June 22, 1817, London
“This is a brothel?” said Christopher Courtland, Earl of Vanewright, awed by the opulent interior of the Golden Pearl.
“Well, it isn’t the theater. You, Frost, and Dare saw to it that we are not welcome until the damages have been settled,” Simon Wyndham Jefferes, Marquess of Sainthill—known as Saint—replied drily. In truth, he was silently impressed with the brothel as well. One did not readily apply the words tasteful and resplendent to a nanny-house.
The establishment had been open for three days, and details about the exclusive palace of sin and its mysterious proprietress were being discussed in clubs, gaming hells, and card rooms. Every male in London was demanding admittance. Rumor had it, His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales, had been granted a private tour before the Golden Pearl’s massive oak doors had been officially opened, and had pronounced the experience worthy of his royal patronage. It mattered little if the tale was true. Once a few well-known gentlemen had been turned away, everyone wanted to walk through those front doors.
“Reminds me of a miniature palace,” said Gabriel Housely, Earl of Rainecourt, his gaze shifting from the marble statues lining the front hall to the flesh-and-blood goddesses who were flirting with the guests while liveried footmen circulated through the rooms with silver trays laden with glasses of champagne and porter.
“Did Sin and Frost buy our admittance?” Lord Hugh, who preferred to be called Dare, wondered aloud.
All of them had acquired nicknames in their youth, both individually and collectively. Most were shortened versions of their surnames. Other names, such as Frost’s, Reign’s, and Sin’s, were more a reflection of their true natures. The seven of them—Sin, Reign, Dare, Vane, Hunter, Frost, and himself—had been friends since they were boys, and they had honed their somewhat notorious reputations together. At some point, someone had dubbed them the Lords of Vice, and the sobriquet had stuck. In truth, they took pride in what had been delivered as an insult, and felt it was their duty to disrupt the tranquility of the wealthy and privileged world they’d had the good fortune to be born into.
“Does it matter?” Saint countered. “Knowing Sin, all that was required was for him to charm his way through the front doors.”
Hunter laughed, drawing everyone’s attention. At the imposing height of six feet, two inches, the handsome amber-eyed duke had already been approached by several women. “It took more than charm. I’d wager, our reputation has reached the proprietress’s ears. Entertaining the Lords of Vice will only enhance the Golden Pearl’s notoriety.”
“As long as we don’t have to thank Frost for this evening’s diversion, I don’t care about the details of our good fortune,” Saint said, waving away the footman with a tray of champagne. His throat was dry, but he craved something stronger than sparkling wine.
Vane placed a companionable arm around him. The youngest of their group—though if one felt like quibbling, he was seventeen days older than Hunter—the twenty-two-year-old had not outgrown his youthful exuberance and annoying propensity to whine. “Agreed. We’ll never hear the end of it, and I’d prefer to spend my evening with that pretty blonde near the staircase rather than listen to Frost gloating about his cleverness.”
“Present him with the blonde you’ve been eyeing,” Saint suggested, earning a few concurring murmurs from Hunter and Reign. “He’ll put his clever tongue to other uses.” With the intention of finding some brandy, he walked away from his friends.
Behind him, the conversation continued.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Frost and Sin have picked the best of the stable,” grumbled Vane.
“Neither one of them is selfish,” Reign said soothingly, leaving Saint to casually wonder if there was anything that could shake the earl’s calm demeanor.
“Christ, that’s the truth! I recall one evening when...”
Dare’s voice faded away as Saint ascended the grand staircase. It was as magnificent as the plaster-work, marble statues, and tapestries that surrounded him. Overhead, the central relief of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise was a reminder that innocence had no place at the Golden Pearl. He nodded to several gentlemen while he slowed to admire the statues and paintings. No expense had been spared, and he silently congratulated the proprietress’s astuteness to create a place that would appeal to the haughtiest aristocrat. The brothel could have passed for a nobleman’s town house, and even he had to admit that he felt quite comfortable as he explored the establishment.
