Red was everywhere.
Abigail Vautille shouldn’t have been surprised. Since that fateful day when her left hand was forcibly rammed into a working loom, the color red had haunted her. Deep red scars from the punch card of the jacquard crisscrossed her skin. Pockets of exposed flesh remained, mangled red bubbles now crusted black. The bones had been reset to give her a range of movement, but she couldn’t feel the brace of a cold wind on her flesh or the touch of a man’s fingers against her skin.
If only she could staunch her emotions so effectively.
But no, she was fated to face crimson. Scarlet was even the color of her once-friend Poppy Knight’s hair. Poppy’s investigation into their past employer had led to Abigail’s torture.READ MORE
Her stomach clenched at the shellacked ruby door of Cruikshank’s gaming hell. A battered wreath hung in the center, the previously garnet holly berries shriveled and dead. No one bothered to use the carmine-rusted iron doorknocker. This was no longer a place that required a doorman.
Scoundrels came and went, invited by the new proprietor, Arthur Cruikshank. He was in league with Joaquin Mason, who ruled the rookeries from the back room of his main property in Shadwell, the King of Spades. With Mason’s support, Cruikshank had turned this dank hole into a profitable gambling house.
Abigail knew the men here, their tells and their compulsions. Each battled a demon that only a hand of cards seemed to sate.
But familiarity didn’t breed ease. The hollers of foxed men drifted from Cruikshank’s, an unsettling cacophony. The building itself provided no comfort, constructed of crumbling gray stone, gray like her constant mood. Auburn brick made up the top floor, added after the original foundation.
Shivering in the frigid night air, Abigail drew her black cloak tighter around her to brace against the cold wind. With a glance upstairs, she brought the gloved fingers of her good hand to her lips to kiss for luck. She’d need all the help she could get in this godforsaken place.
After entering, she refused to give her cloak to the man who waited in the foyer. Cruikshank didn’t employ him. When unsuspecting people presented him with their garments, he fled to sell them in the rag and bone shops. She couldn’t help but admire his ingenuity.
Since she couldn’t hold down honest employment any longer, she’d do best to follow his example.
Her eyes narrowed as she surveyed the crowd mingling in the lower rooms. Conversations drifted in and out, an indistinct hum. A sweet, pungent scent caught her attention from the open door to her right. Men reclined on dilapidated chaises in sleep or stupor, while two women blew into pipes, kindling the opium in their bowls until it glowed red.
“Mystery lady!” a man called, his unfixed gaze settling on her cloak. “Come back, mystery lady. Come play with me.”
A lump formed in her throat. All these people drowning their sorrows. Little she could do for them now. The longer she stayed the greater chance she had of being a potential target for Cruikshank’s less principled patrons.
She kept going, ignoring his summons, her skirts swishing against the dusty floor. Two staircases flanked the vast entrance hall. While the left staircase ended on a landing, the right staircase would take her up to the top floor where the faro and hazard tables were. The play was deep there.
She’d find her father at the back table. Inevitably, he’d be in the third chair, his hands shaking as he grasped his cards. There’d be a wrinkle where his thumb gripped too hard.
She reached down into the pocket in her cloak. No blunt. Not that she could pay the rest of her father’s debts with a few coins. Settling the vowels for his last visit to Cruikshank’s had taken the last of her savings. Years of hard shifts, aching knees and pricked fingers gone in an instant to the tables.
Now that she couldn’t work in the factory, she had no way to earn back that money.
Three prostitutes lingered at the stairs, clothed in gaudy dresses with chemises peeking out of their stomachers. They roamed the halls in between their shifts in the cellar, which Cruikshank had converted into a whorehouse. He was always looking for willing lightskirts to fill the beds.
Abigail gulped as a flamboyant redhead with a gap-toothed grin caught her eye and waggled a brow.
Soon, she’d be one of them.
She mounted the stairs carefully, her uninjured hand grasping the railing for support. The hood of her cloak remained over her head, and she pretended it gave her a modicum of security. A shroud to hide behind, when it seemed everyone in Whitechapel knew her name and face.
People moved around her, passing her on the staircase and cursing her slowness. One foot in front of the other was never easy. Even before she’d lost the use of her hand, her unsteady gait had marked her as a cripple. As a child, she’d worked as a scavenger, sliding underneath the machinery to collect the broken bits of silk for reuse. The labor had distorted her body, and years of standing on her feet for fourteen hours, six days a week had worsened her knock-knees.
Each step higher made her joints scream for relief. Her lungs, weak from the poorly ventilated conditions in the factories, burned with the effort.
