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Within the large and tastefully decorated drawing room of Mrs Silver's House of Rainbow Pleasures in the St James's district of London, Arabella Marlbrook paced and tried to ignore the feeling of dread that coiled deep in the pit of her stomach.
The black silk dress she was wearing had been made for a thinner woman and clung in an indecent fashion to the curves of her hips and breasts and she was all too aware that she was wearing neither petticoats nor stays. Her skin was like ice to touch, yet she could feel the smear of clamminess upon her palms. And she worried that the black feathers of the mask across her eyes did not obscure her identity well enough.
There were five other women artfully arranged around the drawing room, each one in a different colour and all in attires that made Arabella look positively overdressed.
'Do sit down, Arabella,' Miss Rouge said from where she reclined in her scarlet underwear and stockings upon one of the sofas. 'You are making me quite dizzy. You would do better to save your strength for there'll be gentlemen aplenty and eager tonight. And some of what they'll ask for will be demanding, to say the least.' She gave a sly smile and from behind the bright red feathers of her facemask her eyes looked almost black.
'Leave her be, Alice. Think how you felt on your first night. It is only natural that she is nervous,' said pale pink Miss Rose who was leaning against the mantelpiece so that the flicker of the flames illuminated her legs through the pale pink silk as if she were not wearing a skirt at all. Then she looked across at Arabella. 'You'll be fine, girl. Don't you worry.'
Arabella shot Miss Rose a grateful look, before turning to Miss Rouge, 'Please do not address me by my given name. I thought we were supposed to use the names Mrs Silver told us.' Arabella had no wish for the man she must lie with this nighther stomach turned over again at the thoughtto know her true identity. It was vital that not the slightest hint of her shame attach itself to those that she loved.
'It's only a name, Miss Noir, keep your skirt in place!' snapped Miss Rouge.
'Leastways till she gets her gent upstairs!' quipped the small blonde in the armchair who was all in blue. She cackled at the joke and all of the other women, except for Arabella, joined in.
Arabella turned away from them so that they would not see the degree of her humiliation, and moved to stand before the bookcase as if she were perusing the titles upon the shelf. Only when her expression was quite composed did she face the room once more.
Alice, Miss Rouge, was buffing her nails. Ellen, Miss Vert, yawned and closed her eyes to nap upon the day bed. Lizzie, Miss Bleu, and Louisa, Miss Jaune, were engaged in a quiet conversation and Tilly, Miss Rose, was reading a romantic novel.
Arabella studied the decor of the room in an attempt to distract her mind from the prospect of what lay ahead. It was a fine room, she noted, perhaps one of the finest she had seen. The floorboards were polished oak, and covered with a large gold-and-blue-and-ivory Turkey carpet. The walls were a pale duck-egg blue that lent the room a peaceful ambience. In the centre of the ornate plasterwork ceiling was a double-layered crystal-drop chandelier and around the room several matching wall sconces sat against large, elegant looking-glasses so that the light of the candle flames was magnified in glittering excellence. The furniture was mainly oak, all of it finely turned, understated and tasteful.
There were five armchairs, two sofas and a daybed, some of which were upholstered in ivory and duck-egg blue stripes, some in plain ivory and others in a pale gold material that seemed to shimmer beneath the candlelight. On a table in the corner of the room was a vase filled with fresh flowers, the blooms all whites and creams and shades of yellow.
It might have been a drawing room in any respectable wealthy house in London. Arabella marvelled at the contrast between the calm elegance of the decor and the crude reality of what went on within these walls and was faced once more with the stark truth of what she was here to do.
She dreaded the moment when some gentleman would arrive and buy her 'services.' Indeed, she had to fight every minute not just to walk out the door and keep on walking all the way home. But she knew she could not do that. She knew very well why she was here and the reason she must go through with this.
She closed her eyes and tried to calm the nausea and dread that was prickling a cold sweat upon her forehead and upper lip. A hundred guineas a week, Mrs Silver had promised. A fortune, indeed.
A hundred guineas to sell herself. A hundred guineas to save them all.
Dominic Furneaux, otherwise known as his Grace the Duke of Arlesford, swirled the brandy in his glass while he deliberated over the four cards held in his hand. Then, having made his decision, he drained the contents of the glass in a single gulp and gestured to the banker to deal him another card.
There was an audible intake of air from the smartly dressed men gathered around the Duke's gaming table in White's Gentlemen's Club. The pile of guineas heaped in the centre of the table was high, and most of it had been staked by the Duke himself.
The card was dealt with a flip so that it was placed face up on the green baize before the Duke.
Marcus Henshall, Viscount Stanley, craned his neck to look over the top of the heads of the gentlemen that stood before him.
The Ace of Hearts.
'An omen of love,' someone whispered.
