1817, London, England
The lush burgundy carpeting deadened all noise, bestowing an eerie silence upon the corridor. Lady Helena Harteford shivered as a draft stirred the satin water-lilies pinned to her white tunic and brushed her bare shoulders in a ghostly caress. Given the capricious clime of London in the spring, her water nymph costume had perhaps not proven the wisest choice, but the impetuous nature of her plan had allowed little in the way of preparation. Helena stifled a sudden nervous laugh. Even if she had had more time for deliberation, would she have found the appropriate attire?
What, after all, was the proper garment for hunting down one’s husband at a high-priced bawdy house?
An answer, she reflected, unlikely to be found in her well-worn copy of Lady Epplethistle’s Compleat Guide to the Comportment of Ladies.
In the distance, a grandfather clock tolled the hour, the twelve sonorous rings underscoring the urgency of her mission. Helena studied the dimly lit stretch ahead of her. Along both sides of the hallway, life-sized statues stood watch over a series of doors. Cautiously, she approached the first door and pressed her ear against the cool wood. No sound escaped. Indeed, the walls appeared thick and solid, designed to ensure the privacy of the activities conducted within. The very thought of her husband engaging in such activities bolstered her courage and hastened her footsteps along the corridor.
Earlier, from a second floor balcony, she had witnessed Nicholas’ arrival to the rowdy masquerade below. Under her feathered mask, jealousy had flamed her cheeks as she watched him dance with two of the “Nuns”—courtesans wearing rouge and not much else. The way the women had rubbed themselves against her husband, like hungry cats … Startled by the loud snap, Helena had looked down to see the sticks of her fan broken in half. She’d begun breathing again only when he had departed the dance floor (thankfully, alone) and strode up the staircase. He had to be in one of the current rooms on the second floor; she meant to search him out.
It would be easy to spot her husband, despite the black silk mask that he wore. For one, Nicholas stood a head taller than most men. With his swarthy skin and powerful build, he resembled a pirate more than a lord of the realm. His short, coal-black hair topped a face more rugged than handsome, and yet she found his bold nose and broadly-planed cheekbones utterly arresting. And there were his eyes. Orbs of ever-changing grey, they were at times dark and fathomless as a well and at others the silver of fog above water.
Even deprived of sight, Helena would have known her husband. His presence affected her in a disturbingly profound, disturbingly primal, manner. When he was near, her breath heightened, her skin quivered with almost unbearable sensitivity, and her blood pumped languid heat into unmentionable parts of her person. Just the thought of her husband stirred her secret imagination and infused her with most unladylike longing …
Helena swayed a little and grasped the protruding edge of a marble statue for balance. Perhaps she ought not to have partaken of the lemonade. It had tasted odd, unlike any lemonade she had imbibed before. Not only had it been lukewarm, but it had seemed to heat her mouth and insides as she drank it. But when the proprietress had offered the beverage, it had seemed ungracious not to accept. Besides, she had been thirsty, and there had been naught else to do while she waited for Nicholas to arrive.
Steadying herself, Helena squinted in the gloom at the statue. The stone face had a beard and … horns? Recognition dawned as she registered the lascivious expression. A satyr, she thought wonderingly, half-man, half-goat, like the drawings she had once glimpsed in a book pilfered from her father’s collection.
She looked down at the thick, long jut of stone beneath her fingers and gasped, her fingers flying free as if singed by flame.
Merciful heavens! Her cheeks pulsed hotly against the silk-lined interior of her mask. Surely ’tis not an accurate representation. Why, it could span both my hands …
She swallowed, remembering the invading hardness, the sensation of unbearable stretching between her legs on her wedding night. Was that what Nicholas had tried to … to push inside her? She had been far too afraid to look, but seeing the marble phallus now, the way it thrust resolutely forward, she released a horrified moan.
Of course it had not worked! Why, ’twas against the very laws of nature. Despite her plump curves, her frame was quite petite, with her eye level reaching in the low vicinities of her husband’s chest. It was one of the things that delighted her, feeling small and utterly feminine next to his bold, virile physique. But mayhap their difference in size contributed to a certain mismatch in other areas. Rather like trying to thread a rope through a needle.
Eyes darting side to side, she leaned forward to take a closer peek at the statue. She knew her curiosity to be most indecent yet her hand stretched forward, seemingly of its own accord. Her index finger hesitated against the base of phallus; she noted with surprise the fruit that hung beneath. The rounded sac looked just like a summer peach, juice-swollen and dangling from a thick branch. She grew bolder, continuing her exploration upward. The marble felt cool and hard beneath her fingertip. Slowly, she traced the raised veins twisting along the shaft until she arrived at the end, which flared unexpectedly into a plump mushroom. Her fingertip paused in the peculiar indentation at the tip.
