You never write to me. I don’t even know your whereabouts in the world.
“You can’t go in there with me, Grace.” Emma Hallaway-Mansfield, Countess of Asbury, tugged her sister’s hand away from the latch on the carriage door.
Grace studied her with furrowed brows. “Emma, you asked me to come here with you. I won’t abandon you in your time of greatest need.”
“You have no choice.” Emma had to go in there by herself. “If anyone should recognize us, our reputations will be in shambles. You can’t risk that.”
“I don’t care. You’re my sister. You would never ask me to go into such a place on my own.”
“Think of Abby, Grace. If my reputation is completely ruined, I’ll not be able to help find our sister a husband … you, on the other hand, will.”
“You don’t know the things that happen in such a place.”
“And how would you know?”
Though Grace probably did know better than she, since her late husband had actually spent a great deal of time in her company. Which was more than Emma could say for her marriage. Emma refused to think about her marriage, or lack thereof, right now.
She’d been sitting here too long in indecisiveness—she was already running a few minutes late—and their nondescript carriage was drawing unwanted attention.
“Take the carriage around the square a few times. I won’t spend more than twenty minutes inside.”
“I ought to come with you. Waverly had no right in courting me, and then to turn around and do this to you.”
“Believe me, I know.” Emma sighed heavily and twirled her locket between her fingers as she tried to think of another solution. There was none. She was stalling at doing the inevitable. “But it can’t be changed.”
She had to find Waverly—the lying scoundrel—soundly reprimand him for his audacity, and then demand that her portrait be returned. A portrait she should have never painted. Or at least never have sold, since the subject in the nude was her.
With a deep breath, she tied a beaded velvet mask around her head to cover the top portion of her face. Not the greatest of disguises, but it would have to do.
“If you’re not back in twenty minutes, I’ll have no choice but to follow you in,” Grace said.
Kissing her sister on the cheek, Emma said, “Twenty-five minutes, no more.”
Emma turned up the latch on the carriage door. When her feet were on solid ground, her stomach turned into a jumble of nerves. She gave one last look in the dark window of the hack before turning away.
Night had fallen, but Haymarket was busy with foot traffic. She’d never been to this part of town. It was a place where gentlemen indulged in the sorts of wicked things a lady wasn’t supposed to have knowledge of. Emma hadn’t reached the ripe age of seven and twenty without discovering some of life’s idiosyncrasies, particularly where men were concerned.
After a couple of deep breaths, her stomach steeled against her anxiety, and she moved grudgingly forward. Standing before a great wooden door with iron detail of a medieval design, Emma lifted the horned-devil knocker and rapped it once.
A small peephole slid open and was followed by the gruff voice of a man. “Pass.”
“Balderdash,” she answered.
The door creaked open, giving way to a beefy man with bare arms bigger than the width of her cinched waist. Goodness, he was a veritable giant. Emma barely resisted the urge to take a step back and flee to the safety of the carriage. Scars marred one side of his face; his blue eyes were like shards of ice cutting through her as he gave her a once-over.
She stood taller, showing her determination to enter a bawdy house, and met his rigid gaze with her resolute one. She would not be refused entry. Nothing would stand in the way of saving the loosening threads of her reputation.
“Ain’t yer type o’ place,” the giant said.
“I’m sure it’s not.”
The giant took a step to the side, moving from the doorway with a firm scowl in place. “Don’t usually have yer kinder flashies. But yer gots yer pass.”
Emma looked around the amber-lit foyer. Rich Chinese silks and heavy Italian brocades hung on the walls in a conflicting mishmash of sheer and woven materials. Foreign perfume lingered in the air; it was so powerfully sweet, it burned her nostrils and had her holding her breath intermittently. The hallway was narrow and had no rooms on either side. A set of darkly stained wooden stairs loomed directly in front of her.
Courage, she told herself. She needed to pretend just for tonight that she had the courage to confront her nemesis. She couldn’t imagine what Waverly thought to gain in blackmailing her here. His purpose was obvious; the whys were not. Ascending the steps quickly, she opened another, less forbidding door at the top of the stairs.
Emma’s eyes went wide at the sight before her. The place was hot and crowded with at least fifty people—more people than she had expected. The room was wide and open, sporting high ceilings that did not dim the ruckus of everyone talking at the same time. Settees and deep couches were set around the room for patrons to repose on. The men in attendance all seemed to be of means if their pressed, finely cut suits were anything to go by.
Bawds mingled wantonly and freely amongst the crowd. Some were bare-chested while others wandered around without skirts and bodices to decently cover their unmentionables. Her hand clenched around her locket.
A small twinge of comfort enveloped her on noticing she wasn’t the only one sporting a demi-masque. She wasn’t the only one who needed to protect her identity.
On closer inspection of the debauched scene around her, patrons she thought were relaxing on the sofas were actually in coitus.
Eyes wide with that revelation, Emma reeled and nearly went back through the door to escape the scene unfolding around her. She stopped herself short of reaching that goal.
She couldn’t leave. First, the direction on the letter had been a firm demand that she attend this place. Second, her sister would have taken the carriage around and would arrive back in fifteen minutes at the most. Emma would not stand in the streets of Haymarket. It wasn’t safe for a proper lady to do so.
Taking a deep breath to prepare herself for the scene behind her, Emma tried to act as if she’d been in a place like this before and held her chin up unashamedly as she turned back around.
A few naked women would not scare her away. She was no stranger to the female form, since she painted it on a regular basis. As for the men engaging in all sorts of wicked acts, she’d just have to pay them no mind.
Despite the low décolletage of Emma’s pale cerulean evening gown, it was obvious she wore too many clothes not to be noticed by every man in the room. The other women of the upper echelon wore rich, dark tones, the gowns swept low off their shoulders. Emma was surprised their breasts didn’t spill right out of their dresses.
Emma skirted toward the private rooms. Taking a deep breath, she pressed open the first darkly painted door to reveal a couple bent over a red velvet divan in the throes of passion. A fat, squat man heaving to and fro in some mockery of the primal dance held a fistful of yellow hair at the back of the woman’s head.
Emma’s breath faltered, her will to do this sinking faster than a rock thrown in water. She shut the door with a snap, hoping she didn’t remember that horrible image for the rest of her days. Certainly married women didn’t participate in such untamed, wanton things.
The letter had been clear that she was to find the fourth door on this floor. She wasn’t thinking clearly when she most needed her wits about her.
Turning away from the line of doors, Emma looked about the room, hoping no one watched her. She hadn’t thought it possible for her day to get worse, but it had. Her eyes locked upon a gentleman she wished she could forget as easily as he had forgotten her.
Putting her hand to her mouth, she hoped she didn’t lose her meager dinner as she gazed at the man who had abandoned her a dozen years ago. He was like a predator lying in wait, all sleek and masculine where he lounged. Her heart stuttered in her chest at the sight of him. Swallowing past the lump in her throat was near impossible.
He wouldn’t recognize her. Or would he? She’d never have recognized him except for the fact that he looked like a younger version of his father.
There was no mistaking that strong Roman nose of his, or the tussled waves of light brown hair that brushed the open collar of his shirt. His face was weatherworn and tanned, evidence he spent most of his days in the sun. The boy she’d known had grown into a distinguished gentleman.
How she wished it wasn’t him.
But there lounged her husband—whom she hadn’t seen in twelve years—with a bawd atop his lap.
What a farce this was.
Copyright © 2010 by Tiffany Clare