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Londonlate February 1816
'My lords, your honours, gentlemen! Your attention, please! At midnight, upon the stroke of the hour, Madame Synthia's School of Venus presents our famed Parade of Beauty. Ladies of rich and varied experience! Exotic creatures of every hue! Country-fresh innocents willing and eager to learn their business at the hands of dashing London beaux! Posture girls of amazing flexibility and ingenuity for your delectation! In half an hour, my lords and gentlementake your places early and do not be disappointed!'
The ex-town crier employed at considerable expense by Madame Synthiaformerly known as Cynthia Wilkins of Camden Townshouted himself to a stop and left the platform at the end of the Grand Assembly Lounge. Footmen began to set chairs around the stage and keen patrons jostled to fill the front row, despite there being half an hour to go before the start of the performance.
'Morant, come on.' Gareth Morant, Earl of Standon, winced as Lord Fellingham nudged him sharply in the ribs. 'Those posture girls are all the go, but you need to be close up to get a proper eyeful.' Fellingham licked his rather full lips. 'They hold up a mirror and there are candles
'I doubt they have any feature that any other woman you have had congress with was lacking, Fell.'Gareth set down his almost-full champagne flute and regarded the scrimmage around the stage with bored distaste. 'This place is a vulgar dive, I cannot imagine what we are doing here.'
'You're off your oats, old fellow, in need of a tonic, in my opinion,' Fellingham retorted. 'You're no fun these days, and that's the truth of it. Look at youyou've sat by the fire, toying with one glass the entire time Rotherham's been upstairs with those Chinese twins, and never a word out of you but grunts.'
'Indian twins.' Gareth got to his feet and stretched. 'They are Indian. I'm off to White's, see if I can drum up a decent hand of cards.'
'We can't go without Rotherham,' his friend protested, one eye on the rapidly filling seats before the stage. 'And besides, I want to see this show. I've heard all about it, that's why I wanted to comeremember? Let's go and get old Rothers and watch it and then we'll all go to White's. He must be finished by now, surely. What do you say? Don't be a killjoy.'
'Very well.' Gareth picked up his glass with a suppressed sigh, tossed back the contents and stood up. 'Do you know which room he's in?'
'The Mirrored Chamber. Damn good room that, mirrors all over it, even the ceiling.' Fellingham made for the stairs, pushing his way against the tide of men intent on reaching the stage.
'So I collect. The name gives a slight hint.'Damn it, Fell was right, his temper was short, nothing appealed any more. He wantedno, neededsomething, but he had no idea what, although it most definitely was not to be found in this temple to commercial sexual gratification. And the respectable novelty being pressed upon him marriageheld no charms whatsoever either.
His friend snorted, good humoured despite Gareth's tone. 'Jaded, that's what you are, you sarcastic devil. What you need is a good woman. No, make that a thoroughly bad one!' Roaring with laughter at his own feeble wit, Fellingham struck off down a dimly lit corridor. 'Down here somewhere, if I recall.'
'Give me my clothes back!' Jessica Gifford made a wild grab at the bundle of drab garments before the maid tossed them out of the door and slammed it. Outside, the key turned.
'Now then, don't give me trouble or I'll have to get Madame Synthia up here, and you won't like that, believe me.'The maid grinned and went over to the wardrobe with a sway of her hips that indicated that the skimpiness of her gown was more than just an accident in the wash.
'This is all a terrible mistake.' Jessica stood there shivering, stark naked and too bemused and angry to be properly afraid. But at the back of her mind there was a growing awareness that she should be. She should be very frightened indeed, she realised, for it seemed that all the far-fetched tales she had heard about innocent country girls being snatched off the street by evil procurers were nothing less than the truth. But she wasn't some innocent young milkmaid, she was a grown-up, independent, educated womanthis should not be happening to her!
'There has been some error.' She tried a reasonable tone, keeping her breathing light in an attempt to control it. 'I am a governess, here to take up a new position.'
