Lucius Blackwood, Earl of Stratford, had always prided himself in being a very diplomatic sort, especially when it came to his sister, Damara. How many times in the past twenty-four years of her life had he come to her rescue?
There was of course the incident with her near drowning when she was but eight. And again when she was nine, and finally when she was ten. Damara wasn’t one to learn well the first time, she much preferred to try until she either died, or learned how to better do something.
He stood by her when she went against Society and debuted at the ripe age of nineteen, her reasons being that she wanted true adventure before she was thrust upon the marriage mart.
And when she turned down twelve proposals in the course of a Season, he even defended her to their mother, saying she knew her own mind and he stood behind her.
Now he wasn’t so sure.
Damara placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to the side, a smile curving across her lips, “I see nothing wrong with my idea.”
Lucius threw his head back and laughed, “Truly? Nothing at all? Not one bloody thing?”
Damara scowled, “No, dear brother, not one bloody thing.”
"Watch your language.”
“Petra, Lucius, please stop fighting.” A small voice said from the corner, blast he had forgotten about Petra James, his sister’s best friend since childhood and a proclaimed spinster.
She looked down at her lap where her hands were tightly clenched, “I despise when you both raise your voices.”
Fabulous, now he would have to deal with tears and screaming. Lucius pinched the bridge of his nose, “Is your only aim in life to vex me, sister?”
“Of course not!” She had the good sense to look offended as she crossed the room and poked him in the chest, “I find great joy in provoking you, vexing you is another matter entirely.”
Lucius bit back every single dirty word that flew into his mind when he saw his sister smirk at him. The minx.
“The answer, is no.” He said coolly.
“Well then, you better be prepared to change your answer.” She argued.
“Pet!” He looked to his sister’s silent friend for support, but she had yet to raise her eyes the entire afternoon! Which really was a shame considering they were her best feature. The poor thing always had such a severe hairstyle, her hair was pulled so tight that he was convinced she lived with a permanent ache in her head. But her eyes, damn her eyes, they were beautiful. Deep blue pools that had the habit of looking right through a man, making him think things he had no business thinking, especially about his sisters best friend.
“Petra, please explain to him the importance of the club,” Damara wailed.
Lucius raised his eyes heavenward. Truly, the woman rarely spoke. She wouldn’t have the audacity to speak to him, let alone argue against him.
“I agree with Damara.”
“Pardon?” Lucius choked. “Are you foxed?”
That slipped, truly it did.
Petra’s face reddened. “So I have to be foxed in order to agree with your sister? Is that it, Lucius?”
“N-no.” He stuttered suddenly itching to leave the room as fast as possible.
“That is what it seems.” Petra raised her eyes, her very beautiful blue eyes and Lucius suddenly forgot to breathe, forgot that he was in a room with more than the woman currently challenging him.
“Things are not always what they seem, my pet.”
“No?” She tilted her head, God when had she developed such a graceful neck. Shouldn’t she be out… doing anything but pestering him? Making his lust pound so hard he wanted to drown himself in whiskey?
“Lucius, this is not over!” Damara scolded. “Come, Petra, let us talk to Mother.”
“Ah, the voice of reason speaks, yes, talk to mother, see what she says,” Lucius called to the disappearing women.
What the hell just happened?
He shook his head and took a seat on the nearest chair. Possibly, he needed to find himself a mistress, after it had been several months. Besides, the minute he started lusting after spinsters with large eyes, was also the minute he needed to find another woman and lose himself within her entirely.
Without a word to anyone he grabbed his hat and coat and ran out into the thick London air.
Petra managed to keep her hands from shaking, which was a great feat indeed! For her hands always had the horrible notion that they needed to shake whenever she was in Lucius’s presence. Of course, her hands were the least of her worries. After all, she had been in love with her best friends brother since they were children.
Lucius had always been kind to her, when other young boys had made fun of her big nose or large eyes.
She smoothed her hands over her skirts as she continued to follow Damara through the house in search of Lady Stratford. Her thoughts drifted to her friends idea, though it would be scandalous to do such a thing, it would at least give Petra something to do other than sit around and mope about life without prospects.
She was rich enough.
But too short.
