-old child asleep on the bed. 'She went to sleep straight away. I didn't want to wake her.'
'Noof course not. I had to come, Meg, to make sure she was safe. I know Mrs Cox thinks I ought to mind my own business, but anything could have happened to her.'
A wry smile twisted Meg's lips. 'Mrs Cox? Don't be fooled by her.'
'She's a trollop as old as sin, but she's right. You should mind your own business,' Meg remarked, sitting back on the couch.
'I come here because I care.'
'Why should you?' Meg said, with a haughty toss of her head. 'You with your fancy name and fancy clothes and all your airs and graces. Why would someone like you care about people like me and my Maisie?'
'Because I do. I do care about you and Maisie, otherwise I wouldn't be hereand as for my name, you appear to be making good use of it.'
'Ayemaybe. I like it, that's why, but I don't own it and there's the difference. You don't belong here.'
'Neither do you, Meg. None of the girls doand Maisie certainly doesn't.' Delphine glanced across at the sleeping child curled up against the pillows. She was an extremely pretty child, with large green eyes and an abundance of light blonde hair, and she remained devoted to her mother, despite her neglect.
Meg shrugged. 'I can't help it if she keeps on coming. And as for the others, it's become a way of life for themmost of them driven to it by one hardship or another.'
'Don't make it a way of life for Maisie. She deserves better.'
'I have to make a living,' Meg replied, her voice hard and flat.
Delphine crossed the room and crouched on the floor beside her. 'You don't have to stay here. Take her away, Meg. Somewhere decent. I'll help you all I can.'
'I don't want charity; besides, I can't leave. You see, this is where I want to bewhere I choose to be.'
'Why? Because it excites you? Because you can't leave Will Kelly? For heaven's sake, Meg, look at you,' Delphine hissed, taking one of Meg's arms and shoving up the sleeve to reveal a host of bruises, some purple and some yellowing with age. 'He's a cruel, overbearing bully. I simply cannot for the life of me understand why you tolerate his ill treatment.'
Meg shrugged, jerking her arm out of Delphine's grasp and pulling down her sleeve. 'I've had worse. He does care for me.'
'Nonsense. He merely seeks to use you. If he cared for you, he would not have brought you here. You know full well, Meg, he may be all flattery and honey when he's sober, but once he starts drinkingwellI'm the one who patches you up. I've seen the results of his behaviour once too often. Oh, Meg, please think about it.'
'I try not to think. I accept what there is.'
'Don't give him the chance to hurt you again. I implore you.'
Meg's face clenched up like a fist as she fought to keep her voice under control. 'I need no instructions from you on how to conduct myself.'
'Of course notbut really I am most concerned about you.'
'Save your concern for someone else,' she grumbled ungraciously. 'I'm quite capable of taking care of myself.'
'Are you?' Delphine pressed. 'I beg you to go away somewherefor Maisie's sake as well as your own. She is but a child and deserves better than this. You once worked in the theatre as an actress, touring the provinces. Could you not go back? It has to be better than this.'