Authors: Laura Landon
He turned to face his family. “What happened to make her leave now? She intended to stay until the two weeks were over. Why did she leave so suddenly?”
Caroline and the Duchess of Raeborn looked at each other, then focused their gaze to where he stood.
“She discovered you are a vicar,” Caroline answered.
For one second, Rafe’s heart stopped and he reached out to keep from sinking to the floor.
“It’s not your fault, Rafe,” Caroline said in a voice that sounded very far away. “The two of you would never…”
Rafe didn’t hear the rest of what Caroline said. Without a look back, he grabbed a full bottle of whiskey and went where he could be alone—and get drunk.
annah made her way to her private suite of rooms on the third floor of Madam Genevieve’s and turned the key. She stepped into the room, then pressed her back against the closed door and looked around. This was her
. This was where she felt the most comfortable. Not the floor below, where she’d learned to be another person.
Here there were no lavish bouquets of flowers from ardent admirers. There were no gifts from men seeking her favors. No perfume-scented letters overflowing with undying devotion. Here she was alone with her thoughts and the comforts of her humble upbringing.
She walked to the table where Dalia, her friend and silent business partner, had a pot of piping-hot tea waiting for her, and poured the steaming liquid into a cup. With the cup in her hand, she walked to her burgundy brocade wing chair and sat.
The colors of the fabric weren’t as rich as they’d been years ago when the chair was new, and the upholstery was worn in spots, but she didn’t mind. It would be several years before she’d have to think of replacing it. And perhaps she never would. Perhaps she would keep it as a reminder. The chair had been the first purchase she’d made with money
she’d earned giving her body to men who wanted her favors. Money she’d earned by sacrificing her self-respect. Money she’d earned because she’d given up the life she’d always dreamed of having.
She took a sip of her tea before it cooled, then leaned her head back. She closed her eyes, even though she knew the minute she did her thoughts would shift to him. They always did. He’d taken possession of such a huge part of her heart that it was impossible not to acknowledge him.
She wondered what he was doing now.
It had been nearly a month since she’d left. The house party would have ended weeks ago, and he’d no doubt gone back to the dowager house where he lived. Or perhaps returned to the parish he’d left. Or gone to a new one. He’d undoubtedly gone back to the life he’d lived before they met in an effort to wash the filth he thought clung to him through his association with a prostitute.
She wondered if any of the females Caroline invited during the remainder of the party had piqued his interest. She hoped one of the females he met while he was there captivated him. He deserved to be married. He deserved a house filled with children. He would be too perfect a father not to have a family of his own. His capacity to love was too great not to have a wife and children on whom to shower his affection.
She took another sip of her tea and chastised herself for letting her thoughts return to him so often. She wondered if he’d given her a thought since she’d left, and hoped that if he had, his opinion of her wasn’t too unforgiving.
She smiled. She knew he hadn’t thought of her as often as she’d thought of him because that would have been
impossible. She’d thought of him constantly—at least once an hour every hour of every day.
She wondered if he relived the kisses they’d shared as often as she did. Or if he recalled the conversations they’d had and the details they’d learned about each other as often as she did.
She breathed a sigh. Probably not. He undoubtedly forgot about her as soon as he realized her identity—her profession. His display of passion was something he undoubtedly wanted to erase from his memory. She was, after all, used goods.
She tightened her fingers around the arm of the brocade chair and called herself every kind of fool imaginable. She’d never allowed any man to lay claim to as much of her heart as he managed to possess. And he was the last man she wanted anything to do with. He was a vicar. A man of the cloth. The last man on the face of the earth with whom she would ordinarily associate.
She wanted to hate him as she did every other pompous, overly righteous man spouting scripture and condemning her for the life she led. But she couldn’t. She’d come to care for him too much.
It was the others she despised. The ones who thought she should have chosen death rather than turning to the only occupation left to her in order to survive.
They didn’t know what it had been like to be so hungry you lost consciousness. They couldn’t imagine what it was like to stare death in the face and have to make a choice between dying or using your body to buy a loaf of bread. They didn’t know how helpless and terrifying it was for a young girl alone on the streets of London. Nor did they
care. They saw only the choice she’d made, and judged her guilty for eternity.
Except she couldn’t put Rafe in the same category as the rest of the
men of God
who stood outside the doors of Madam Genevieve’s on a regular basis, calling down fire and brimstone on anyone entering or leaving her establishment. She could never hate him. She could hate only that he consumed her thoughts and her dreams like he did, and prayed he wouldn’t intrude much longer.
She didn’t want to relive every moment they were together. But the memories he’d given her were the best remembrances she’d had in her life. Her heart would be left with an empty chamber if she let them go.
A knock on the door pulled her thoughts away from the sparkle in Rafe’s eyes and the broad smile on his handsome face. With a sigh, she pushed thoughts of him to the special place in her heart where she kept him.
“Come in,” she said, setting down her tepid cup of tea.
The door opened, and Dalia entered.
“I thought I’d find you here,” her friend said, closing the door behind her. “You’ve spent a lot of time here since you returned from the country.”
Dalia sat in a chair facing Hannah. “Anything you want to share?”
Hannah smiled, then shook her head. “Someday, maybe. Not yet.”
“Very well. But you know I’m here when you want to talk.”
“Yes, I know. You always have been. I don’t know what I would have done without you over the years.”
Dalia laughed. “You’d have managed. You’re a survivor. You would have found someone else who thought the same as you and had the same goals.”