The Duke ignored them. 'Five-card trick. Vingt-et-un.' He smiled lazily as if he cared and laid his cards upon the table for all to see.
'Well, I will be damned, but Arlesford has the very luck of the devil!' someone else exclaimed.
There was laughter and murmurs and the scrape of chairs against the polished wood of the floor as his friends threw in their cards and got to their feet.
'What say you all to finding ourselves some entertainment of a different variety for what remains of the night?' Lord Bullford said.
The suggestion was met with raucous approval.
'I know just the place,' Lord Devlin chipped in. 'An establishment in which the wares are quite delicious enough to satisfy the most exacting of men!'
More laughter, and lewd comments.
Dominic watched as Stanley made his excuses and left, rushing home to his wife and baby. He felt a pang of jealousy and of bitterness. There was no woman or child awaiting Dominic. Indeed, there was nothing in Arlesford House that he wanted, save perhaps the cellar of brandy. But that was the way he wanted it. Women were such faithless creatures.
'Come on, Arlesford,' drawled Sebastian Hunter, only son and heir to a vast fortune. 'We cannot have you celebrating all alone.'
'When have I ever celebrated alone?' Dominic asked with a nonchalant shrug.
'True, old man,' said Bullford, 'But I will warrant the pleasures to be had in the house of paradise to which Devlin will take us will beat that offered by whichever little ladybird you have waiting for you in your bed.'
Dominic's smile was hollow. He had his share of women; indeed, he supposed that he truly did merit the title of rake that London bestowed upon him. But there was no ladybird waiting in his bed; there never had been. Dominic did not bring women home. He visited the beds of those women who understood the game and walked away afterwards. He gave them money and expensive gifts, but never anything of himself, nothing that mattered, nothing that could be hurt. And he was always discreet.
He had no notion to visit the establishment of which Devlin spoke. He glanced around the table, taking in how loud and bawdy and reckless was the mood of his friends. Too foxed and excited to exercise any morsel of discretion, young Northcote more so than the others. As if to prove his point Northcote accepted the bottle of wine that Fallingham offered and drank from its neck, so that some of the ruby-red liquid spilled down his chin to stain the boy's cravat and shirt.
'Arlesford is on his best behaviour. Wants to impress Misbourne and his daughter. Nice little heiress and even nicer big dowry!' shouted young Northcote.
The party hooted and cheered.
'Since you obviously appreciate her merits, Northcote, you may have her. I have no intention of being caught in parson's mousetrap, as well you know.'
Fallingham sniggered. 'Old Misbourne doesn't think so. There is a hundred-guinea stake in the betting book in here that the Duke of A. will be affianced to a certain Miss W. before the Season is over.'
Dominic felt his blood run cold. 'A fool and his money are soon parted. Someone is about to be a hundred guineas lighter in the pocket.'
'Au contraire,' said Bullford. 'Misbourne was overheard discussing it in this very club. He is very determined to have you marry his daughter. Thinks it is some sort of matter of honour.'
'Then Misbourne has misunderstood both honour and me.' Dominic did not miss the meaningful glance Hunter threw him at Bullford's words. Unlike the others, Hunter knew the truth. He knew what Dominic had come home to find in Amersham almost six years ago, and he understood why Dominic had no wish to marry.
Devlin's eyes flicked to the doorway. 'Speak of the devil! Misbourne and his cronies have just come in, no doubt hoping to engage the prospective son-in-law in a game of cards,' he said with a chuckle.
'Time indeed that we departed for Devlin's house of pleasures,' murmured Hunter.
'And give young Northcote the education that he deserves,' Devlin laughed.
'With the amount Northcote has had to drink I doubt he'll be up for that manner of education,' said Dominic.
'That's monstrous unfair, Arlesford! I'll have you know that my chap is more than capable of standing proud. Indeed, he's stirring even at the thought of it.'
'Prove it,' sniggered Fallingham.
Northcote got to his feet and moved a hand to unfasten the fall on his pantaloons.
'Don't be such a bloody idiot,' snapped Dominic. To which Northcote belched and sat down again.
'You see you'll have to come, Arlesford. Who else is going to stop Northcote making a complete cake of himself?' said Hunter.
'Who indeed?' Dominic arched a brow, but the sarcasm was lost on Hunter.
Northcote was out of his depth in such company, and dangerously so. Dominic knew he could not just abandon the youngster. He supposed he could endure an evening of flirtation in an upmarket bordello for Northcote's sake.
Dominic followed his friends towards the doorway and walked past Misbourne with only the briefest of nods in the man's direction. As he had told his friends, he had no intention of entering the marriage mart.
Dominic Furneaux had learned his lesson regarding women very well indeed. And so he turned his thoughts away from the past to the rest of the evening that lay ahead.