But she persevered, for life had given her no other choice. Everyone she used to consider a friend had abandoned her. The sole kindness she’d known in the last six months was the whisper of a stranger when she’d been in the hospital.
Finally, she arrived at the top floor. A throng of people waited outside the faro room. Falling in line, Abigail peeked inside. Candles shimmered throughout, casting a golden glow. At least it was warmer than outside.
She’d already pawned the last of her books to pay for coal so that her little sister, Bess, wouldn’t freeze in their flat. Her heart panged at the memory. Those books had been more precious to her than any other possession, but Bess had to be her first priority.
Come tomorrow when the coal ran out again, there’d be nothing left to sell.
Nothing except for herself.
She couldn’t think of that now. If she did, her knees would sway and her steps would falter. That would make her an easy mark. Already, she felt as though her movements were evaluated for signs of weakness. A chill skittered down her back. She shoved her battered hand into the pocket of her cloak and continued, trying to ignore the disconcerting sensation of being watched.
She was strong. She could survive anything.
The group behind her advanced, shoving her forward. She stumbled, but managed to right herself in time before colliding with the man in front of her. The herd dispersed at the door, ambling to the various gaming tables. Abigail made her way toward the far corner of the room, pausing for a moment to lean against a post and catch her breath.
She scanned the crowd for her father, expecting to find him flanked on either side by intent players. Tonight all the chairs were empty, except for three: the banker and two punters. A crowd of people watched the game proceed. The cards had split; the dealer took half of the bets on that rank. The onlookers let out a whoop of approval.
The mechanics of the game held little interest to her, for it’d always end the same: even if her father won, they’d still owe. Their debts were so high; they’d never dig out of this hole. She recognized her father: grizzly gray hair, the stoop of his shoulders, his threadbare green coat Bess had patched the week prior.
Across from him and facing her was a man Abigail did not recognize. As he purchased another check from the dealer, she swallowed back the dread that threatened to consume her. An unknown competitor meant her father might not receive leniency. Cruikshank had already told Papa that if he didn’t start paying his vowels, he’d need to find a new place to gamble or he’d have to face Cyrus. Known as an unhinged pugilist with a taste for blood, Cyrus Mason could make the injuries she’d incurred from the loom seem like paper-cuts.
And so the cycle would begin again: another gaming hell and another night like this one. It didn’t matter that she’d cut her meals in half for the past few months to ensure Bess had enough to eat. Or that they were three months behind on rent, and if they didn’t pay up soon, they’d all be out on the bloody street.
Nothing mattered to her father except the game.
Abigail slowly steered her way through the crowd, minding her steps until she’d made it to the back table.
“’Ey now,” one man complained as she accidentally bumped him. He turned, catching her eye. Even in the cloak, he recognized her. So much for anonymity.
He motioned for a few of his friends to step to the side to make room for her. “Move, mates.”
Abigail nodded her gratitude, sliding into the vacated space. Her father hadn’t noticed her arrival, so focused was he on the game layout.
“Come, Papa,” she quietly bid. “Settle up your accounts and hope to God this man lets you by with incremental payments.”
She hated having to say those words. She hated the humiliation of having to stand there, while all the men leered at her as if she was the choicest bit of flesh they’d get all night. But if she was going to be a harlot, she might as well start expecting this treatment.
The unknown punter across from her father coughed. A cough meant to distract, to clear the air. She looked up to see who would be so polite in this den of iniquity. She focused in on his features and her stomach did a flip. A purely physical reaction, for what woman wouldn’t have felt a surge of fancy for the way his linen shirt stretched over his broad shoulders. His oval face was classically handsome, chiseled with an impossibly straight nose.
The man’s blue eyes narrowed. “He owes me two hundred pounds. You can’t expect me to excuse so large a debt.”
Two hundred pounds.
His voice rang in her ears, like the steady drum that signals a firing squad. Two hundred pounds. Each breath was harder. Her throat closed. Two hundred pounds.
The mob erupted with cheers at the announcement, eager for a potential conflict. Their hoots barely registered when her heart pounded so hard she feared it might burst free of her chest. The world spun around her, and she prayed the floor might swallow her up.
Yet nothing changed.
Around her, the horde grew impatient for a response. Whatever leniency they’d shown in allowing her into their midst had disappeared. Now she was a part of the spectacle. Her pain on display for their enjoyment.
“’E don’t got two hundred,” one man jeered. “’E won’t even pay me the two crowns ’e owes me.”
“And ’e owes me twenty pounds!” another fellow added.
Oh, God. Her father had killed them all with the fifty-one cards of a faro game.
