London, November 1761
Shivering in the brisk wind cutting straight through her thin gown, Violet Carlton trudged across the small dirt-packed backyard, littered with tufts of dead grass and scattered brown and red leaves. Teeth clenched to stop their chattering, she mounted the short three steps of the back stoop, straightened her shoulders, and rapped three times on the dull gray door of the silvery clapboard house. Beyond the weathered board fence of the house next door a dog barked, but no one stirred. No prying eyes to witness her shame.
The door opened a crack, and a lad of about twelve stuck his head out. “What you doin’ ’ere this time o’ day?”
“I would like to speak with Madame Vestry, please.” Perhaps she should have waited until later in the morning. Such an establishment would obviously keep late hours. But the ache in her belly had forced her here as soon as the sun had risen.
“She’s still sleep. Come back later today.” He started to push the door closed but Violet rammed her boot between it and the jamb. The boy kept shoving, squeezing her foot until she winced in pain, but she gritted her teeth, put her shoulder to the door and pushed back. If she didn’t do this now, she wouldn’t have the courage, or the strength, to come back.
“I need to see her now.” She raised her voice, and threw her weight against the rough boards. Despite her small stature, she was stronger. He staggered back and she fell into a narrow back foyer with a row of coat hooks and the devastating yeasty smell of baking bread. Her mouth watered and her stomach rumbled. She hadn’t eaten for days.
Blond hair straggling from under a mobcap, a girl, maybe fourteen, rushed into the room. “What the hell’s going on in here Willie?” She wiped her hands on her apron, streaked with flour and grease. Warily, her gaze shifted from Willie to Violet. “Who are you?”
“I’ve come to see Madame Vestry.” Violet focused on the girl’s narrowed eyes. “I need to talk to her, please.” Her heart gave a sickening lurch.
In one practiced glance, the girl took in her appearance, from what used to be her second-best hat to the rumpled and stained deep-purple dress to her scuffed black boots, and sniffed. “I see you do.”
The appraisal stung, but was probably fair. She’d come down fast in the months since her grandmother’s death. Her possessions long gone, her wardrobe—reduced to two dresses and a well-worn cloak—had been sold, leaving her with only the dress she stood up in. These clothes wouldn’t fetch a shilling in a secondhand shop now.
The servant girl nodded to Willie. “Close the door before we freeze to death, jingle-brains. Come on.” She led Violet out of the foyer. “I’ll ask if Madame will see you. But she won’t be happy being woke up this early, you can bet your dippers on that.”
The last thing she wanted was to antagonize her future employer. Still, she couldn’t risk waiting until later.
Taking a firm grip on herself, she followed the girl down a shadowy hallway until she motioned her into an equally dim reception room. “Wait here.” The girl turned on her heel and left.
Violet let out the breath she’d been holding. She hadn’t fainted yet, though her empty stomach had tied itself in knots. The pain meant she was alive and by God she intended to stay that way. She strode farther into the room and perched on the red cushioned sofa. Let the woman arrive swiftly to get this over with.
Sitting rigidly, she stared at her hands clenched in her lap, then shook herself. She had better be stronger than this. Determined, she sat straighter. A classical-style painting in a large gilt frame across from her caught her interest. A naked woman lay on a chaise, her legs spread. Oh, good Lord. Her womanly parts were exposed and a swan lay with its beak pressed between her thighs.
Her face heated and she had to look somewhere else, anywhere else but at that painting. The fireplace on her right held two candlesticks, shaped like naked women. Wax had dripped onto the figures, drops hanging from the nipples. Was there nowhere in the room without a lewd image? Violet gripped the end of the sofa. The plush red carpet seemed safe to study. The smooth, polished wood under her fingers had been carved in an oval with folds in the middle. She traced the pattern absently, still unable to get the image of the painting out of her mind. The swan’s long neck lying at the apex of the woman’s open legs. Her forefinger stroked the wooden oval, so similar to the—
“Dear God!” She snatched her hand away and rubbed it against her gown. “Miss Carlton?” A small, dark-haired woman in an exotic scarlet silk robe seemed to fill the room.
Violet jumped to her feet, her heart thudding wildly.
“My maid said you wished to see me?” Madame Vestry’s dark eyes took in every detail of Violet’s appearance. She raised an eyebrow.
On the tip of her tongue to retort of course, she did not wish to see the owner of a brothel, she instead swallowed back her anger. She could ill afford to provoke Madame Vestry. “Yes, ma’am. My brother told me if things went very badly for me I should…” Words stuck in her throat like a fish bone.
“Come to my establishment?”
Face flushing, Violet nodded. “Yes.”
“Who is your brother, Miss Carlton?” A narrowing of the woman’s eyes echoed the suspicion in her voice.
“James Carlton, ma’am.”
Vestry’s head rose slightly and she relaxed. “Ah, yes, Jamie. You are his sister? Then I am sorry for your loss, Miss Carlton.”
“Thank you, Madame Vestry.” Thankfully, her voice held steady, the months since her brother’s death easing the grief to the point she did not weep instantly at the thought. Her current plight was enough to do that.
“And you have now come to that desperate point where you seek employment with me?” The business-like tone, neither condoning nor condemning, stiffened Violet’s resolve.
“Yes, ma’am. As of today, I have nowhere else to go, no one to turn to.” A sickening churn of her stomach that had nothing to do with hunger sent tension through her. “Nothing else of value.”