'You'll take up one of those all right.'The maid laughed. 'Lots and lots of new positions. You are a virgin, aren't you?' The glance she sent Jessica's shivering, goose-bump covered body was scornful.
'Of course I am! I said there was some mistake. I asked the woman who greeted me as I got off the coach if she was Lady Hartington's housekeeper and she said yes and took me to a carriage and the next thing I know, I am here.'
'Yes, well, Lady H. won't be wanting your services for her precious brats after tonight, especially as Lord H. himself is here and is likely to bid high for you. He'll be getting you to show him the use of the globes, I'll be bound. Or perhaps he'll be slow at his Latin and'll need a good birching. Put these on.'She tossed a handful of flimsy scraps of fabric on to the bed.
'This is a brothel?' As well to have it clear, the logical, sensible part of Jessica's brain told her, while the rest of it screamed in silent panic.
'Lord love you, of course it is. Best vaulting house in town. Wonder if we ought to do something about your hair.' The maid peered at her. 'Nah. I'll just unpin it, give you that ready to be tumbled look. They like that.'
'There has been a mistake,' Jessica repeated, adopting the tone of clear reason she found effective with some of her more dense pupils. 'I am a governess, I am in the wrong place. If I am kept captive here, that is kidnapping and when I complain to the magistrates someone is going to be in very serious trouble with the law.'
'How're you going to do that, then?'The maid advanced on her with a hairbrush and began to pluck out hairpins. 'You'll stay here until you're properly broken in, then there's nowhere else for you to go because no one respectable will want you. If you want to chat to a magistrate or two, I'm sure there's some here tonight. Very sympathetic they'll bewant to make you feel right at home, I'll be bound.'
Cold fingers of fear slithered down Jessica's spine. She had been earning her own living for three years and she knew just how perilous was the position of an unprotected young woman with the slightest hint of scandal attaching to her name. She knew, all too well, the consequences of that one step off the slippery path of respectability.
If she got out of here and complained, most likely she would be ignored. If she were believed, then she was as good as ruined, whatever happened.
'How can you help them do this to another woman?' She put her hand on the other girl's arm imploringly. In this situation she was not too proud to plead. She would be on her knees begging in a minute. Whatever it took to end this nightmare. 'Don't you want to be out of here yourself?'
The maid stared at her as though she was mad. 'Leave here? I'd be crazy to,' she said shortly. 'Warm room, good food, lots of company, gentlemen giving me good tips. All I have to do is lie on my back on a clean comfy bed and do what comes natural. Leave here and go back to what? A filthy slum in Wapping, that's what. And there you do it up against the wall for a handful of coppers and a black eye.'She peered in the mirror and pinched her own cheeks, bringing some colour into her pert, sharp-featured face.
'Look, you silly cow,' she said suddenly, with what Jessica realised was an attempt at kindness, 'it ain't so bad after the first time. Why make it difficult for yourself? If you make a scene, Madame will just send up some of the doormen to break you in, and you won't like that, believe me.'
Jessica sank down on the end of the huge bed, oblivious to the cold slippery satin under her bare behind. The choices appeared to be to be deflowered by a group of bully boys, to be sold to some debauched gentleman or to throw herself out of the window. Only that was barred with iron.
Life had been hard, these past three years, but she had her modest savings, a respectable profession, her self-respect and she was dependent on no one. Under no circumstances was she going to give that up. Her mind seemed to move beyond terror into a desperate resolve.
The maid was gathering up her fallen hairpins. Jessica put her foot carefully on one of them. 'All right,'she said, having no trouble letting her voice shake. 'What happens now?'
'There, that's better! See how much easier it is if you stop being so foolish about it? What's your name?'
'Well, Jessy, I'm Moll. We get's you into your costumethat won't take long, there ain't much of it then at midnight the show starts. You're the only virgin on the bill, so the bidding'll be brisk. You'll get a nice rich gentleman who'll tip you well after, I'll be bound, seeing you're the real thing.'
'What's the time now?' Jessica reached for the scraps of muslin the maid held out.