They were doomed. With vowels that large, surely her father would be sent to debtor’s prison. Hell, maybe they’d all be sent to Marshalsea. The thought of her little sister living in such squalor made Abigail’s heart tighten. How would Bess survive?
“I can’t pay you,” her father mumbled, as if he was just now realizing how much he’d lost. “Ain’t got that.”
“Then something will have to be done,” his opponent announced.
Thoughts sped through her mind. Bess couldn’t go to Marshalsea. It’d ruin her in a way Abigail couldn’t countenance. Sorrow had seeped deep into Abigail’s life, ripping apart all her hopes and dreams, but Bess deserved better.
What could Abigail offer this man? Their coffers were as empty as their cabinets. The little blunt Bess brought in at the new textile factory already wasn’t enough for the rent.
Abigail glanced down, taking in the plump curves of her breasts, her wide hips reputed to be perfect for grasping onto as a man tupped her hard. She was all the family had.
And if it were the last damn thing she did, she’d save Bess. This man knew Mason—perhaps a deal could be brokered to keep her father away from the hells too.
Abigail pushed back the hood to her cloak, revealing her blonde curls. Before her disfigurement, the factory boys had made it quite clear she stirred their attentions. But what was the price of her soul? Was she worth such an exorbitant sum?
“We can’t pay you,” she said, repeating her father’s words. “But if you excuse my father’s debts, I’ll—”
The words wouldn’t form. She gulped for air. A vision of Bess huddled in the corner of a filthy cell danced before her eyes. So this was how her degradation would begin, not in a brothel but in a hell. How could she actually go through with this? She’d be signing her soul away to the devil.
She couldn’t think of another choice.
She needed to entice him. He wouldn’t accept a single night for two hundred pounds—even as a virgin, she was not worth it. A man as good-looking as he was wouldn’t pay that much for one lay with a working class girl.
One month with her. She dismissed that idea immediately. A month away from Bess was too much. Two weeks instead. She’d start there.
“I’ll spend two weeks with you. My virtue in exchange for two hundred pounds.”
Michael Strickland shouldn’t have been at this hell. As a newly promoted Inspector for the H-Division of the Metropolitan Police, he’d been forbidden from consorting with the criminal ilk.
But God, he was tired of following those rules. Tired of living in a holier-than-thou way, when he knew he was as much of a sinner as these cowards, shattered by the call of the tables and the song of gin.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, he was going mad.
The woman swathed in a black cloak looked so much like the girl he’d visited in London Hospital six months prior that he almost rose from his seat and demanded her identity. That girl—Abigail Vautille, he’d never forget her name—had disappeared back into the rookeries upon release from the hospital without even a “thank you” to the two men who’d paid her bills.
The hollers of the gamers soothed him. He was at his best in a crowd, when he didn’t have time to think. It was easier to brazen through his problems than engage in self-examination. Perhaps he’d seek out a new mistress, lose his pain in the tight fit of her quim against his cock. He’d do anything to keep him from thinking of Miss Vautille and his part in her torture.
But the woman pushed the cloak back from her face and revealed an angelic visage he knew all too well. Her azure eyes settled on him, frosty and deadened to the world. For a moment, he forgot how to speak.
He slid his hand down underneath the table, pinching his leg. A prick of pain answered, but he didn’t wake. This couldn’t be a dream, for in his dreams, she wore significantly less clothing and she was much more enamored with him.
The real Abigail Vautille stood before him. Not the healthy, happy version he’d created in his mind, but a woman who bore the mutilations of a maniac’s torment.
She spoke. “If you excuse my father’s debts, I’ll spend two weeks with you. My virtue in exchange for two hundred pounds.”
Everything crackled back to life. Two weeks with Miss Vautille. Two weeks learning the curves of her body until they were like a second language to him. Two weeks riding her, tupping her, groaning his release and then starting all over again. They’d bring to life every one of his nocturnal fantasies.
This was the best damn game of faro he’d ever played. Even if she weren’t a virgin—given she’d grown up in Whitechapel, he suspected she wasn’t—two hundred pounds was a fee he’d willingly have paid for her favors.
He knew she’d stopped working at the factory; weaving required the use of two strong hands. What other option did she have besides prostitution? He shouldn’t be surprised, of course, but still a twinge of sadness echoed somewhere deep within him.
What a bloody bag of moonshine. Why should he care if Miss Vautille was a ladybird? Hundreds of women, most likely even thousands, worked in the flesh trade in London alone. He’d never harbored any sentimental beliefs about sex. Bawdy houses existed because men wanted impersonal connections. Prostitution was a job like any other—even if it was supposedly illegal, the great majority of Met officers ignored these laws when presented with a sweet taste of paid cunny.
