William turned his head and looked at the man, repulsed, and making his disgust evident. The man ignored him. He seemed vaguely familiar, dark and heavy-featured, but no one William knew by name.
“Then you take her hand and make her reach back and feel you. God, the squirming—milk you like a dairymaid, she will!” The man laughed loudly, still staring across the room, and for the first time William looked to see the target of this brutish farrago. There were three women standing in a group, two in their shifts, the thin fabric molded damply to their bodies, one in an embroidered petticoat, but it was plain to see who the dragoon’s insinuations were meant for: the tallish one in the petticoat, who stood there with her fists clenched, glaring back at the dragoon fit to burn a hole through his forehead.
The madam was standing a little apart, frowning at the dragoon. Sandy had disappeared. The other men present were drinking and talking with four girls at the far end of the room; they hadn’t heard this vulgar impertinence. The dragoon’s friend was scarlet as his coat, between liquor, amusement, and embarrassment.
The dark dragoon was flushed, too, a livid line across his heavy stubbled jowls where they pressed against the leather of his stock. One hand plucked absently at the sweat-stained crotch of his moleskin breeches. He was having too much fun with his prey to cut the chase short, though.
“Mind, you don’t want one who’s used to it. You want her tight.” He leaned forward a little, elbows on his knees, eyes intent on the tall girl. “But you don’t want one who’s never had it before, either. Better if she knows what’s coming, eh?”
His friend mumbled something indistinct, glanced at the girl and hastily away. William looked back at the girl, too, and as she made a small involuntary movement—not quite a flinch—the candlelight glowed for an instant on the smooth crown of her head: soft chestnut, with the gloss of a fresh conker. Jesus Christ.
Before he knew it, he was on his feet. He took two swaying paces to the madam’s side, touched her shoulder politely, and when she turned a surprised face up to him—all her attention had been on the dragoon, a worried line between her brows—he said slowly, so as not to slur his words, “I’ll take that one, please. The—the tall girl. In the petticoat. For the night.”
The madam’s plucked eyebrows all but vanished into her cap. She looked quickly at the dragoon, who was still so fixed on his prey that he hadn’t noticed William at all. His friend had, though; he nudged the dragoon and muttered in his ear.
“Eh? What’s that?” The man was already moving, scrambling to his feet. William groped hastily in his pocket, remembering too late that he was penniless.
“What’s this, Madge?” The dragoon was with them, dividing a glower between the madam and William. William straightened instinctively—he had six inches on the man—and squared up. The dragoon assessed his size and his age and lifted the corner of his upper lip to show an eyetooth. “Arabella’s mine, sir. I’m sure Madge will find another young lady to accommodate you.”
“I am before you, sir,” William said, and bowed, inclining his head a quarter inch, keeping a close eye on the cullion. Wouldn’t put it past the filthy bugger to try to kick him in the balls—the look on his face, he wouldn’t stick at it.
“He is, Captain Harkness,” the madam said quickly, stepping between the men. “He’s already offered for the girl, and as you hadn’t made up your mind . . .” She wasn’t looking at Harkness; she jerked her chin urgently at one of the girls, who looked alarmed but swiftly vanished through a door at the back. Gone to fetch Ned, William thought automatically, and wondered dimly for an instant how he knew the doorkeeper’s name.
“Haven’t seen the color of his money yet, have you?” Harkness reached into his bosom and pulled out a well-stuffed wallet, from which he withdrew a careless sheaf of paper money. “I’ll have her.” He grinned unpleasantly at William. “For the night.”
William promptly whipped off his silver gorget, took the madam’s hand, and pressed the crescent into it.
“For the night,” he repeated politely, and without further ado turned and walked across the room, though the floor seemed to undulate slightly beneath his feet. He took Arabella—Arabella?—by the arm and steered her toward the back door. She looked appalled—plainly she recognized him—but a quick glance at Captain Harkness decided her that William was the lesser of two weevils, as he’d heard a sailor friend of his father’s put it.