And too everything, really. She sighed and listened as Damara finally located her mother and with breathtaking speed presented her idea.
“It will be a club,” she said proudly. “A club for spinsters. Women who have been unfortunately overlooked by the ton. I aim to make them the toast, you see, and I also desire for them to make friends with one another. It will be like a support group.”
Lady Stratford lifted a perfectly arched brow and took a sip of her tea, “A support group for ladies too ugly to find a match, is that it?”
Petra flinched in her seat, but otherwise kept her smile in place as Damara scolded her mother and continued, “Mother, you must see! Many of those women you call spinsters could be absolutely delightful creatures if just given a little push in the right direction.”
Petra felt her cheeks heat as she self consciously tugged at her dress. It was an older style, and a faded yellow that nearly looked white in the sunlight. If one looked close enough it was apparent that fringe was making itself known around the edges of the seams. It did not help that with her current complexion she most likely looked sallow. Food had been somewhat scarce over the last few years leaving her without much curve.
She took a sip of tea and kept her eyes downcast.
“So, you believe you can turn this club into a sort of project, do you?” Lady Stratford asked. Petra still felt the heat of her gaze.
“I do,” Damara said without pause.
“And you also believe all these spinsters need is a little, push, you say in the right direction and they will have a match?”
Damara laughed. “But of course! I knew you would see reason, this is what I was telling Lucius! Silly man.”
The tone in Lady Stratford’s voice gave Petra goose bumps, she lifted her gaze to see the lady looking directly at her, a cruel smile in place.
“Well,” She laughed to herself, “I think it is a splendid idea, but shall we do a test run first?”
“Test run?” Damara repeated. “Why ever for?”
“To be sure your theory is correct, my dear. That is all! Imagine how embarrassing it would be to have a little club only to fail your first season.”
Damara seemed to think about this then gave her mother a hard nod. “Alright, a test run sounds marvelous.”
“Good.” Lady Startford cleared her throat. “And I have the perfect test subject.”
Damara placed her tea on the table and leaned forward, “Who did you have in mind.”
Lady Stratford tilted her head in Petra's direction, “Why not use Petra? After all, she is such a dear friend to the family. If you fail at this little club, no one will ever know and if you succeed, well think of how that will effect your friends happiness?”
Petra’s hands began to shake in her lap. Lady Stratford had never been this cruel to her. She had always made it perfectly clear that she was above her in station as well as wealth, but Petra knew more than anyone that Lady Stratford was using this as a way to get her daughter to back down. She knew Petra didn’t have the confidence or the money for such an endeavor.
Embarrassed, Petra quickly excused herself and ran out of the room. Warm tears streamed down her cheeks as she rushed down the hall. Without looking where she was going she rounded the corner and ran straight into Lucius’ arms.
“Playing tag?” He chuckled, his hands bracing her arms.
“I thought you were gone.”
Lucius narrowed his eyes. “Yes well, I had forgotten something.”
“Are you crying?” he whispered, much too close for comfort. She shivered and tried to pull back but his hands kept her firmly planted near his body. Heat washed over her as she remembered the scene she just escaped.
“I’m fine.” She swallowed and gave him a weak smile.
“What did she do?” he asked calmly.
“Nothing.” Her answer was too quick.
Lucius cursed and pulled her into his arms. It was the second time he had hugged her in all her years of living. And it was so much better than the first, when she was covered in mud and had fallen from her horse. Yes, this was much better. She inhaled the scent of his jacket, a mixture of tobacco, soap, and horse. Her knees shook, but he was so strong she knew she wouldn’t fall.
“Mother is horrid, I don’t know why you ever fall into her traps.” He whispered in her hair, “Promise me you will avoid her for a while?”
Petra nodded, his chin was firmly placed on her head. She refused to move. The only person who knew of Lady Stratford's treatment of her had been Lucius, for she treated him the exact same way.
With a sigh, Lucius pulled back. A large tear escaped Petra’s eye before she could wipe it away. It ran down her cheek and across her lips before dripping off her chin.
Lucius eyes widened and then trained on that solitary tear. He stepped closer, tilted her chin towards him, then wiped her lips with his glove. His jaw tightened, and then his lips parted.