The miscreant on his right gave him a hard shove, almost sending Michael face-forward into the cards. “Ye gonna dip yer wick in her cunny, lad?”
“I bet she ain’t even a virgin,” said another man, sizing her up.
“I bet she likes the cock in ’er mouth. Look at dem lips. Ripe for my pecker,” came another rejoinder.
Miss Vautille stood as immobile as the bolted-in table. Her chin rose high. She was proud—too proud for a brothel. Either the bullybacks would whip that out of her, or she’d have to find a new profession.
Unless Michael taught her how to appear biddable. He’d be doing her the favor, wouldn’t he? A girl as pretty as she was could make good coin as a fen, far better than she made in her old factory job. If he reached out to some of the abbesses he knew, he could get her situated in a nicer bordello where she’d warrant higher socket money. Enough that she could get away from her gamester father.
“I’d say two weeks is a nice down payment,” Michael mused, not wanting to sound too enthusiastic at first. If Miss Vautille knew she held him by the balls, there’d be no hope of negotiation.
The bastard who had spoken so giddily of his pecker reached out a hand to stroke Miss Vautille’s rear. She cowered at first, but she didn’t move away from his hand. Her chin raised a fraction more. Her gaze became detached, as if she were miles away from here.
Michael lunged forward. She was his, damn it.
He caught the bastard’s wrist, wrenching so hard to the right that the man let out a yelp of protest.
“The only reason I’ve not ripped your throat open is because I haven’t claimed my due yet,” Michael hissed. “But for the next fortnight, this girl is my property and my property alone, do you hear me?”
“Just a little touch,” the man complained. “That’s all I wanted.”
Vautille let out a pained groan, trying to reach for them both, but falling short in his gin haze.
Michael twisted the imbecile’s wrist again until the man’s eyes bulged and tears streamed from the pain. “If any of you touches even a hair on her head, I will bring the full force of the H-Division down upon you. We’ll move so fast your strumpets will be left wondering who will pay for their tuppence cunny now that you’ve been hung at Tyburn.”
Dropping the man’s grimy wrist, Michael wiped his hands on his breeches.
“Best believe ’im,” groused a spectator. “Bloody Peelers, the lot of ’em.”
“Cruikshank shouldn’t allow his sort,” protested another man.
“I’m allowed here because Joaquin Mason has deigned it so.” With this statement, he challenged each of them to take offense further. “I don’t think I need to explain to any of you what Mason does to those who disagree with him.”
One man audibly gulped, while another took a large step back from their table. Michael knew he’d hit the right note with this lot. An arrest might build up one’s reputation on the street, so it wasn’t an effective threat. Retaliation by criminal royalty like the Mason family, however, was enough to send most of these men running for shelter. In Mason’s hells, unsanctioned violence didn’t spread. Debts were paid on time. The proprietor always got his cut.
“Gotta be bringin’ the Masons into it, when we was just havin’ some fun. Come, let’s go. Better take it elsewhere, and all that.” Uttering various protests, the throng drifted toward the other tables.
Michael was left alone with the Vautilles. Mr. Vautille crumpled before him.
Miss Vautille directed venomous gazes at her father and him. Her gloved hands clasped the table, using the edge to hold up her weight. “My virtue may be on the cutting block, sir, but I assure you I am no one’s property.”
Michael waggled a finger at her. “You won’t become a successful courtesan with that attitude. Your job is to make men feel important, not impotent.”
Mr. Vautille lifted his head up from the table, twisting around in his seat to face his daughter. “Abbie, please—”
“Silence,” she ordered.
Mr. Vautille immediately closed his flapping lips. There was a dictatorial quality to his daughter’s demands that only came from a childhood spent having to raise one’s own parent. Michael knew that tone, having used the same on his mother during her too-short life.
“The arrangement will begin in two days’ time,” she declared, her voice so firm she couldn’t help but admire her resolve. “I must be allowed to gather my things first, to say goodbye to my sis—” She stopped, her bottom lip quivering for a second before she composed herself.
He ought to say something, anything to keep her from dissolving into sobs. Probably a ploy to up the price—those tears at the corners of her eyes couldn’t be genuine, could they? No woman who cared about her virginity would offer it up as an easily traded commodity. She’d exhibited such steely control he had no trouble believing she’d arranged everything to her benefit.
“Do you need more time?” That wasn’t what he’d meant to say at all. He shook his head, reminding himself that this was all part of her strategy.