He could hear Harkness’s shout behind them, but just then the door opened and a very large, tough-looking man walked in. He had but one eye, but that one focused instantly on Harkness. The man advanced on the captain, walking lightly on the balls of his feet, fists half curled. Ex-boxer, William thought, pleased. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Harkness!
Then, a hand on the stairwell wall to stop from stumbling, he found himself following a round, agitated bum up the same worn, lye-soap-smelling stairs he had trodden yesterday, wondering what the devil he’d say to her when he reached the top.
HE’D BEEN VAGUELY hoping that it wouldn’t be the same room, but it was. It was night now, though, and the windows were open. The warmth of the day lingered in the walls and floor, but there was a breeze, spicy with tree sap and the river’s breath, that made the single candle flame flicker and bend. The girl waited for him to come in, then closed the door and stood with her back against it, her hand still on the knob.
“I won’t hurt you,” he blurted. “I didn’t mean to, last time.” Her hand relaxed a bit, though she continued to look narrowly at him. It was dark where she stood, and he could barely make out the gleam of her eyes. She didn’t look friendly.
“You didn’t hurt me,” she said. “You spoilt my best petticoat, though, and a decanter of wine. Cost me a beating and a week’s wages, that.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Truly. I’ll—I’ll pay for the wine and the petticoat.” Using what? he wondered. It had belatedly occurred to him that the spare stockings in which he kept his cash had vanished with his orderly, and undoubtedly so had the cash. Well, he’d pawn something if he had to, or borrow a bit. “Can’t do much about the beating. But I am sorry.”
She made a small huffing noise through her nose but seemed to accept this. She took her hand off the doorknob and came a little way into the room, so he could see her face in the candlelight. She was very pretty, despite the look of suspicious wariness, and he felt a mild stirring.
“Well.” She looked him up and down, much as she’d done when she met him in the alley. “William, you said your name is?”
“Yes.” The silence lengthened a heartbeat past comfort, and he asked, almost at random, “Is your name really Arabella?”
That surprised her, and her mouth twitched, though she didn’t laugh.
“No. I’m a fancy piece, though, and Madge thinks the fancies should have names like—like—ladies?” She raised a brow, and he wasn’t sure whether she was questioning whether ladies had names like Arabella or what he thought of Madge’s philosophy.
“I do know a couple of Arabellas,” he offered. “One of them’s six and the other’s eighty-two.”
“Are they ladies?” She waved a hand, dismissing the question as soon as it was asked. “Of course they are. You wouldn’t know them, otherwise. Do you want me to send for wine? Or punch?” She gave him an assessing eye. “Only, if you want to do anything, I really think you’d best stay off the drink. Your choice, though.” She put a hand to the tie of her petticoat in tepid invitation but didn’t pull it loose. Clearly, she wasn’t keen to induce him to “do anything.”
He rubbed a hand over his sweating face, imagined he smelled the alcohol oozing from his pores, and wiped it on his breeches.
“I don’t want wine, no. Nor do I want to . . . to do . . . well, that’s not true,” he admitted. “I do want to—very much,” he added hurriedly, lest she think him insulting, “but I’m not going to.”
She looked at him openmouthed.
“Why not?” she said at last. “You’ve paid well over the odds for anything you want to do. Including buggery, if that’s your pleasure.” Her lip curled a little.
He flushed to the scalp.
“You think I would save you from—that, and then do it myself?”
“Yes. Often men don’t think of something until another mentions it, and then they’re all eagerness to try it themselves.”
He was outraged.
“You must have a most indifferent opinion of gentlemen, madam!”
Her mouth twitched again, and she gave him a look of such barely veiled amusement that the blood burned in his face and ears.
“Right,” he said stiffly. “I take your point.”
“Well, that’s a novelty,” she said, the twitch breaking into a malicious smile. “It’s generally the other way round.”
He breathed deeply through his nose.
“I . . . it is meant as an apology, if you like.” It was a struggle to keep meeting her eye. “For what happened last time.”
A faint breeze came in, ruffling the hair about her shoulders and filling the fabric of her shift so it billowed, which afforded him a glimpse of her nipple, like a dark rose in the candlelight. He swallowed and looked away.
