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The abbess met Victoria Paget at the door of the brothel, welcoming her in without a word. She did not ask Victoria's name or her reason for seeking out a specific man. She showed no loyalty to her customer, nor did she seem to care overmuch what the strange lady on her doorstep wished to do with her time or her reputation. Victoria suspected that the Earl of Stanton had paid the woman well to insure her lack of curiosity.
And what did it matter, if she was forced to play the whore to discover the truth? It would be worth any sacrifice, if it meant that she could put her husband's death behind her. If a subordinate's betrayal had brought about his end and she knew, and yet she did nothing? Then she failed him as a widow, just as she feared she had as a wife. Until she was sure that poor Charles rested easy, she would have no peace herself.
The woman led her through the main salon and down a hall hung with red curtains and bawdy art, and opened one of the many rooms for her. "I know the man you seek, and I know his tastes." She turned a critical gaze on Victoria, as though she were inspecting merchandise before displaying it. "There will be no difficulty in getting him to come to you, if you have the nerve to meet him." She waited to see if Victoria expressed shock or hesitation. When she saw none, she said, "Tom Godfrey is known by the girls here to be clean and gentlemanly. You are in no danger, spending an evening in his company." The woman gave a small satisfied smile. "In fact, there are those who would be jealous of your good fortune."
Victoria sincerely doubted it, but said nothing.
The abbess gestured her into the small bedroom before them. Then she turned to a silk curtain next to the door and pulled it aside to reveal a brass-bound peephole. The woman offered no further explanation, but Victoria could guess what was expected of her. Lieutenant Godfrey would be led down the hall, toward this room. The abbess would pull aside a portrait or a drapery to give him his first glimpse of the woman who awaited. She was to beguile him with her movements, allowing them both to pretend that she was unaware. She nodded to the abbess.
The woman nodded back. "Wait here and I will see to it that he finds you." Then she departed, closing the door behind her.
Victoria examined her surroundings, surprised that it was no different than a common bedroom. The walls were covered in cream silk, but there were no paintings or any sort of ornament. The room was empty but for a wardrobe, a small dressing table and mirror, and a great soft bed with virginal white sheets.
She wondered if this room had a specialized purpose: the loss of innocence. Surely this was not the place for her. She had lost that, long ago. And yet? As she hung up her cloak, a shiver went through her that had nothing to do with the temperature of the air.
When she had gone to see her husband's friend, the Earl of Stanton, with her unusual request, he had first dismissed her as foolish. Perhaps her husband had suspected that there was a spy in the midst of his company. His death did not prove the fact. Soldiers died. Surely she knew that. She had followed her husband to the Peninsula and seen the results of battle, had she not?
She had argued that her Charles had died not in battle as he should but because of false intelligence. His men had been unprepared when they were ambushed on the road. Her husband had often remarked about the strange behavior of Lieutenant Godfrey and insisted there was something not quite right about him. It must be more than coincidence that the man who her husband suspected was the only one to escape unscathed from the massacre.
Stanton had argued that she had no real proof. That the man's reputation had been sterling, right up to that moment. And in any case, he was no longer the army's concern. He had been badly wounded in another engagement, retired from the service and returned to London. Then he had thought to tease her, and made the outrageous suggestion that she find the man and ask him herself.
When she had eagerly agreed to this, he had changed his tune and tried to frighten her. Godfrey did not inhabit the sorts of places that a respectable lady might go. Did she mean to frequent bawdy houses, looking for him?
She had squared her shoulders and said, "If necessary."
And necessity had brought her here.
Victoria reached behind her to undo the modest gown she wore. She had cast off her mourning before coming here. Though black might suit her mood, it did not fit her disguise. Red had seemed too obvious. So she had chosen a green dress. She favored the color, although she had worn nothing so frivolous since before her marriage. Now she removed it and hung it on a hook at the back of the wardrobe.
She stood in petticoats and shift, staring at her own white face in the little mirror. It could not do to look frightened, when he came for her. Stanton had argued that she would be horrified at what was expected from a woman in such a place.
She lifted her chin, examining her reflection and pinching her cheeks to get some color back into them. She had informed Stanton that she was no longer a schoolgirl, and was not in the least frightened of a thing that she had done many times before.
Her frankness had made the poor man blush, and he'd pleaded with her to cry off and to forget everything he had said on the matter.
Of course, she had refused. Given the suspicious nature of his death, her husband would have expected her to act on what he had told her. Although Charles had been a good man, sometimes he had treated her no different than he treated his soldiers. He expected loyalty, obedience and courage, as well as her devotion. If the Earl of Stanton did not mean to pursue the matter, then she must. And she would be better off under his guidance than acting on her own.
When he had seen that she would not be swayed, he had shaken his head and given her the address of this place. He had promised that although it was against his better judgment, all would be arranged.
She froze. There was a whisper of air against her bare arms. It seemed to come from behind the draperies on the wall behind her. He was there, watching her.
She turned so that her back was to her supposed observer and touched her own neck, running a finger along the skin, and up to remove the pins from her hair. Then she took up the brush from the dressing table, combing out the curls as though she were preparing for bed.
Her hair was her pride and joy, now that she was back in London. She'd cried when Charles had made her cut it, saying that if she was to follow him to Portugal there would be no time for feminine nonsense. But it had grown back as full and lustrous as it had been before her marriage. She wondered if the man who watched cared for it, or if he thought her foolish as well. She twisted the locks in her hands, spread them and let them fall down her back.