Petra swayed forward.
“I’m sorry,” He said hoarsely.
“This.” His lips touched hers.
Lucius rolled his eyes and waited for patience. The carriage pulled to stop in front of Renwick House. Damara jumped out giving anyone within ten feet a view of her ankles. How had she turned into such a hoyden? Oh right, his influence. Hell was looking more like a reality every blasted day.
He stepped out and offered Petra his hand. She reached for it and time stilled. Well perhaps it did not still after all Lucius was still breathing and carriages were moving around them, perhaps it was his heart that stilled. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat and looked up into her eyes.
A blindfold. He needed to blindfold her, lest he get lost in her eyes again and do something stupid, then again a blindfold reminded him of.
He cleared his throat and looked away as she stepped down from the carriage.
“Lucius, are you coming down with something?” Petra asked politely.
Did lust of his sisters best friend count as something? “No, heavens no, I just seem to have something caught in my throat.”
“Nervous habit.” Damara interjected, “It always happens when he has to escort me to another ball. He hates balls. Now, Lucius, do your job. We each get one dance before you set us loose upon the available gentleman.”
Lucius lfited his eyes heavenward as he held out his arms for each girl to grab onto. “Ladies are not animals to set loose upon gentleman.”
Damara laughed, “No dear brother, it is quite the other way around. Gentleman are animals to be set loose upon us. Ten pounds says that even the married ones have trouble keeping their eyes off Pet.”
That was exactly what Lucius was afraid of.
Their names were announced as they entered into the sweltering ballroom. Lucius greedily scanned the room for the rakes. If they took a step towards Pet this very evening, it would be pistols at dawn.
What was he thinking? She wasn’t his to protect. Not now, not ever. Petras hand tightened in his arm, she gave him a watery smile and thrust her chin into the air.
Good girl. Though he was proud of her strength, he very much wanted to lift her into his arms and carry her away from this place. Away from the monsters of the ton, away from darkened corners, from midnight walks. Good God he was sweating just thinking upon it!
“You may leave us now, Lucius.” Damara announced releasing his arm and pulling out her fan, “but do not forget to return for a set.”
“Right.” He remained rooted to the ground.
Damara’s eyes narrowed, “hard of hearing dear brother? Leave us! And do wipe that grimace off of your face, you’ll scare all the gentleman away.”
“That’s the point.” He ground out.
“What was that?” Damara asked innocently.
“Foxed, I need to get foxed.” With that, he left them and didn’t look back. Not because he didn’t want to, it was abosolute Hell to keep his eyes focused straight ahead. But, he knew if he looked at her again, he woul run to her, he would kiss her in front of everyone and ruin her, ruin everything. She was not his. He would simply chant that over and over again in his head until he got it through his thick skull.
And if it never did. If he fell. It would not be just his mistake to make. It would include Pet and she out of everone he knew, deserved happiness the most.
With a curse he picked up his pace and went in search of a bottle of something stronger than sherry or champagne.
“Pet!” Damara hit Petra on the arm with her fan, “Do pay attention. Over five gentleman have asked about you and you’ve given them nothing except curt nods and a ghost of a smile. You must try harder.”
“Sorry.” Petra mumbled, her eyes scanning the room for Lucius, but he was nowhere to be seen. One would think she would give up hope after an hour of yearning.
Was it her dress? Her hair? He seemed to like her well enough in the carriage, for a moment she thought he would kiss her, and then he became cool, indifferent. Not the Lucius she had grown to care for.
If he did not want her, who would? After all, he knew everything about her and still found her lacking even when she put on a pretty dress and allowed Damara’s maid to fix her hair.
Defeated, she allowed hope to die in her heart, but only a bit. Another gentleman approached and asked if he could have the next dance.
Sir Wilcox was it? He took her hand and led her in a quadrille.
The conversation, when they were near one another, was strained and boring. She truly did try as Damara had asked, but there was only so much patience given to a human being and if he did not stop talking about her lively bosom she was going to smack him on the head.
“May I have another dance soon?” Sir Wilcox breathed into her face smelling faintly of cheroots and whiskey. She shook her head.