“My . . . um . . . my stepfather . . . told me once that a madam of his acquaintance said to him that a night’s sleep was the best gift you could give a whore.”
“It runs in the family, does it? Frequenting brothels?” She didn’t pause for a response to that. “He’s right, though. Do you really mean that you intend for me to . . . sleep?” From her tone of incredulity, he might have asked her to engage in some perversion well past buggery.
He kept his temper with some difficulty.
“You can sing songs or stand on your head, if you prefer, madam,” he said. “I don’t propose to . . . er . . . molest you. Beyond that, your actions are quite up to you.”
She stared at him, a small frown between her brows, and he could see that she didn’t believe him.
“I . . . would go,” he said, feeling awkward again, “but I have some concern that Captain Harkness might be still on the premises, and should he learn that you are alone . . .” And he somehow couldn’t face his own dark, empty room. Not tonight.
“I imagine Ned’s disposed of him,” she said, then cleared her throat. “But don’t go. If you do, Madge will send somebody else up.” She took off her petticoat, with no display of coquetry or artifice in the motion. There was a screen in the corner; she went behind this, and he heard the splash of her using a chamber pot.
She came out, glanced at him, and with a brief wave at the screen said, “Just there. If you—”
“Uh . . . thank you.” He did in fact need to piss fairly badly, but the thought of using her pot, so soon after her own use of it, caused him an unreasonable amount of embarrassment. “I’ll be fine.” He looked round, found a chair, and sat down in it, ostentatiously thrusting out his boots and leaning back in an attitude of relaxation. He closed his eyes—mostly.
Through slitted lids, he saw her observe him closely for a moment, then she leaned over and blew out the candle. Ghostlike in the darkness, she climbed into her bed—the ropes creaked with her weight—and drew up the quilt. A faint sigh came to him over the sounds of the brothel below.
“Er . . . Arabella?” He didn’t expect thanks, exactly, but he did want something from her.
“What?” She sounded resigned, obviously expecting him to say that he’d changed his mind about buggery.
“What’s your real name?”
There was silence for a minute, as she made up her mind. There was nothing tentative about the young woman, though, and when she did reply, it was without reluctance.
“Oh. Just—the one thing more. My coat—”
“I sold it.”
“Oh. Er . . . good night, then.”
There was a prolonged moment, filled with the unspoken thoughts of two people, then a deep, exasperated sigh.
“Come and get into bed, you idiot.”
HE COULDN’T GET into bed in full uniform. He did keep his shirt on, with some idea of preserving her modesty and his original intent. He lay quite rigid beside her, trying to envision himself as the tomb figure of a Crusader: a marble monument to noble behavior, sworn to a chastity enforced by his stone embodiment.
Unfortunately, it was a rather small bed and William was rather large. And Arabella–Jane wasn’t trying at all to avoid touching him. Granted, she wasn’t trying to arouse him, either, but her mere presence did that without half trying.
He was intensely aware of every inch of his body and which of them were in contact with hers. He could smell her hair, a faint scent of soap mingled with the sweetness of tobacco smoke. Her breath was sweet, too, with the smell of burnt rum, and he wanted to taste it in her mouth, share the lingering stickiness. He closed his eyes and swallowed.
Only the fact that he needed desperately to pee made it possible to keep his hands off her. He was in that state of drunkenness where he could perceive a problem but could not analyze a solution to it, and sheer inability to think of two things at once prevented him either speaking to her or laying a hand on hers.
“What’s the matter?” she whispered hoarsely. “You’re wiggling like you’ve got tadpoles in your drawers—only you haven’t any drawers on, have you?” She giggled, and her breath tickled his ear. He groaned softly.
“Here, now—” Her voice took on a tone of alarm, and she sat up in bed, twisting round to look at him. “You’re not going to be sick in my bed! Get up! Get up right this minute!” She pushed at him with small, urgent hands, and he stumbled out of bed, swaying and clutching at furniture to keep from falling.