“I may be a virgin, sir, but I’m no schoolgirl,” Miss Vautille snapped. “I'm well aware of how this works. You claim you dismiss our debt, but you’ll take us into custody as soon as you no longer feel so generous. Those men back there, they said you were a Peeler, and so I trust you even less.”
He felt her words as a slap across his face. Rarely did people point out his faults to his face, and never so bluntly. “I assure you, my word is good.”
“Forgive me if I don't believe you,” she said, rising up to her full height, some heads shorter than he was. She still used the table to support her weight, but in his eyes, she was a raging tempest. “While my father may care so little about what happens to the rest of us, I won't see my family in Marshalsea.”
“That’s not going to happen,” he said.
She remained unconvinced. “We’re already in dun territory. You know Mason will have us thrown in there, when he realizes his gruesome brother can’t bleed the blunt out of us.”
He shrugged. “I’ll pay the two hundred pounds owed to Mason. That’ll make it even.” The hell owner cared little who paid the debt, as long as he received money.
“Can't pay you,” Vautille interjected suddenly, as if he'd just woken up. He slumped back in his chair again, his bloodshot eyes barely focusing.
From the first round Michael had played, he’d marked Vautille as an easy target, and still he’d continued playing.
Abigail glared at her father. “I’m taking care of it, Papa. Do you understand we’re ruined now? All because you couldn’t keep away from the bloody tables.”
He expected to see some flash of hurt in Vautille’s eyes at his daughter's callous words. The man remained impassive; his threadbare coat huddled around him, hands thrust in his penniless pockets. Vautille had given up, perhaps long ago.
Michael turned his gaze to Miss Vautille instead. To her ripe lips, perfect for kissing. To her haughty cerulean eyes. At the end of the two weeks, he’d have her panting for his touch.
“There’s one more thing.” Miss Vautille frowned at her father. “You said you were here because Joaquin Mason knows you. I’d like you to have Mason bar my father from ever entering another gaming hell.”
Vautille groaned at this pronouncement, but he couldn’t seem to muster up enough energy to protest. His head lolled back.
Michael stroked his chin with his thumb and index finger. “That’s a weighty request. I can certainly get him banned from Mason’s own hells, but all of the hells in the surroundings areas will take some work.”
She ran her tongue across her lips, slowly, provocatively. “I’ll make it worth your while, I promise.”
God’s balls, he couldn’t resist her siren call. He nodded swiftly. “I accept your terms. Shall we shake on it, as two gentleme...er, gentlepeople might?”
Extending his hand, he ignored Vautille's attempt to interject his approval. A man who had to depend on his daughter’s help at the tables was no man at all. Debts were to be honored, or a man could not live with integrity.
Hell, Michael would pay the rest of his life for his sins, for his vowels wouldn’t wipe away with the drop of coin.
After a moment's hesitation, Miss Vautille raised her right hand. The cool press of her glove against his bare palm shot heat through him, startling him. He couldn't help but imagine those gloved fingers wrapped tight around his rod, the friction of silk against skin.
Once their palms parted, he reached into his pocket, drawing out a scrap of parchment. “If your father will meet me at Cruikshank's counter, I will add the terms of our agreement to the ledger book so that there is no question whether or not your debt has been paid.” He hated having her name dragged into public record, but it'd be common knowledge by the next day regardless. Drunks had a horrid way of spilling secrets.
The vowels paid, they said their adieus. “In two days’ time,” he bid her, slipping her his address.
“Don’t forget to talk to Mason.” She turned, refusing her father's arm for support.COLLAPSE
Tori on Smexy Books wrote:
This had so much going for it. Just barely pre-Victorian/tail end of the Georgian era! Non-nobles! Slums! Delightful references to the Disney animated B&B! Other references to La Belle et La Bete! Turning other references on their heads! An exploration of where the line between "victim" and "survivor" is!
Monique Daost on Fresh Fiction wrote:
A bittersweet historical love story that tells a story of love, loss, and redemption.
-Tori's Top 2015 Books
Tracey Devlyn, USA Today Bestselling Author wrote:
A gritty, realistic, and superbly written love story. Erica Monroe demonstrates yet again her superb writing abilities, her profound understanding of human nature, and gives us a wonderful historical romance that is wonderfully different from anything out there!
April Renn on My Book Addiction wrote:
An exciting tale of intrigue and love.
Jennifer Hayes on Jenerated Reviews wrote:
Fast paced tale with a deliciously wicked blend of danger, suspense and romance. Well written with Ms. Monroe's aplomb for history and her unique writing style.
The angst of her hero and heroine as two wounded individuals, both inside and out, was palpable throughout the author's well written work.
Letter to Readers