IT WASN'T SUCH A BAD PLACE, THIS PLACE THAT WAS GOING to witness her sale to the highest bidder. It was clean. Its decor was quite elegant. The parlor she had first been shown to could have belonged in the home of any one of her family's friends. It was an expensive house in one of the better sections of London. It was politely referred to as a House of Eros. It was a place of sin.
Kelsey Langton still couldn't believe that she was there. Ever since she had walked in the door she had been sick to her stomach with fear and dread. Yet she had come here willingly. No one had carried her inside kicking and screaming.
What was so incredible was she hadn't been forced to come here, she had agreed to-at least she had agreed that it was the only option available. Her family needed moneyand a lot of it-to keep them from being thrown into the streets.
If only there had been more time to make plans. Even marriage to someone she didn't know would have been preferable. But her Uncle Elliott was likely right. He had pointed out that no gentleman with the wherewithal to help would consider marriage in a matter of days, even if a special license could be obtained. Marriage was simply too permanent to be jumped into without careful consideration.
But this ... well, gentlemen did frequently acquire new mistresses on the spur of the moment, knowing full well that those mistresses would be every bit as costly as a wife, if not more so. The great difference was that a mistress, though easy to acquire, could also be easily disposed of, without the lengthy legalities and subsequent scandal.
She was to be someone's mistress. Not a wife. Not that Kelsey knew any gentlemen personally she could have married, at least none who could afford to settle Uncle Elliott's debts. She had had several young beaux courting her in Kettering, where she had grown up, before The Tragedy, but the only one with a large income had married some distant cousin.
Everything had happened so swiftly. Last night she came down to the kitchen as she did each night before retiring, to heat a bit of milk to help her sleep. Sleep was something she'd had difficulty with ever since she and her sister jean had come to live with their Aunt Elizabeth.
Her insomnia had nothing to do with living in a new house and town, nor with Aunt Elizabeth. Her aunt was a dear woman, their mother's only sister, and she loved both her nieces as if they were her own daughters, had welcomed them with open arms and all the sympathy they had desperately needed after The Tragedy. No, it was the nightmares that disturbed Kelsey's sleep, and the vivid recollections, and the ever-recurring thought that she could have prevented The Tragedy.
Aunt Elizabeth had suggested the warm milk all those months ago when she had finally noticed the dark smudges beneath Kelsey's gray eyes and had gently prodded for the reason. And the milk did help-most nights. It had become a nightly ritual, and she usually disturbed no one, the kitchen being empty that time of night. Except last night ...
Last night, Uncle Elliott had been there, sitting at one of the worktables, not with a late repast before him, but a single, rather large bottle of strong spirits. Kelsey had never seen him drink more than the one glass of wine Aunt Elizabeth allowed with dinner.
Elizabeth frowned on drinking, and so naturally didn't keep strong spirits in her house. But wherever Elliott had obtained that bottle, he was more than halfway finished. And the effect it had had on him was quite appalling. He was crying. Quiet, silent sobs, with his head in his raised hands, tears dripping down onto the table, and his shoulders shaking pitifully. Kelsey had thought it was no wonder Elizabeth didn't want strong drink in her house....
But it wasn't the drink that was causing Elliott such dis-, tress, as she was to discover. No, he'd been sitting there, with his back to the door, assuming he wouldn't be disturbed while he contemplated killing himself.
Kelsey had wondered several times since if he would have had the courage to actually go through with it if she had quietly left. He'd never struck her as being an overly brave man, just a gregarious, usually jovial one. And it was her presence, after all, that had presented him with a solution to his troubles, one that he might not have considered otherwise, one that she certainly would never have thought of.
And all she'd done was ask him, "Uncle Elliott, what's wrong?"
He'd swung around to see her standing behind him in her high-necked nightgown and robe, carrying the lamp she always brought downstairs with her. For a moment he'd appeared shocked. But then his head had dropped back into his hands and he'd mumbled something she couldn't quite make out, so she'd had to ask him to repeat himself.