'Twenty to the hour.'
'Well, if there isn't any other option
Isn't there a costume that's a nicer colour?' she asked, feigning petulance. 'I don't like lilac. It looks so insipid with blonde hair.'
Moll did not appear to find the sudden change of tone suspicious. 'I think there's a green one, that'll be pretty with your eyes.' She opened the wardrobe doors again.
The maid's shriek was cut off by Jessica bundling her bodily into the clothes press. One piece of muslin was around her wrists, the other gagging her mouth before she could recover her wits. Jessica pulled down more pieces from the hooks, tying the struggling girl's ankles.
'If you make a noise in the next half-hour, I'll hit you on the head,'she warned, hoping she sounded convincingly fierce. 'If you are quiet, nothing will happen. Understand?'
Wide blue eyes stared at her over the gag, then Molly nodded energetically. Jessica shut the wardrobe door, wedged a chair under the handle, retrieved the hairpin and set about picking the door lock.
In sensation novels, the sort governesses are supposed never to read and in fact devour by the shelf full, the beleaguered yet valiant heroine can pick a dungeon lock in seconds as she escapes from the wicked duke's evil clutches. Her hands shaking, cold sweat standing out all over her, Jessica could only conclude that either wicked dukes employed inferior locksmiths to brothel keepers or the authors of the Minerva Press were sadly misinformed.
After five minutes she stood up in an attempt to relieve her cramped knees. 'Open, you beastly thing,' she said, almost weeping with frustration, and fetched the lock a thump with her clenched fist. With a click it did just that.
Jessica was out into the corridor before she could think. Opposite her a shadowy figure moved. She gave a yelp of fear and realised that it was her own reflection in a full-length mirror. And she was stark naked.
Behind her the door swung to, the catch snicked closed. She could not go back, that was where they would come for her. Clothes. That was the priority. Like this she had no hope, and she was finding it very hard to think clearly. One of these rooms, surely, must contain something she could wear.
She opened the first door that she came to and peered round the edge. Inside was a big bed and on it a welter of naked flesh. Gasping, Jessica made out six legs, two pairs of buttocks, a glimpse of hairy chest
How many people? Doing what? She shut the door, flattening herself instinctively into the recess. The participants in the orgy had appeared totally preoccupied, but even so, she did not think she had the courage to sneak in and steal clothing while that was going on.
It was ridiculous to feel even more alarmed and fearful than she was alreadyhow much worse could her predicament possibly get?but that glimpse into carnal matters beyond her comprehension had shocked her out of any delusion that this was a nightmare. There, for real, was what she risked becoming if she could not escape.
Jessica drew in a deep breath and forced herself to plan. To assume the worst was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her fate was sealed if she panicked. Steadier, she surveyed the corridor in which she found herself. Opposite was the door she had just escaped through, behind her the room with the orgy in progress. On either side were two more doors and then, in both directions, the passage turned. More cautious now, she applied an ear to each door in turn and from each came the sounds of gasps and sighs, and, from one, the crack of a whip.
Which way to go? Her sense of direction had quite deserted her in the hectic few minutes when she had been bundled out of the carriage and up the stairs. Then, as she hesitated, her arms wrapped around her chilly ribs, the decision was made for her by the sound of a door opening and loud voices from out of sight to her right. Without hesitation Jessica fled around the other corner.
It might have been better, she realised in the second she thudded into a solid wall of male muscle, if she had been looking where she was going and not wildly back over her shoulder.
Her nose was buried in a shirt front, the crisp upper edge of a tailored waistcoat stuck into her chin and her shivering body was pressed against warm superfine and knitted silk. The immovable object stood quite still as the voices behind her grew louder.
Jessica tilted back her head and found she was squinting up past a chin that was already shadowed by an evening beard into amused grey eyes. One dark eyebrow rose. 'Help,' she whispered, her voice fled along with her hope. 'Please help me.'
'This is the room,' a slurred voice from behind the man announced. 'Come on, Morant, in we go.'