The Peninsular Wars may have ended more than a year ago, but they’re not over for Colonel Jack Prescott. Cursed with perfect recall, Jack can remember the names and see the faces of every man he sent into battle, hear their dying howls of agony, and taste the bitter flavor of their fear. Awake or asleep, he can’t escape the twisted, violent images or his remote for having knowingly condemned foo many soldiers to certain death. That is, until he chances upon perhaps the one woman who can accept him without judgment or condemnation.
‘Tis pity she’s a whore.
Note: This novella was originally published by Kensington Books in 2009 in the anthology titled Behind the Red Door.
London, England—July, 1816
“Are you prepared to make a choice for the evening, sir?”
Calliope detected a hint of diffidence beneath the impatience in the madam’s tone and wondered at it, but couldn’t tear her gaze from the gentleman to whom Mrs. Upshaw’s words were directed. A new client, he was making his fourth circuit of The Red Door’s voluptuously appointed sitting room—prowling, really—examining each of the available ladies with a level of scrutiny that bordered on obsessive. As if he were assessing their prospects not as bedmates for the night, but as partners for a lifetime.
The thought made her shiver, though whether with fear or anticipation, she wasn’t sure.
Certainly, it wasn’t his rugged good looks or fine manners or expensive attire that affected her. Years of working in London’s most exclusive brothel had rendered Calliope proof against the charms of the handsome, cultivated, wealthy gentlemen who frequented the place. She might be a better class of whore than those who walked the streets or plied their trade in the squalid cribs around the docks, but she was a whore nonetheless. And whores knew better than to allow themselves to imagine a future of any kind.
Of course, they weren’t all handsome and cultivated, she reminded herself, a tiny smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. The only requirement for bringing one’s custom to The Red Door was ready cash, and plenty of it. A few hours with Mrs. Upshaw’s girls came dear, but customers came anyway and didn’t complain. Calliope’s smile grew a little wider and stronger at the double entendre.
At just that moment, the gentleman stopped in front of her divan. Their eyes met, and the smile died on her lips. Irises the color of thunderclouds ringed bottomless black pupils, and within their depths, a storm raged. Hot. Hungry. Haunted.
Her heart and stomach constricted as those eyes pinned her, trapped her in their steely embrace. Yet she didn’t flinch, didn’t blink. He challenged her to look away, to show distaste or fear, but Calliope was too proud—and too foolhardy—for that.
After several long, tense moments, he broke the connection and flicked his gaze to Mrs. Upshaw.
“This one,” he said, nodding toward Calliope. His voice was a contradictory mixture of gravel and satin—the tone rough, the accent refined. “For a week.”
Calliope let out the breath she hadn’t been aware of holding in a surprised rush. A week?
“A week?” Mrs. Upshaw’s scandalized words echoed Calliope’s thoughts. “I’m sorry, sir, but such an arrangement is out of the question. I simply cannot dedicate one of my…”
The madam trailed off, for as she spoke, the gentleman removed the bulging coin purse from his waist and crossed to where she stood near the sitting room’s entry. When he reached her, he upended the pouch’s contents alongside the book that rested, open and facedown, upon her divan.
“A week. Day and night. Take it or leave it.”
Mrs. Upshaw’s tongue darted out to lick her bright red lips, a combination of excitement and avarice sparkling in her shrewd eyes at the bounty laid out before her. Though Calliope could not count them from her vantage, there must be at least fifty coins there, all of them gold guineas. As much as the house as a whole earned in a week.
Her heart pounded furiously against her ribs. A week. Day and night. Why? Men frequented places like The Red Door for variety, not constancy. Even her “regular” customers sampled the wares of the other girls.
Uneasy awareness prickled the back of her neck, made her palms damp. She recalled the madam’s slight hesitation when speaking to him, the turbulent sea of emotion that swirled in his eyes. He might be a gentleman in the technical sense of the word, but he exuded a raw, barely leashed energy unlike anything she’d ever encountered. Curiosity leapt inside her like a cat pouncing on a ball of string, the need to unravel the mystery as involuntary as breathing.
Mrs. Upshaw looked from the pile of coins to Calliope, her slightly raised eyebrows communicating the question. Yes or no? The madam never forced her girls to accept a client, and she wouldn’t now, even with a moderate fortune riding on the decision.
As if there could be any real doubt…
Calliope raised her chin a notch, and Mrs. Upshaw smiled. “As you wish, sir.” She bent down and scooped the coins into a tighter pile. “Calliope will show you upstairs.”
Calliope rose from her divan in the languorous, elegant fashion she’d been taught in emulation of a fine lady’s manners. Catching the gentleman’s turbulent gaze, she tilted her head toward the doorway that led to the stairwell and her room. His nostrils flared and his eyes widened at the sight of her, for once she stood, the true transparency of her gown was readily apparent, and he could now make out the lines and curves of the body he had purchased with expert precision. And he liked what he saw.