“Right this way, milord,” a female voice purred. “We are not far from the room.”
At the sound, Helena snapped to her senses, snatching her hand away. Her mind blanked in panic as footsteps approached. The glow of a candle licked the walls, dissolving the spell of the satyr. All would be ruined if she was recognized. Her instincts finally took hold and propelled her down the corridor. Her hands shaking, she grasped the brass knob of the nearest door. Locked. She raced forward, trying door after door to no avail. Her breath caught in her chest as she came to the end of the hallway. The last room. Relief shot through her as she saw that the door rested slightly ajar. She slipped inside, easing the door closed behind her.
For a moment, Helena found herself enveloped in pure darkness. In the next moment, she heard a man’s rumbled words—Goodness gracious, the room was occupied. Her hand shot to the door knob. To her astonishment, the smooth brass was already turning, twisting in her hand. A lusty laugh sounded from the other side of the door. Helena gasped, dropping to the ground. With stealth born of pure fear, she scrambled backward from the widening shaft of light. Blindly, she turned onto her knees and crawled, seeking the safety of darkness. She plunged forward, feeling her way past the spindly legs of a pianoforte and the velvet back of a settee.
“Well, what have we here?”
At the drawling tones, her mind emptied to a void. She could find no words to speak. Shaking, praying that her costume disguised her, she slowly twisted her neck around. But there was no one behind her, only the outlines of furniture which resembled ghostly beasts under the faint dusting of candlelight. It took a minute for her thoughts to flow again. Whoever it was, he was not addressing her. Relief stabbed her chest.
“I found a friend, St. John. Her name is Lucy.” This was another man’s voice, the accents high-pitched and well-born. “And she’s very friendly, aren’t you, wench?”
Lucy giggled as if to prove it.
“The more the merrier, I always say,” St. John said.
Once it sank in that there were two gentlemen with the lady, Helena exhaled softly. Grossly scandalous as her current situation might be, at least she had not intruded upon a sexual assignation. Likely she had intruded upon a friendly supper, or perhaps a card game suited to three players. Lowering her cheek to the floor, Helena peered through the legs of the settee. Her face burned suddenly and not from the rough bristle of carpet beneath her cheek. Framed by men’s boots on both sides, a pair of stocking-clad legs rose from a glimmering pool of fabric. As she watched, one curvy leg kicked aside the discarded gown and wound sensuously around the boot in front of it. At the same time, the other leg nestled into the Hessians behind.
“Ooo, milords, it appears I am caught ‘twixt a rock and a hard spot,” Lucy cooed. “Why don’t we sit us down and get to know one another better?”
Helena’s eyes widened as the boots and silk-covered feet advanced in her direction. Tugging desperately at her skirts, she clambered away from the settee. Her knees chafed against the coarse carpet as she pitched to the right, searching for a place to hide. Behind her, there was the soft thud of bodies falling onto cushions, followed by guttural, animal sounds. Helena moved faster, her breath a harsh wheezing in her ear.
Surely they will hear me! Sweet heavens, what shall I do if …?
Then she saw it, a dark wall rising in front of her. She raised a trembling hand to touch it. The surface slid smooth and solid beneath her fingertips. A desk. She followed its perimeter and scurried into the cove beneath. Hugging her knees to her chest, Helena waited for the pounding in her ears to subside.
“Do you like what you see, milords?” Lucy’s throaty laughter seemed to reverberate within the wooden cave and sent an odd shiver over Helena’s skin.
“Yes, that’s it, show your wares,” the man called St. John drawled. “Lift those tits a bit higher, won’t you? Yes, that’s it, press them together, frig those nipples for us. Make them wet, love. Brookeston here prefers his fruit juicy.”
The other man—Brookeston presumably—groaned in agreement.
Then came the sound of rustling, the whispered fall of something onto the carpet. Silence followed, broken by a very low sound. Helena strained to hear as her imagination raced. Lucy’s mewling groan tore the quiet asunder. The voices of the men joined her, urging her on. As embers of tension heated the room, Helena felt the air in her lungs grow heavy and humid. She bit down upon her fist.
“Now spread that sweet little cunt of yours. Hmm, very nice. Brookeston, what do you think? Would you care to examine the merchandise?”
After a pause, Lucy moaned out a lusty, “Oh, yes”, and Brookeston made a strangled sound. “God, St. John. She’s wetter than the streets after a rain. I want to fuck her now.”
“Perhaps, my impatient friend, we might start off with an amuse bouche, so to speak.” St. John laughed softly. “There’s a love, go suck on Brookeston’s cock, the monster is fairly twitching for you.”