“You are how old, Miss Carlton?” “Nineteen, ma’am. Almost twenty.”
“Let me see you walk, please.” With a crisp snap, Vestry pulled the curtains open and nodded to the path between the sofa and fireplace.
Violet straightened her skirts as best she could. Suddenly stiff and self- conscious, she concentrated on putting one foot before the other until she came face to face with another obscene painting. She clenched her hands and averted her eyes.
Feeling more and more like a horse or a cow at Smithfield market, she did as she was told, hopefully with a bit more grace.
In reward, Vestry gave her a slight nod. “You speak and move as befit your station, Miss Carlton. With a little training, I suspect you will be quite popular with our patrons. I should be able to command a high price for your virginity.”
Violet’s feet tangled in the plush carpet.
The scant approval vanished as Vestry glared at her. “I assume you are intact?”
Oh, the shame. How could this woman suggest she had already lain with a man? Bitterness flooded her mouth and her chest ached with mortification. Finally, she managed a curt nod.
“Lie down on the sofa please.” “What? Why?”
“I am not fool enough to take your word, Miss Carlton.” Vestry smiled mirthlessly. “A brief inspection will allow me to assure your buyer he is indeed purchasing a virgin.”
Her cheeks heated at the humiliation this woman suggested. The cold inevitability of her situation rolled over her, engulfing her as though she was drowning beneath a relentless sea. Madame Vestry demanded almost nothing compared to the real horror awaiting her at the hands of her buyer. Still, she had chosen to live. She could no longer afford the luxury of respectability.
Vestry stood immobile, a flicker in her eyes the only hint of interest.
Steeling herself, without word or plea, Violet lay down on the disgusting sofa, raised her knees and turned her head toward the garish red satin cushion. Cool air rushed past her thighs. Hot tears slipped down her cheeks. She hadn’t wanted to cry. The time for weakness had passed.
“You may sit up now.”
Indignant, Violet sat up and raised her chin. “Are you satisfied as to my honesty now?”
“I always was, Miss Carlton.” Madame Vestry stared into Violet’s eyes, her gaze seeming to penetrate to her soul.
“I needed to test your mettle.”
Rising, Violet scowled. Simply coming to this place should have shown her determination.
“Respectable women often believe they can eschew respectability to save their lives, only to find, in the end, starvation far pleasanter than immorality,” Vestry continued matter-of-factly. “You, however, I believe will do, Cassandra. Come with me.” Motioning her to follow, she headed out of the room.
“Cassandra?” Violet hurried to keep up.
“All of my girls have false names, false identities.” At the end of the hallway, they headed up a flight of stairs.
“The life they lead in the House of Pleasure is just as fraudulent. Cassandra is the mask you will wear to protect a vestige of your self-respect.” When they reached the landing, Madame twitched her silky robe out of the way and turned to her. “Think of it as a role, very like one an actress might take upon the stage. It is not who you are, unless you allow it be.” The vehemence of the last sentence rang in the cramped stairwell.
Violet stumbled back a step. “Why Cassandra?” It was a classical reference she couldn’t quite place.
A peculiar smile curled Madame Vestry’s red lips. “She was a prophet and a spoil of war. A woman men used but dismissed because they could not understand her prophecies, although they came true with a vengeance.” A fire glowed in her cunning eyes as she scrutinized Violet’s body.
More than her earlier examination, Vestry’s calculating perusal made Violet uncomfortable.
“What prophecy will you reveal to your customers, I wonder, Miss Carlton? A promise of pleasure or one of pain?” The light extinguished as quickly as it had come. “This way.” She started down a corridor to the right. “You will have a room of your own on the second floor. Depending on circumstances, you will entertain your clients either there or in one of the ground-floor rooms.”
Violet followed, each step hardening her heart.
“I will see to your training during the next week.” Passion drained from her voice. The businesswoman had returned.
A shiver shot down Violet’s spine.
“I will also inform certain special clients I have an item of interest for them.”
No going back now. She had become a whore. Tears threatened, but she beat them back.
“You can only sell your virtue once and I will make sure you receive the highest price, my dear. Half of those proceeds are yours.”
Violet wavered between fainting and nausea, then steadied. Perhaps thinking of the encounter as a business deal might make the situation tolerable. Madame Vestry showed her into a small, clean room boasting no lewd artwork, only a wide oak bed, a chest on chest, an armchair and table.
“This room is yours as long as you work for me, though should you receive a better offer, I’d advise you take it.”
“A better offer?” Who on earth would want her after this?
“Many of my girls have gone on to become exclusive mistresses to the noblemen who take a fancy to them. Such arrangements are often quite lucrative. With judicious saving one might have enough to start their life over after four or five years.” A mischievous smile flitted across Madame Vestry’s face. “One of the girls who passed through here briefly—very briefly, mind you—ended up marrying a marquess. That smacks more of fairytale than reality. Still the tale is true.”
The animation drained from her face as the brusque woman of business returned. “I will leave you to settle in, although I’ll expect you ready for your first lesson this afternoon. We serve late luncheon at four and supper after midnight. The house opens for clients at dusk.” She looked Violet up and down once more, lingering on her face. “You might want to stay in your room tonight. Just ignore anything you may hear. You’ll get used to the noise rather quickly.” Abruptly, she shut the door.
Violet dropped into the chair as her legs finally gave out, praying to God she could get through this nightmare, if only one moment at a time.