Hannah looked into Dalia’s dark eyes and smiled. Dalia returned her smile. The two of them were friends, as close as Hannah was to Grace and Caroline. Although Dalia was a few years Hannah’s senior, the prostitute still possessed her striking beauty. Hannah often told her she didn’t appear any older than the day she’d rescued Hannah from the street and brought her to Madam Genevieve’s.
Dalia claimed the reason she didn’t age was because she was part French, part Italian, part Greek, and part Gypsy. She believed the Gypsy in her refused to age, and none of the other parts were strong enough to fight the Gypsy.
Even though she was well past thirty, she had the figure of a woman ten years younger. Which was why Dalia was still one of the most asked-for courtesans at Madam Genevieve’s. A request she often agreed to. Something Hannah hadn’t done since she’d saved enough money to buy Madam Genevieve’s.
She set down her cup and saucer. “What have you discovered?”
“It’s not good, Hannah. Skinner, Flanks, and Crusher have joined forces.”
“Well,” Hannah said, leaning back into her chair. “That’s an unlikely partnership. They must consider me an exceptionally dangerous adversary.”
“Rumor has it they intend to destroy you. They’re tired of losing their girls to you. Alone, they haven’t been able to defeat you.”
“But they stand a chance if they unite,” Hannah finished for her.
“That’s the word on the street.”
Hannah rose to her feet. She was too angry to remain sitting. “Don’t they know if they’d recruit their women from the prostitutes already in the business, I wouldn’t be a threat to them? I’m only after the innocent girls they press into service. We both know once a girl enters into the business of her own free will, it’s almost impossible to get her out. I only want to save the innocent ones who turn to prostitution rather than starve to death on the streets. Or are forced into it by men like Skinner and the others and can’t escape.”
“They know it, but we both know there’s more money in selling virgins.”
Hannah turned to look out the window. Below were the streets of London. This area wasn’t near Saint Giles or close to the slum area on the East End, but neither was it in the middle of Bond Street. She didn’t know why Skinner and the others took such an interest in her when she was so far from them. “We must have affected their profits lately more than I realized. How many girls have we rescued from their clutches?”
“Six in the last two weeks,” Dalia answered.
Hannah turned to look over her shoulder. “That many?”
“Yes. And Delores is out right now because she heard rumors that there’s another girl on the streets who needs our help.”
“She didn’t go alone, did she?”
“No. Humphrey went with her.”
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief. “Bring them up when they return.”
“I think we need to warn the other girls to be careful until this blows over,” Dalia said. “Flanks and Crusher aren’t brave enough to do anything that might draw attention to them, but Skinner’s another story. He’s a mean one.”
“Talk to everyone, Dalia. Tell them never to go out alone—always in pairs or even three. And to take one of the men with them.”
Dalia stood, but paused when there was a knock on the door. “I’ll get it,” she said and opened the door. “Hello, Martha,” she greeted one of the girls.
“Hello, Miss Dalia. I came to tell Miss Genevieve that Mr. Skinner is below. He’s demanding to see her.”
“He is, is he?” Dalia said.
The tone of Dalia’s voice indicated she intended to tell Martha to send him packing, but Hannah knew it was better to find out what he wanted—although she already knew what that probably was. “Show Mr. Skinner to the Lilac Room, Martha,” Hannah said. “Tell him I’ll be down momentarily.”
“Are you sure, Miss Genevieve?” Martha said with a worried frown on her face.
“Yes. I think it will be best to let Skinner have his say. Maybe I can prevent some of the trouble he intends to cause.”
“If you say so,” Martha said, then turned and left.
Dalia faced her. “Do you want me to come with you? I’m not sure it’s wise to meet with him alone.”
“No, I think he’ll reveal more if I’m alone. I don’t want him to think we’re ganging up on him.”
Dalia smiled. “But we are. We have been ever since we started rescuing girls from his grasp.” An admiring look
filled Dalia’s eyes. “Can you believe that was almost twelve years ago? How many girls do you think we’ve saved from the life of hell he’d forced them to live?”
Hannah shook her head. “Hundreds, Dalia. And nearly that many babes.”
“Yes,” Dalia said on a sigh. “The babes.” Her eyes grew damp. “That’s what I’m happiest about, Hannah. The babes we’ve saved. They’d have died if we would not have rescued them and found homes for them.”
“Yes. Now it’s time for me to meet our enemy and see what threats he intends to make.”
“Just be careful,” Dalia said before she left the room.
“I will,” Hannah answered, but this was one meeting she wasn’t looking forward to. She followed Dalia down the hall, but took another set of stairs that led to the main part of the bordello. The part where Skinner was waiting for her.
She didn’t knock when she reached the door but opened it and stepped inside the room. The man standing on the opposite side turned to face her.
If Hannah hadn’t seen Skinner before, the long scar that ran down the side of his face would have frightened her. As it was, the evil glare in his eyes alarmed her. He was a man to be reckoned with—to be feared.
“What an unexpected pleasure, Mr. Skinner,” she said, entering the room. “Shall I ring for tea?”
“I doubt my presence is a pleasure, Madam Genevieve, and tea isn’t necessary. I won’t be staying that long.”
“As you wish.” She sat on the lilac settee and pointed to the chair opposite her. “Won’t you have a seat?”
He hesitated, then walked to the chair she’d indicated and sat.
“Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Skinner?”
“It’s not what you can do for me, but what I can do for you.”
“And what would that be?”
“If you stay out of my business, I might allow you to live a little longer.”
“My goodness,” she said, putting up a front of bravado, “you are very blunt.”
“I’ve found that’s the best way to be. It gets everything out in the open where there aren’t any misunderstandings.”
“And what exactly do you mean by ‘staying out of your business’?”