Once he reached the second landing, he noticed to the left that two extraordinarily large footmen stood on either side of what he assumed was a large gallery or ballroom. One of the footmen glanced in his direction, and then immediately dismissed him. These men were too large for their position. From their looks, Saint surmised they were pugilists hired to ensure that all troublesome guests were handled in a discreet and ruthlessly efficient manner. Over the years, he and the other members of the Lords of Vice had honed their fighting skills, but Saint had not joined his friends this evening to dally with a couple of ugly brutes. First, he wanted his brandy. Once he sampled the Golden Pearl’s fine spirits, he would decide which of the numerous lovely females strolling about would give him a private tour upstairs.
It was then that he saw her.
The proprietress of the Golden Pearl. There were half a dozen rumors circulating about the mysterious woman, but everyone agreed that she was something of an original, who wore dresses and jewels that would gain the envy of most duchesses. However, it was the dark blue half-mask that confirmed her identity. It was said that the woman favored concealing the upper portion of her face with some sort of mask, and gentlemen were already placing wagers in the betting books on who would coax her to remove it.
Suddenly Saint wanted to be that lucky gent.
The woman was fashioned for sin. At five feet, six inches, she wore a white muslin dress with tiny bouquets embroidered into the fabric. The skirt was so sheer that at certain angles, he could see enticing glimpses of the dark blue bows that secured her stockings. Her breasts were high and firm, and a diamond-and-gold brooch was pinned between them to draw a gentleman’s eye. She had a dark blue cashmere shawl draped over one of her shoulders to add color to her costume rather than modesty. Long white kid gloves sheathed her arms. As for her hair, golden blond tresses formed enchanting ringlets around her face. The back was braided and entwined with gold ribbons and pearls.
Noting his steady regard, the proprietress excused herself from her group of admirers and headed toward him. With her head held high, and a hint of a smile teasing her lips, the woman who had ensnared his attention was no shy wallflower who would wait patiently for him to approach her.
She came to him and inclined her head as she curtsied.
Her manners were as refined as the silk she wore. “Good evening, monsieur,” she said in a distinctly accented voice that settled in his belly like warmed brandy.
The woman was not French; nor did she speak with an accent he had come to expect from an English noblewoman. From her lips, her voice was exotic and seductive. He held himself still, waiting for her to speak again.
She did not disappoint him. “I am Madame Venna. I saw you admiring my Golden Pearl. You are pleased with my humble efforts, oui?”
Saint could not recall a time when a female had tangled his tongue and thoughts so thoroughly. Even with the half-mask concealing the upper portion of her face, her beauty was evident. Pale flawless skin was smoothed over delicate bones that might have marked her as a noblewoman if not for her profession. Her lips were full and the hint of scarlet was designed to draw a man’s eye to her mouth, which was quirked in amusement since he had not replied to her question.
He bowed. “Forgive me. I was being rude. I am Simon Jefferes, Marquess of Sainthill. And yes, I am very pleased with what the Golden Pearl has to offer.”
Madame Venna smiled, her eyes sparkling with delight. “Merci. You are too kind.”
She glanced over his shoulder and raised her gloved hand. Before Saint could turn, one of the footmen was at his side with a glass of brandy.
This was a woman who could anticipate his desires before he uttered them. A man could fall in love with such a beautiful and insightful creature.
“How did you know?”
“It is my business to anticipate my patrons’ needs,” she said simply. “What ever you require, the Golden Pearl will attempt to grant it.”
Saint stepped closer. “And if my fondest desire is you?” he asked, feeling emboldened by her frank perusal.
A gent sensed when he had captured a woman’s interest, and he suspected that the woman before him rarely denied her own carnal appetites.
Madame Venna’s smile dimmed. “I must regretfully decline. The Golden Pearl places many demands on me. It would be foolish of me to place my needs above those of my patrons, no?”
“What if I was willing to generously compensate you?”
She sighed and shook her head. “You tempt me, monsieur le marquis. Still, I must decline. Now if you will excuse me, there are other tasks that need my attention.” She curtsied. “With your permission, I will send several of my best girls to amuse you.”
Without thinking, Saint caught Madame Venna by the elbow to prevent her from dismissing him.
Immediately he felt the narrowed gazes of the two burly footmen who were probably striding toward them with the intention of breaking his fingers for touching their mistress. He abruptly released her and stepped back. Over the years, the Lords of Vice had been tossed out of several respectable establishments for brawling. It would be a pity if they had to add a brothel, albeit a fancy one, to the list.