He'd raised his head enough to say, "Go away, Kelsey, you shouldn't see me like this." "It's all right, really," she'd told him gently. "But perhaps I should fetch Aunt Elizabeth?" "No!" had come out with enough force to make her start,. then more calmly, if still quite agitated, he added, "She doesn't approve of my drinking ... and ... and she doesn't know." "Doesn't know that you drink?"
He didn't answer immediately, but she had already assumed that was what he meant. The family had always known that he would go to extremes to keep Elizabeth from unpleasantness, apparently even those of his own making.
Elliott was a large man with blunt features and hair that had gone mostly gray now that he was approaching fifty. He'd never been very handsome, even when he was younger, but Elizabeth, the prettier of the two sisters, and still beautiful today at forty-two, had married him anyway. As far as Kelsey knew she loved him still.
They'd never had any children of their own in the twentyfour years of their marriage, and that was possibly why Elizabeth loved her nieces so dearly. Mama had mentioned once to Father that it was through no fault of their not trying, that it simply was not meant to be.
Of course, Kelsey shouldn't have heard that. Mama hadn't realized that she had been within earshot at the time. And Kelsey had overheard other things over the years, of how confounded Mama was as to why Elizabeth had married Elliott, who was frankly homely and had had no money to speak of, when she'd had so many other handsome, wealthy suitors to choose from instead. And besides, Elliott was in trade.
But that was Elizabeth's business, and the fact that she'd always been a champion of the less fortunate might have had a great deal to do with her choice-or not. Mama had also been known to say that there was no accounting for love and its strange workings, that it wasn't, nor ever would be, governed by logic or even one's own will. "Doesn't know that we're ruined."
Kelsey blinked, so much time had passed since she had asked her question. And that wasn't the answer she'd anticipated. In fact, she could barely give it credit. His drinking could hardly be cause for social ruin, when so many gentlemen-and ladies, for that matter-drank to excess at the many gatherings they frequented. So she'd decided to humor him. "So you've created a bit of a scandal, have you?" Kelsey had chided. "A scandal?" He'd seemed confused then. "Oh, yes, it will be, indeed it will. And Elizabeth will never forgive me when they take this house away."
Kelsey had gasped, but once again, she'd drawn the wrong conclusion. "You've gambled it away?" "Now, why would I do a fool thing like that? Think I want to end up like your father? Or perhaps I should have. At least then there would have been a slim chance for salvation, when now there is none."
She'd been utterly confused herself by that point, not to mention thoroughly embarrassed. Her father's past sins, with the accompanying reminder of what those sins had wrought, shamed her.
So with high color in her cheeks that he probably didn't notice, she'd said, "I don't understand, Uncle Elliott. Who, then, is going to take this house away? And why?"
He'd dropped his head back onto his hands again, unable to face her in his shame, and mumbled out the story. She'd had to lean close to catch most of what he was saying, suffering the fumes of sour whiskey to do so. And by the time he'd finished she'd been shocked into silence.
It was much, much worse than she'd thought, and it really was so reminiscent of her own parents' tragedy, though they'd handled the situation quite differently. But in Elliott's case, he hadn't had the strength of character to accept a failure, buckle up, and go on from there.
When Kelsey and jean had come to live with Aunt Elizabeth eight months before, Kelsey had been too much in mourning over the deaths of her parents to notice anything amiss. She hadn't even thought to wonder why Uncle Elliott was home more often than not.
She supposed it wasn't something they thought it necessary to tell their nieces, that Elliott had lost his job of twentytwo years and was so distraught that he hadn't been able to hold another position for very long since. And yet they had continued to live as if nothing had changed. They'd even taken in two more mouths to feed when they could hardly afford to feed themselves.
