Read an Excerpt
The Secret Pearl
By Mary Balogh
Random HouseMary Balogh
All right reserved.
The crowd outside the Drury Lane Theater had dispersed for the night. The last carriage, with its two occupants, was disappearing down the street. Those few theatergoers who had come on foot had long ago set out on their way.
It appeared that only one gentleman was left, a tall man in a dark cloak and hat. He had refused a ride in the last carriage to leave, preferring, he had told his friends, to walk home.
And yet he was not the sole remaining occupant of the street, either. His eyes, as he looked about him, were caught by a figure standing quietly against the building, her cloak a shade lighter than the night shadows-a street prostitute who had been left behind by her more fortunate or alluring peers and who seemed now to have lost all chance of a fashionable customer for the night.
She did not move, and it was impossible to tell in the darkness if she was looking at him. She might have swaggered toward him. She might have moved out of the shadows and smiled at him. She might have hailed him, offered herself in words. She might have hurried away to find a more promising location.
She did none of those things.
And he stood looking at her, wondering whether to begin the solitary walk home he had planned or whether to engage in an unplanned night of sport. He could not see the woman clearly. He did not know if she was young, enticing, pretty, clean-any of those qualities that might make it worth his while to change his plans.
But there was her quiet stillness, intriguing in itself.
She was looking at him, he saw as he strolled toward her, with eyes that were dark in the shadows.
She wore a cloak but no bonnet. Her hair was dressed neatly at the back of her head. It was impossible to tell how old she was or how pretty. She said nothing and did not move. She displayed no wiles, spoke no words of enticement.
He stopped a few feet in front of her. He noted that her head reached to his shoulder-she was slightly above average height-and that she was of slim build.
"You wish for a night's employment?" he asked her.
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
"And your price?"
She hesitated and named a sum. He regarded her in silence for a few moments.
"And the place is close by?"
"I have no place," she said. Her voice was soft, devoid of either the harshness or the cockney accent that he had expected.
He looked at her out of narrowed eyes. He should begin his walk home, make a companion of his own thoughts as he had planned to do. It had never been his way to copulate with a street whore in a shop doorway.
"There is an inn on the next street," he said, and he turned to walk in its direction.
She fell into step beside him. They did not exchange a word. She made no move to take his arm. He did not offer it.
She followed him into the crowded and rowdy taproom of the Bull and Horn and stood quietly at his shoulder as he engaged a room abovestairs for the night and paid for it in advance. She followed him up the stairs, her feet light on the treads so that he half-turned his head before reaching the top to make sure that she was there.
He allowed her to precede him into the room and closed and bolted the door behind him. He set the single candle he had brought up with him in a wall sconce. The noise from the taproom was hardly diminished by distance.
The prostitute was standing in the middle of the room, looking at him. She was young, he saw, though not a girl. She must have been pretty at one time, but now her face was thin and pale, her lips dry and cracked, her brown eyes ringed by dark shadows. Her hair, a dull red in color, was without luster or body. She wore it in a simple knot at the back of her head.
The gentleman removed his top hat and cloak and saw her eyes move over his face and along the ugly scar that began at the corner of his left eye, slashed across his cheek to the corner of his mouth and on down to his chin. He felt all his ugliness, with his near-black unruly hair, his dark eyes, his great aquiline nose. And it angered him to feel ugly in the eyes of a common whore.
He strode across the room, unbuttoned her pale gray cloak, which she had made no move to take off herself, and threw it aside.
Surprisingly, she wore a blue silk dress beneath it, long-sleeved, modestly low at the bosom, high-waisted, unadorned. But the dress, though clean, was limp and creased. A gift from a satisfied customer some weeks before and worn nightly ever since, he guessed.
Her chin lifted an inch. She watched him steadily.
"Take your clothes off," he said, unnerved by her quietness, by her differentness from all the whores he had known in his youth and during his years in the army. He seated himself on a hard-backed chair beside the empty fireplace and watched her with narrowed eyes.
She did not move for a few moments, but then she began to undress, folding each garment as she removed it and setting it on the floor beside her. She was no longer watching him, but kept her eyes on what she was doing. Only when she came to her chemise, her last remaining garment, did she hesitate, her eyes on the floor at her feet. But she removed that too, drawing it up over her head, folding it as she had done her other garments, and dropping it to the top of the pile.
She set her arms loosely at her sides and looked at him again, her eyes steady and expressionless, as they had been before.
She was too thin. Far too thin. And yet there was something about the long slimness of her legs, about the shape of her hips and the too-small waist, about the high firm breasts that stirred the gentleman who watched her. For the first time he was glad of his decision to engage her services. It had been a long time.
"Unpin your hair," he told her.
And she lifted thin arms to do so and bent to set the pins carefully beside the pile of her clothes. Her hair fell over her shoulders and about her face and halfway down her back when she straightened again. Clean, lifeless hair, not red, not blond. She lifted a hand to remove one strand from her mouth, her eyes steady on his.
He felt a surging of lust.
"Lie down on the bed," he told her as he got to his feet and began to undress himself.
She folded the bedclothes back neatly and lay on one side of the bed, her legs together, her arms at her sides, her palms against the mattress. She did not cover herself. She turned her head to one side and watched him.
He undressed completely. He scorned to try to hide himself from a whore, to try to hide the purple and disfiguring marks of the wounds on his left side and left leg, which even in a mirror made him grimace with distaste, and which must repel any stranger not expecting them. Her eyes moved down to them and then returned calmly to his face.
