Art thou pale for weariness
Of climbing heaven and gazing on the earth,
Among the stars that have a different birth…
London, April 1, 1883
Lord above, was there a better sight than a woman flush with passion, her skin dewy and pink, her br**sts bouncing from the force of his thrusts? The woman beneath Ian moaned and arched up to meet him, her red-gold hair catching the afternoon light as it spilled over white linen. What could be better than tupping a woman? A paid woman. Did she truly want to be here? Want him? He frowned as his concentration slipped a notch, and with it, the thick knot of pleasure in his balls eased.
Bugger. Stay on point, lad! His locked arms wobbled once. Once. Enough to put him off rhythm. Enough that the smell of penny perfume and stale sheets drifted up to him. Then came the foul scent of oft-used woman and boredom. His pleasure ebbed like seawater off sand. Shit!
The whore stilled, her fine red brows pinching in confusion.
Head in it! Head in it! Alas, neither head was listening. More like retreating. Horror washed cold and sure over his skin as little Ian died a quick, limp death.
“My lord?” The whore was lifting her head now, her green eyes bewildered. So close to the original, she looked. But not enough. It wasn’t enough anymore. “Something amiss?”
For a moment, Ian couldn’t answer. Really, what did one say? He’d didn’t have the experience to know. Her confusion faded, replaced by something worse: gentle pity.
“Aw, now, love. ’Tis all right.” She patted his arm as he remained frozen in shock, save his cock. The lazy bastard slid out of her, shrinking back like a frightened turtle. She had the good grace not to visibly take note, but held his gaze. “Happens to everyone.”
Not to me! He wrenched away and rolled onto his back to face the gilded ceiling. Perhaps the mattress would open up and swallow him whole. “I’ve been tired, ah…?” Did she have a name? Had he asked? His skin grew clammy, crawling along his frame. Ian wanted nothing more than to close his eyes and sleep for a few decades. Oblivion was getting harder to find.
The woman leaned on one elbow to regard him. In the cool light, the lines around her eyes and mouth deepened, betraying a hard life burned far too quickly. “Yes, tired is all.” Another pat, like pacifying a lame dog, and then she sat up. The bed creaked as she put her legs over the side of the bed and tossed the thick mantle of her hair over a bony shoulder. “We needn’t speak of it again.”
He flew upright and rounded on her. “No. We needn’t.”
Her brows lifted, a tremor of fear making her perfume sharper. Ian relaxed his expression and forced himself to breathe. He’d growled. Damn it all. Control. But the wolf within him was getting harder to hide away lately. He tried for a pleasant expression as he reached for his coat. “I didn’t please you, lass, and I’m sorry for it.”
A sound of shocked amusement left her lips and the corners of her mouth twitched. “To speak plainly, sir, it isn’t your job to please me, now is it?”
Ian laughed shortly. “Ah, now, Jeanine, your honesty is a humbling thing.”
Jeanine. That was her name, though more likely Jenny. Despite certain techniques, she was about as French as a pint of blue ruin. He pulled out far more notes than planned and handed them to her. “Consider that my apology.”
Her fingers curled around the money as she eyed him. She was a shrewd one. He didn’t like them stupid. Made things harder in the end. They got ideas of becoming mistresses. Fortunately, with a reputation as a profligate, no one much cared what Ian did as long as it was outrageous. Good entertainment always calmed the savage beast that was London society.
Jeanine-Jenny’s mouth curled into a friendly smile. “ ’Tis a fine apology, me lad.”
Now that they were done, she’d let her Irish show.
Jeanine-Jenny slid from the bed and gathered her things, giving him a flash of firmly rounded arse. Not even a stir of appreciation. Trying not to think of little Ian, the bastard turncoat, he rested his hands upon his knees while she dressed in thick silence. His contentment almost returned as she reached for the door. But her green eyes flashed at him from over her shoulder at the last moment. Every muscle in his body tensed as he read that look.
“I’ll be as quiet as the grave,” she assured.
The door shut with the muted thud of a lid being placed upon a coffin.
London, April 18, 1883
Three hundred sixty-six days, ten hours, fifteen minutes, and… Daisy glanced down at the heart-shaped gold watch pinned to the dip in her bodice, a strategic placement designed to draw the eye. Strategic placement, perhaps, but it made it a bugger to read the time. The tiny face flicked in and out of shadow as the carriage lantern swayed gently overhead.
Seconds needn’t be counted anymore regardless. She was free. Daisy looked out into the boiling gray fog that shrouded the streets of London. Moreover, three hundred sixty-six days, ten hours, fifteen minutes, and however many seconds was quite sufficient a time to stay in mourning over a man one hated. Even if that man had been one’s husband. Especially if, she corrected, smoothing out a wrinkle in her azure silk skirt. Azure. Lovely word. It rolled over the tongue, promising adventure and foreign climes. She loved azure. Loved color. Though, for a time, she had loved black too. Black had been her banner of freedom. A marker announcing the shift from the bondage of marriage to the emancipation of widowhood.