A charged stillness followed. Helena waited with held breath. Suddenly, a loud slurping pierced the air. Then more noises, redolent of decadent feasting, of sucking succulent meat off the bone. Even to her inexperienced ears, the animal sounds conveyed a frenzied enjoyment. The lapping of wet flesh against wet flesh pulled eager cries from Brookeston. An odd tingling spread over Helena’s skin. Feeling a wave of dizziness, she lowered her head to her knees.
“You taste delicious, milord.” Lucy’s voice purred over the words. “How enormous you are, I can hardly get my mouth around your rod …”
“Like being stuffed full of cock, do you now?” Brookeston crowed. “Like having me thrust into your naughty little mouth. Take some more of it then, take it deep!”
Lucy’s obliging gurgles, issued from a mouth clearly preoccupied, made Helena’s heart race even faster. Her face flamed as images flooded her mind. Was it possible, what she envisioned? Her mind flashed to the statue of the satyr. This time, however, a woman knelt in front of it, her lips parted in salacious anticipation … Was this what men desired? Was this why Nicolas avoided her bed, because he wanted this? For in all her wildest imaginings, she had never even conceived of such a notion …
Feverishly, she recalled the one time she had seen her husband unclothed. Over a month ago, on their wedding night. He had doused the candles, and it had been darker than a tomb. At the time, she had been grateful for the cover of darkness; it hid her altogether too plump figure and her nervousness. Trembling beneath the sheets and not knowing what else to do, she had clung to her mother’s precise instructions:
“Close your eyes, my darling, and pretend yourself elsewhere. Or better still, engaging in a pleasant activity of your choosing. I myself have always been partial to visiting the milliner. I imagine a lovely pink silk hat, embroidered with peonies and topped with an ostrich feather. Sometimes it is a rather rakish poke bonnet of green straw accented with a sprig of apple blossoms, but …”—here her mother had patted her awkwardly on the hand—”the important thing is to lie still as can be and practice forbearance with a ladylike demeanor. Remember, you are first and foremost a lady. With any luck, before your bonnet shopping is complete, you will have done your duty and the dreadful business will be over.”
So Helena had lain in her voluminous frilled night rail, still as death, eyes closed, waiting for Nicholas to do his duty. She had peeped once, enough to see that he wore a white nightshirt with laces that had become untied at his throat. She had just glimpsed a rather intriguing patch of dark, curling hair when his bleak voice made her shut her eyes again.
Be a lady, she had repeated to herself. Practice ladylike forbearance.
“I’m sorry, Helena. I will—I will be as gentle as I can.”
For a moment, she had wondered at the starkness of his voice. Then she had felt something hard, massive, pushing between her legs. With rising panic, she had realized that he meant to pierce her there, a space too small for so large … and then the pain, the sudden, intense hot edge of it that cut off her breath. She had not remembered to shop for bonnets or pick wildflowers for a bouquet. With shame, Helena remembered that she had shrieked aloud without any resemblance to ladylike comportment.
Nicholas had sprung off her, a look of horror on his face.
He had avoided her ever since.
Oh, he remained polite, exquisitely so, the brief moments they encountered one another in the breakfast parlor or at a soiree. Inevitably, he would be leaving just as she arrived. As Helena recalled their last exchange at Lady Wetherly’s ball five nights ago, a tear leaked out of one eye and trickled slowly below her mask. Her husband had bowed over her hand, his eyes impenetrable as smoked glass. He might have been a stranger and that their first introduction. He had been so different during their whirlwind courtship. Though their embraces had been few and chaste then, she could still remember the exotic male spice of his scent, the gentle brush of his lips against her hand.
What had she done to lose his affection?
“Has your mouth had enough of my cock? Perhaps you’d like to beg for it elsewhere, another wet, juicy hole waiting to be had.”
The man’s stunning words jarred Helena back to the room. Perhaps, she thought dizzily, it had been what she hadn’t done. Could her mother have been wrong? Could the conjugal act be about something other than visits to the milliner or passive acceptance of one’s wifely duty?
“Yes, yes! That’s it, milord, harder, oooh, like that, how my cunny craves to be fed …”
Surely Nicholas could not want a similar sort of behavior from me … Could he?
‘Twas almost unthinkable, but he was a man. Yesterday, in one of her secret, wistful meanderings through her husband’s rooms, she had discovered the admission ticket to the bawdy house. Protruding from an envelope, the gleam of silver had caught her eye. Though she had chastised herself for intruding upon her husband’s privacy, curiosity had nevertheless compelled her to extract the thinly pressed metal billet. The size of a playing card, the entry ticket had appeared innocuous enough at first. Embossed on the surface were the words “Get Thee to The Nunnery”.