The familiar thrill of pursuit thrummed to life in her belly, and her tongue darted out to moisten her drying lips. She reveled in the moment when a man revealed, through the smallest of spontaneous reactions, the power she wielded by simple virtue of being female.
And this was a man worth having power over.
She allowed her hips to sway a trifle more than usual as he followed her, aware that her friends watched her with a mixture of envy and relief. For though they would have liked to be the ones to earn a cut of that bounty, none of them wanted to commit to a week with a stranger who might or might not have “proclivities.”
But the former Callie James—born in the Seven Dials and raised on the streets of London—could handle anything. Unlike her companions, she hadn’t fallen from higher circumstances into this life. Instead, this life had raised her up, made her more than the daughter of a ragpicker and a scullery maid could ever dream.
The sounds of coitus were easily distinguishable when they entered the narrow hallway.
“Is it always like this?” From the way he grumbled the question, she assumed he meant the noise level, though it wasn’t something a customer had ever complained oft before. If anything, they seemed to like it, the guttural cries and deep moans whetting their appetites for their own impending satisfaction.
She drew up in front of her room. “In the hallway, yes. Inside the rooms, no.”
“Good.” With that gruff, monosyllabic answer, he reached for the knob and opened the door. “After you.”
Once they were both inside, he shoved the door shut behind him with a loud thud. Calliope turned to face him, preparing to ask what he would like her to do first. Most men chose to be sucked, although a few skipped rights to the main event. She preferred the ones who enjoyed a bit more preamble, as she found the fucking considerably more pleasurable when she’d had a chance to work up to it, and sucking cock excited her.
She thought sucking thisman’s cock would excite her even more than usual.
“Strip and get in bed,” he ordered, his voice flat as he opened the buttons of his dark blue coat.
She suppressed a sigh of disappointment. So he was one of those who went straight for the crotch. A pity, that.
The filmy white gown came undone by two simple fasteners at her shoulders and slid to the floor around her feet. Nude, she stepped out of the frothy white circle and crossed to the bed. She sat on the edge and watched in silence as he undressed.
The removal of his coat revealed the outline of well-defined biceps, a trim waist, and an undeniable bulge beneath the fall of his buff-colored breeches. Already, she approved.
He unwrapped his snowy cravat and draped it over her armchair, then unbuttoned and took off his waistcoat, a tastefully brocaded dark blue silk that matched to perfection the hue, if not the fabric, of his wool coat. Next, the shirt came off over his head, and Calliope couldn’t hold back a sharp intake of breath.
A long, deeply puckered scar ran diagonally across his finely muscled torso, from a spot a few inches above his navel to just below his left nipple. Her chest grew tight in sympathy for the pain that wound must have caused when it was fresh. This man, now so physically hale and hearty, had once been very close to death.
For some perverse reason, the thought brought the sting of tears to the corner of her eyes.
How absurd! She blinked rapidly to banish the sensation. Whores didn’t grow sentimental over their clients. Especially ones they hadn’t even fucked yet.
If he heard her gasp, he didn’t acknowledge it. Instead, he sat on the chair and pulled off his boots. When he was done, he stood and, still wearing his breeches and stockings, crossed to the mantle where a large lamp provided most of the light for the room. He blew out the flame, leaving only the small fire burning in the hearth to provide illumination.
“Lie down.” He stalked back to the bed, his muscular frame seeming even more impressive as he towered above her in the flickering glow.
Irritation flashed through her. Do this, do that!Never had she been so ordered about in her life, not even as a scullery maid. Most men were more polite that this, even with prostitutes.
“You’re still wearing your breeches,” she objected. Of course, he didn’t have to take them off to fuck her, but usually…
This was all so odd, so unaccountable.
He raked a hand through his hair. It was the color, she thought, of beach sand. Or what she imagined beach sand would look like, for of course she had never been to the shore.
“Let me worry about that. Just lie down.” He didn’t sound angry. He seemed more resigned than anything.
What harm could it do? She swung her legs up off the floor and reclined onto the pillows.
“Under the blankets. And scoot over.”
When she had done so, he climbed in beside her, leaned back, and closed his eyes.
As the seconds ticked by, Calliope’s bewilderment grew. He made no move to touch her. He did not ask her to touch him. In fact, he did nothing at all but recline there, his rough-hewn features softening slightly with each passing moment.
Finally, she could bear the suspense no longer. “What now?” she demanded.
He cracked an eyelid and rolled a dark gray eyeball at her. “Now, we go to sleep.”
Sleep?In the name of bloody Christ on a biscuit, he hadtobe joking. Surely no man, not even a wealthy one, would pay fifty guineas to actually sleepwith a woman.
But he certainly didn’t seem to be in jest. His eyes closed again, and he shifted his upper body against the pillow as if to get more comfortable. Before long, his breathing evened out, and the tension leached out of his face.
Calliope stared at the ceiling, dumbfounded. Just what sort of madman had she tied herself to for the next seven days?