He bowed his head. “The brandy will suffice, Madame Venna. I can find my own amusements.”
“Of this, I have little doubt.” She hesitated and offered him an endearingly coy smile. “Enjoy your evening, Marquis de Sainthill.”
Saint watched as Madame Venna approached her guards and assured them that all was well. One of fake footmen glared at him, but he returned to his post with his companion.
The heavy clap of a palm against his upper back managed to startle him out of his stupor. His mouth flattened into a grim line as he turned to confront his unwelcome companion.
It was Sin.
The gent’s cravat appeared to be hastily tied, and his black hair was slightly disheveled. “Where the devil have you been? Frost procured several of the private rooms and managed to invite half of the brothel’s occupants. It’s quite a crush. Are you joining us or did you happen to settle on a wench?”
Saint glanced about the ballroom and saw no sign of the mysterious proprietress of the Golden Pearl. Oh, he had found the woman he wanted, and whether or not she was willing to admit it, the attraction was mutual. He was confident that in time he would coax her into his bed, but this evening he accepted his defeat.
Not one to sulk, he said, “Half the brothel, you say?”
Sin tipped back his head and laughed. The young marquess’s eyes were full of mirth and mischief. “And most of them female. It will be an evening you shall not forget.”
“Of this, I have no doubt,” Saint replied, deliberately echoing Madame Venna’s words. Whatever was between him and the proprietress, it was only the beginning.
From one of the balconies, Madame Venna observed Lord Sainthill and his friend’s departure. Her interest in the marquess did not go unnoticed by her companion.
Anna Walters leaned forward, giving anyone who was glancing heavenward a revealing glimpse of her breasts. “Very handsome. Perhaps I should join their private celebration and introduce myself. Either one would suit me. Or both, if they prefer.”
Madame Venna’s stomach clenched at the thought of her friend offering herself to the marquess. It took her a second to adequately describe what she was feeling.
Had she gone mad? Anna was one of her closest friends. No man had ever come between them, and she refused to start with the marquess. After all, she had barely spoken to the man. Appalled at her reaction, she acknowledged her friend’s comment with a monosyllable, “Hmm.”
“Abram tells me they are connected to a club called Nox. The fancy even have a name for these men. They are the Lords of Vice.”
Madame Venna shrugged, pretending the information meant little to her, even though she longed to hear more details about Sainthill and his friends. Since it was possible that someone might overhear their conversation, it would be reckless to drop her guard. “With such a sobriquet, they will be regular patrons of the Golden Pearl, no?” she said, her mind already considering the possibilities of forming some kind of business arrangement with the gentleman. Perhaps Nox had use of her girls, just as she had use of the Lords of Vice’s abundant wealth.
“What are you planning to do about Lord Sainthill?”
So Anna knew the marquess’s name. The half-mask she was wearing managed to conceal her surprise. “Why, nothing at all,” she said coolly.
Anna shook her head in disappointment. Madame Venna should have known her friend would see through such an obvious lie. “I saw how Sainthill was staring at you. If he could have gotten you alone, he would have done more than touched you on the arm. The man looked as if he wanted to devour you.” She grinned. “And for once, you wouldn’t have had to pretend to enjoy it.”
“You exaggerate,” Madame Venna said, her accent thickening as her throat tightened at the thought of the marquess pushing her into the nearest alcove and thoroughly ravishing her.
The brief moment his hand had gripped her arm, she’d felt the heat and strength emanating from him. It shamed her to admit that if they had been alone, she would have encouraged him to caress other parts of her body.
“And I saw how you were looking at him, Catherine,” Anna said quietly.
Madame Venna bowed her head and closed her eyes. “It makes little difference. To indulge in an affair with Lord Sainthill or any patron invites scrutiny, and I have invested too much into the Golden Pearl to toss it away to satisfy my—curiosity.” Her lips softened at her friend’s concerned expression. “Do not fret, Anna. Men like the marquess are only thinking of their next conquest. Make certain our girls keep him and his friends distracted. Sainthill will seek his amusements elsewhere.”
Even as she uttered the assurance, Madame Venna knew that she was lying to her friend.
Her instincts were warning her that Lord Sainthill was definitely going to be a problem.
Copyright © 2012 by Alexandra Hawkins