Turning the ticket over, her jaw had dropped. The crude image depicted an unclothed woman with enormous breasts genuflecting in a mockery of prayer. A date of admission had been inscribed beneath the figure. A sudden ringing had exploded in her ears as she had realized Nicholas was planning on attending this den of inequity the very next night.
Sheltered though she was, Helena had heard whispers about the infamous club. The Nunnery was rumored to be an expensive gaming and bawdy house where the classes mingled. During the weekly masquerade, peers of the realm hob-nobbed with merchants and solicitors and whoever else possessed sufficient coin to drink, gamble, and enjoy the company of the exquisite demi-monde. Even more shocking, according to her friend Lady Marianne Draven, certain married ladies of the ton frequented the masquerade as well.
“When one is disguised, one’s true nature is unleashed,” Marianne had said, with an indifferent wave of her fan. “After all, the need for amorous diversion is not the sole province of men. What is sauce for the gander and all that.”
Helena knew she had risked all—her pride, her very reputation—to come tonight. She had thought in her love-addled mind to beg Nicholas to reconsider consorting with a whore; for her, the pain of a shattered heart would far surpass the physical pain she had experienced during their wedding consummation. She would do whatever he wanted to lift the fog from his eyes, to feel again the warmth of his affection. Fierce longing surged through her to be the kind of wife Nicholas would want. She would do anything to have him love her again. Anything.
And, she reasoned now with renewed determination, learning to please her husband in the bedchamber could not differ much from learning any other skill, could it? If she felt confident in anything, it rested in her aptitude as a pupil. She prided herself on being a student with good sense. Had not her tutors always commented on her quickness in acquiring proficiency in various subjects, from French to watercolors? Why, much to the amazement of her piano instructor it had taken her only a fortnight’s practice to competently render a tricky passage of Master Bach’s fugue in C-minor.
So, too, could she learn to be a wife.
All she required was instruction. Or, at the very least, the benefit of careful observation.
Emboldened by hope and desperation, Helena edged out of her hiding space and peered around the desk. With her eyes adjusted to the dimness, she could make out the lines of the furniture and—Heavens!—the soles of the woman’s feet waving madly above the back of the settee. The figures themselves hovered below her line of vision. How could she observe and remain hidden at the same time? As she pondered the dilemma, she noticed the heavy velvet drapes to the left of the seating area. The curtains hung from ceiling to floor, and there looked to be voluminous layers of drapery behind them. Deep enough to conceal even several persons.
Only one task remained: to reach the curtains undetected. Helena ran her palms against the loose material of her tunic and felt the rustle of her petticoats. Her stays, too, restricted her movement. They would have to go. After several minutes of struggle, she managed to release the strings that bound the layers of undergarments to her and eased out of them like a butterfly shedding its fragile skin. Hoarse cries provided the perfect cover.
‘Tis now or never.
She took a deep breath and crawled toward the curtains, her skirt barely a whisper against the carpet. With each movement forward, the distance seemed to lengthen. She expected discovery at any moment, an angry voice or a hand to halt her progress. Still, she crept onward with blind determination. By the time she slipped into the safety of the velvety folds, her palms were clammy, and her body shook with nervous excitement.
Then she bumped into a hard, warm object.
Her breath froze in her throat. As she thought to scream, a large hand clamped over her mouth while another trapped her at the waist. She was rendered immobile. Shock warred with a horrifying realization.
She was not alone.
“Be still or we risk discovery,” a familiar voice whispered in her ear.
If possible, her heart thudded even faster.
“Do you understand?” His voice was so low she could barely hear it, but she would know those deep masculine tones anywhere. The mixture of dread and relief made her giddy. Slowly, she turned her head around and looked up into orbs of fathomless darkness. Nicholas. In the silvery moonlight from the windows behind them, she could see that he had removed his mask. Shadows obscured the details of his face, but she could make out the granite set of his jaw, the tight line of his lips.
She held her breath, waiting for her husband’s reaction. What would he say to encountering his wife at such a time, in such a fashion?
“Do you understand?” he repeated as quietly as the last.
Numb with shock, she nodded.
Merciful heavens, he does not recognize me!
He released her, and belatedly she reached up to touch her cheek. She felt the feathery shell of the mask securely in place. Her fingers wandered to the profusion of brassy curls—red, she’d chosen, to disguise her own straight brown locks. Likely the paints, too, retained their concealing power. At the start of the evening she’d dipped her brush into the tiny copper pots with a liberal hand to complete the disguise. She’d felt a thrill of excitement peering into the looking glass. No one would recognize the demure Lady Helena in the brazenly red lips, smoky eyelids, and darkened lashes. No one would look at the water nymph with shamelessly red hair and scandalously low décolletage and see the Marchioness of Harteford.
Apparently not even the Marquess of Harteford himself.Return to Her Husband’s Harlot