Daisy was finished with black now. One ought to curse the queen for her dogged devotion to mourning, thus causing countless widows to guiltily follow suit. Only it was quite romantic, and Daisy could not fault a romantic heart. As for herself, she’d done her year of mourning, enough to satisfy wagging tongues. Now it was her time.
Barnaby, her driver, called out to the horses. The carriage made a sharp turn down a narrow lane that would take her to her future. Amusement, laughter, life. A place where women did not wear black, unless one wished to be thought of as mysterious. No one had ever thought of her as mysterious. Infamous, perhaps.
Suddenly, her insides clenched with such force that she trembled. Loneliness and fear urged her to shout at Barnaby to turn round. Her bed was safe and warm. What if she was all talk? What if the infamously fun-loving Daisy Margaret Ellis—she refused to call herself Craigmore—was nothing more than a coward?
“Why don’t we get a bit of fresh air?” The man nuzzling Daisy’s neck let out a small laugh at his jest. “Fresh” air being a myth in London. Daisy refrained from rolling her eyes. After all, his lips felt wonderful as they made a soft, slow circuit over her skin. It had been over six years since she’d been touched in passion. He nipped the tender juncture at the base of her neck, and she shivered, her ni**les tightening in anticipation. Wine coursed through her veins, heating her blood and painting her world in soft, nebulous colors.
Around them, couples had paired off, finding their own dark corners in the overcrowded town home to do what they might. Men with the single-minded purpose to win congregated around gaming tables, barely noticing the women who adorned their shoulders. A few danced to the endless tunes played by the orchestra Alexis had hired for the night. As for Alex, Daisy hadn’t yet spotted her.
Being newly widowed herself, Alex had chosen to live among the demimonde. The ton, Alex declared, was too tiresome. Daisy agreed. The ton had all but turned their backs on Daisy when Craigmore died and left her nothing by way of monetary support. Surely the bloody man had assumed she’d end up in the streets as a destitute wretch. Little had he known about her own resources.
Daisy eyed the man before her, a well-formed youth with a slightly coltish way about him. “Fresh air would be lovely.”
A languid heaviness stole over her as she leaned into him. He smelled of cheroots, fine wool, and young male. His hard body against hers was a wonder. What did it matter that she’d forgotten his name?
His arm locked around her shoulders as he led her through a maze of corridors. Gaslight flickered low. Blue smoke and hot flesh turned the air hazy.
Daisy stumbled, and his grip tightened. “Careful. Don’t want you on your back. Yet.”
A true wit, this one. She cleared the thought away. She didn’t need to think, only to feel.
With a laugh, they burst through the back door. Daisy caught a breath of dank, coal-tinged air and saw the flash of wet pavers glistening in the moonlight, and then her companion shoved her against the wall. Thick ivy rustled against her ear as he leaned in and took, his mouth brutal. Daisy opened to it, ignoring the pain, looking for the pleasure. So elusive, pleasure. So easy to remember one’s self and lose the feeling. His tongue thrust past her lips, cool and thick. Ought a tongue feel cold?
Clouds scuttled overhead, and the bright disk of the moon shone down, setting the dismal little alleyway to glow like blue daylight. Daisy blinked up at the moon as her lover’s hands drifted lower, catching up her skirts, his breath hot and damp above her breast. Daisy strained against his questing hand as it groped her. This is what she’d been waiting for. Six years of living in hell, she’d waited to be wanted, to be looked upon as a desirable woman and not a thing of disgust.
Temptress of man, harbinger of lust. You are a worthless vessel whose only use is to receive man’s sin.
Anger coiled with her revulsion. Forget Craigmore, he is dead. His words cannot touch you. Follow the pleasure. But it skittered away as the wind shifted, brushing ice cold against her bare arms. Ah, but this alley smelled. Queer, like sticky sweet rot, and copper mixed with dirt. The stench sent a finger of ice over her spine. She murmured a protest. They were too exposed here, and she no longer wanted this.
“Easy, pet.” Hard fingers raked her thighs.
“I want to go inside.”
“Relax,” he said.
She pushed at him. “Inside.”
“I’m trying,” he said with a laugh.
She turned her head to get away from him and caught the sight just to the left of his shoulder. A spill of gray satin skirts, the ruffled edges kicking up in the wind, a pale length of arm extended outward as if begging for help, the sparkle of diamonds on a white throat, large, glassy eyes staring. And blood, so much blood. Black and shining in the moonlight. Daisy’s mind pulled the shapes, rearranging them to form a story. Alex. Alex’s torso torn open. And something bent over Alex, its face buried in the gore, nosing about as if sniffing the body. A scream locked in Daisy’s throat, so hard and cold that she could not get it out. Terror uncoiled, giving her the strength to push her lover away.