She had courage, this whore. Or perhaps she could not afford to lose even the most repulsive of customers before she had earned her pay.
He was angry. Angry with himself for returning to whoring, something he had given up years before. Angry that he felt self-conscious and ashamed with a prostitute. And angry with her for being so much in control of her feelings that she would not even show her revulsion at his appearance. If she had done so, he could have used her accordingly.
And the thought revolted him and angered him further.
He leaned across her and took her by the upper arms, moving her so that she lay across the bed instead of along it. He grasped her hips and drew her forward until her knees bent over the side of the bed and her feet rested on the floor.
He slid his palms between her thighs and spread her legs wide. He pushed them wider with his knees, bending his legs so that they rested against the side of the bed. And he spread his fingers across the tops of her legs and opened her with his thumbs.
Her eyes were lowered, watching what he did.
He positioned himself and mounted her with one sharp deep thrust.
He heard the sound of shock deep in her throat and watched her bite down on both lips at once and shut her eyes very tightly. He felt all her muscles tense in self-defense. And he waited, standing above her, buried deep in her, watching her with hooded eyes, until the breath came vibrating out of her and she imposed relaxation on her muscles. Her eyes were fixed on his.
He slid his hands beneath her, holding her steady above the mattress as he leaned over her and took the pleasure for which he had employed her. She remained still and relaxed as he moved swiftly and deeply in her, her arms spread across the bed at her sides, her eyes wandering over his facial scar and looking back up into his. Once she looked down to watch what he did to her. Her hair was spread across the mattress to one side of her, where he had moved her across the bed.
He closed his eyes as he released into her, and bowed his head over her until he could feel her breath against his hair. And along with the blessed relaxation he felt the stabbing of a nameless regret.
He straightened up and disengaged himself from her body. He turned away to the washstand opposite the foot of the bed and poured cold water from the pitcher into the cracked bowl, dipped the rag of a cloth into it, squeezed out the excess water, and returned to the bed.
"Here," he said, holding out the cloth to her. She had not moved beyond bringing her legs together. Her feet still rested on the floor. Her eyes were still open. "Clean yourself with this." He glanced down to her bloodstained thighs.
She raised one hand to take the cloth, but it was shaking so out of control that she lowered it to the bed again and turned her head to one side, closing her eyes. He took her hand in his, turned it palm-up, and placed the cloth in it.
"You may dress when you have finished," he said, and he turned his back on her in order to dress himself.
The quiet rustlings behind him told him that she had brought herself under control and was doing as she had been told. And yet when he turned at last, it was to find her trying to do up the three buttons of her cloak with hands that were trembling too badly to accomplish the task. He took the few steps toward her, brushed her hands aside, and did the buttons up for her.
The sheet at the edge of the bed, he could see over her shoulder, was liberally stained with blood. He had ripped her quite effectively.
"When did you last eat?" he asked her.
She straightened her cloak, looking down at it.
"When I ask a question, I expect an answer," he said curtly.
"Two days ago," she said.
"And what did you eat then?"
"Was it only today you decided to turn to the profession of whore?" he asked.
"No," she said. "Yesterday. But no one wanted me."
"I am not surprised," he said. "You have no idea how to sell yourself."
He took up his hat, unbolted the door, and left the room. She followed him. He paused at the foot of the stairs and looked about the noisy taproom. There was an empty table in a far corner. He turned, took the girl by the elbow, and crossed the room toward it. Any customer who was in his path took one look at him, at his fashionable clothes and harsh, scarred face, and instantly moved to one side.
He seated the girl with her back to the room and took the seat opposite her. He instructed the barmaid, who had followed them to the table and was bobbing curtsies to him, to bring a plate of food and two tankards of ale.
"I am not hungry," the girl said.
"You will eat," he said.
She did not speak again. The barmaid brought a plate on which were a large and steaming meat pie and two thick slices of bread and butter, and he gestured to her to set it before the prostitute.
The gentleman watched the girl eat. It was very obvious that she was ravenous, though she made an effort to eat slowly. She looked about her when her fingers, which still trembled, were covered with crumbs of meat and pastry, but of course it was a common inn and there were no napkins. He handed her a linen handkerchief from his pocket, and she took it after a moment's hesitation and wiped her fingers.
"Thank you," she said.
"What is your name?" he asked.
She finished chewing the bread she had in her mouth. "Fleur," she said eventually.
"Just Fleur?" He was drumming his fingers slowly on the top of the table. He held his tankard of ale in his other hand.
"Just Fleur," she said quietly.
He watched her silently until she had eaten the last crumb on her plate.
"You want more?" he asked her.
"No." She looked up at him hastily. "No, thank you."
"You don't want to finish your ale?"
"No, thank you," she said.
He paid the bill and they left the inn together.
"You said you had no place in which to ply your trade," he said. "Do you have no home?"
"Yes," she said. "I have a room."
"I will escort you there," he said.
"No." She hung back in the doorway of the Bull and Horn.
"How far away do you live?" he asked.
"Not far," she said. "About a mile."
"I will take you three-quarters of a mile, then," he said. "You are an innocent. You do not know what can happen to a woman alone on the streets."
She gave a harsh little laugh. And she hurried along the street, her head down. He walked beside her, experiencing for the first time in his life, though only at second hand, all the despair of poverty, knowing that his own problems, his own reasons for unhappiness, were laughable in comparison with those of this girl, London's newest whore.
From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Secret Pearl by Mary Balogh
Excerpted by permission.
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