Victoria stared into the mirror again. If she took too much time with her clothes, he would know that she dawdled. She took a deep breath and undid her petticoats, letting them drop to the floor, stepping free of them and taking the time to brush away the wrinkles before hanging them beside her gown. She had not bothered with stays. They hardly seemed necessary, considering what she was likely to do tonight. Now, she wondered if they should have been present as part of the ceremony of undressing, or if he preferred the glimpses of her body through the thin shift she wore. The knowledge of an anonymous watcher and his opinion of her was like a bit of ice drawn slowly over her heated skin, bringing sensitivity wherever it touched.
She sat down upon the bed, ignoring the way the shift's hem rode high to reveal her legs. She removed her slippers, dropping them on the floor. And then she undid her garters and rolled her stockings down, pointing her toe and flexing her bare legs. She shifted on the mattress until her back was against the wall at the head of the bed and felt the hem creep almost to her waist as she did so. And for the first time that evening, real fear took hold of her. She felt exposed, vulnerable.
Then she banished the feeling with a false smile. She knew what she might have to do, when her quarry entered the room. In comparison, the task of the moment could hardly be considered frightening. She was still alone.
It was not as if, even when alone, she had allowed herself to behave with abandon. It was not proper. But she was in the last place in the world where she would have to concern herself with propriety.
She reached up, tentatively at first, and touched her own breasts through the lawn shift that covered them, shocked at how sensitive they felt. Her nipples tightened in response to the pleasure and the coldness of the room. She closed her eyes to hide herself from her circumstances and cupped her hands under them, pushing them tight to her body so that they almost spilled from the neckline of the shift, enjoying the weight of them.
She let her hands drift lower, to catch the hem of the shift and draw it completely out of the way. She bit her lip as though in desire, and blocked the last of her fear in her mind. Then she let her legs fall open, exposing herself to anyone who might be watching from the hall.
From some hidden place, there was a sharp intake of breath, and the slow hiss as it was released again.
The sound sent a tremor of awareness through her. Was the man on the other side of the curtain the man she sought? Perhaps it was some other stranger. Whoever her audience might be, they were expecting her to continue.
And suddenly, her body trembled again, and she wished it as well. She spread herself with her fingers, and began to play.
Tom Godfrey looked at the woman sitting on the bed and tried to disguise his shock into something within the realm of expectation or eagerness.
The abbess touched his arm, to silently ask if this was the sort of woman he had been looking for.
He placed a hand over hers and nodded. Not only was the chestnut hair just as he had wished, and the eyes bright green, but the shape of the face was the same as well. There was the short nose, the gently rounded cheeks and the small dimple in the chin.
He had not seen her body in the little miniature his captain had carried. But he had imagined it: the pale skin dusted with gold from the sun of Portugal, with long legs, high breasts and a trim waist flaring into soft round hips. His imagination did not do this woman justice.
The madam smiled and nodded, gesturing to the door at her right and pressing a key into his hand. He pressed a coin into hers in return. Then, she retreated.
He stood there for a while, staring into the little window, enjoying the clandestine view it provided. The woman was very like the one he longed for. And with his desire came the faint feeling of guilt.
Though why he should feel guilty about thoughts not expressed, he did not know. It was not as if he had ever bothered Victoria Paget with his opinions of her. He had never even met her. He had not even sent the briefest of condolences along with her husband's personal effects, fearing that some stray comment in it would lead her to guess the truth. He had done nothing to be ashamed of.
But while his actions had been blameless, he regretted his uncontrollable thoughts. Captain Paget's descriptions of his wife's spirit, and her unfailing loyalty and courage, had moved him to envy. The devotion of his own fiancée waiting in London for him had seemed ambivalent in comparison. And then, Paget had shared a glimpse of the little portrait that he had so often admired himself.
Tom had felt the first stirrings of jealousy. Perhaps it was because he doubted that Paget deserved such a wife as the one he'd described. At times, he had spoken of her as he might of a particularly good soldier, and not a woman who was worthy of respect and tenderness. And though the captain had claimed to have a great fondness for her, when the war parted them he had shown no particular desire to be faithful to her in the way he swore she was to him.
Perhaps it was merely covetousness on Tom's part. He had seen the peace it brought Paget to look on the picture before a battle. And he had wanted some bit of that peace for himself. He had longed for reassurance that someone waited for him and cared for his survival. The few pitiful letters he'd received from his supposed love filled him with doubts about their future. And his fears had been proven true soon after his return to England.
But worst of all, there was lust. He had seen the picture, and wanted the woman in it. When the captain had died, Tom had searched his pockets for it, out of a sudden shameful desire to keep it for his own. That he could have it to gaze on each night, before he slept. And to imagine…
It had repelled him that he could have such thoughts about the widow, with the husband barely cool on the ground before him. So he had bundled the miniature up with the captain's few personal effects, tucked the lot into his haversack to keep it safe from the soldiers who were looting the battlefield, and sent it back to camp with the next courier.
When he had arrived there on a stretcher almost a month later after another skirmish had shattered his leg and his career, he had wanted to meet with her and to explain the circumstances of her husband's death. But she was already gone back to London. Disappointment and relief had mingled with the pain of his wound.