Kelsey wondered if Aunt Elizabeth even knew the extent of their debt. Elliott had been living on credit, which was a standard practice for the gentry, but it was also standard to pay those creditors before they took matters to the courts. But with no money coming in, Elliott had already borrowed all he could from his friends to keep the creditors at bay. He had no one left to turn to. And the situation was out of control.
He was going to lose Aunt Elizabeth's house, the house that had been in Kelsey's family for generations. Aunt Elizabeth had inherited it, being the older sister. And the creditors were threatening to take it away. In three days' time.
And that was why Elliott was drinking himself sick, hoping to find some courage -in that bottle to end his own life, because he didn't have the courage to face what was going to happen in the next few days. It was his duty to provide for them-for his wife, anyway-and he'd failed miserably. of course, killing himself wasn't an option. She'd pointed out how much worse it would be for Elizabeth if she had to face eviction and a funeral as well. For Kelsey and Jean, well, they'd already faced one eviction. Yet they'd had somewhere to go that time. This time ... Kelsey simply couldn't let it happen. Her sister was her responsibility now. It was up to her to see to it that Jean was raised properly, with a proper roof over her head. And if that meant that she had to ...
She wasn't quite sure how it had come up, the selling of her. Elliott had first mentioned that he'd already thought of marrying her to the best offer, but he'd put off broaching the subject with her for so long that now it was too late for that, and he'd explained why it was too late, the need for serious deliberation for something that important that couldn't be done in just a few days.
Perhaps it was the drink that had loosened his tongue, but he'd gone on to relate how the same thing had happened to a friend of his many years ago, how he'd lost everything, but his daughter had saved the family by selling herself to an old reprobate who prized virginity and had been willing to pay extremely well for it.
Then, in almost the same breath, he told of approaching one gentleman he knew fairly well to find out if he'd be interested in a young wife. The reply had been, "Won't marry the gel, but I'm in need of a new mistress. Pay you a few pounds if she'd be willing..."
Which was how the talk of mistresses in relation to wives had arisen, how some rich lords would pay very handsomely for a fresh young mistress they could show off to their friends, especially a girl who hadn't already made the rounds Of those friends, and pay even more if she happened to be an innocent in the bargain.
He'd planted the seeds well, showing her the solution without actually asking her to sacrifice herself. She'd already been shocked by the talk of mistresses and heartsick over the situation and how it would affect them all, but mostly she'd been desperately worried about Jean, and how this could ruin her chances for a decent marriage one day.
Kelsey could find a job, possibly, but hardly one that would keep them much above the level of poverty, especially if she took on the responsibility of supporting them all. She couldn't imagine Aunt Elizabeth working, and Elliott, well, he'd already proven pathetically that he couldn't be depended on to hold a job anymore, not for very long.
It was visions of her young sister resorting to begging on the streets to help out that had prompted Kelsey to ask, albeit in a mortified whisper, "Do you know of some man who would be willing to-to pay enough if I-if I agreed to become his mistress?"
Elliott had looked so hopeful, and so damn relieved, even as he'd replied, "No, I don't know a single one. But I know of a place in London that the rich lords frequent, a place where you can be presented to receive an excellent offer."
She'd stood there, silent for a long while, still so hesitant about such a monumental decision and so sick to her stomach that this did, in fact, seem to be their only option. Elliott actually broke out in a sweat before she finally nodded her consent.
And then he'd tried to console her, as if anything could just then. "It won't be so bad, Kelsey, really it won't. A woman can make a great deal of money for herself this way if she's smart, enough to become independent-even marry later, if she chooses."
That wasn't a bit true, and they both knew it. Her own chances for a good marriage would be gone forever. The stigma that would be hers when she went through with this would follow her for the rest of her days. She'd never be welcomed in polite society again. But that was her cross to bear. At least her sister would still have the future she deserved.
Still in a state of shock over what she'd agreed to, she'd suggested, "I will leave it to you to tell Aunt Elizabeth of this." "No! No, she mustn't know. She'd never permit it. But I'm sure you will think of something reasonable to tell her to excuse your absence."