“Whyever not?” He laughed and grasped her hand, “We get along quite well, and you are so much prettier than I remember.”
Smooth talker this one.
“I er…yes well, you see I was just getting ready to leave the ball. I haven’t been feeling wel.”
“I shall escort you!” He announced swaying into her. Yes he would escort her directly onto the floor. How much whiskey had the man consumed?
“No need,” She answered politely. “I have an escort.”
“Who?” His eyes narrowed. Truly was it that unbelievable that a man would escort her?
“The Earl of Stratford.”
Sir Wilcox laughed, “Straight laced that one. Fine good escort if you ask me. But what the devil would he want with you?”
Petra jerked back as if slapped. She gave him a quick curtsy though he did not deserve the respect of one, and walked as fast as she could towards the nearest exit. Tears burned at the back of her throat.
Finally, she found a door and pushed it open, it led to the balcony. She breathed in the warm night air and only managed to make it as far as the railing before she burst into tears.
Petra shook as her wobbly legs took her to the front of the townhome. Without companionship or desire to return to the ball and call upon Damara, she was on somewhat of a pickle.
Steeling herself against the blush that was sure to still be present on her cheeks, she quietly walked back into the townhome and began searching for Damara.
After a few short minutes she discovered her friend on the opposite end of the large ballroom laughing with a few gentleman admirers.
Just as Petra was about to make her way around the circle of dancers, she heard a familiar voice.
Sir Wilcox chuckled and cursed, “The absolute imagination on that chit!” he coughed and continued, “To think that Stratfrod would even allow his own sister to stay friends with someone so beneath her, well, it is almost ridiculous!”
A few men laughed with Sir Wilcox. Petra moved behind one of the plants and spied on the three men.
All of them were foxed, but it didn’t mean their words didn’t ring true. Why did she constantly set herself up for failure? Being with Damara meant comparisons and judgements, and in the end she was always found wanting—by everyone.
“I say,” A short man chuckled, “Were you not just dancing with the girl?”
Sir Wilcox scoffed, “But of course! At the time I thought I was doing her a favor. Dance with her, offer some petty compliments, and see if the girl wanted to go another round at my rooms.”
“Well done!” The man patted him.
Sir Wilcox beamed, “Say, there’s Stratford now!” They waved down Lucius who looked reluctant to do anything if the scowl on his face was any indication.
“What the devil did you do to that little spinster that went in search of you? Lose her in the gardens or balcony did you?”
The men all joined in laughter.
Lucius’ eyes darkened, “Like any good gentleman, I did nothing of the sort.”
Wilcox slapped Lucius on the back, “Have a care, she isn’t that ugly. I find her quite interesting, well if I close my eyes that is.”
Lucius opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by a woman in head to toe red. “Shall we?”
With a swift nod, Lucius left the ball. With a woman. Minutes after giving Petra the best kiss of her life, and seconds after killing any hope she had of it meaning something more than it did.
He thought her ugly.
He thought her plain.
And in the end, when he had all the chance in the world to defend her.
He walked away. Petra walked slowly back to the front doors. The sound of music and laughter blaired in her ears as she made her way out into the damp night air.
Shaking she removed her glove and touched her fingers to her swollen lips. Well, she’d gotten exactly what she asked for. The best kiss of her life—a kiss that would surely get her through the lonely nights of being a spinster. After all, now she knew more than ever. She was completely unable to secure a husband. Damara had failed and it was Petra’s fault. Perhaps if she wasn’t so disagreeable, it would have been a success.
She walked the long distance to the humble home she shared with her mother and three servants. Located on the opposite end of Mayfair, where the once fashionable used to dwell, the house was nothing but a large pile of bricks that looked anything but gentry.
Petra let herself in and cringed when she heard her mothers screeching voice, “Well? Did you gain a proposal?” Drunken laughter followed.
Petra closed her eyes and willed the tears to stay in her eyes as she turned the corner and found her mother in the Rose salon. “No.”
Her mother laughed loudly, “Did you truly think a little rat could be made into a princess? Just look at you! I am almost embarrassed for you!” Her mother stood unsteadily on her feet as brandy sloshed out of her glass, “Did you dance? Did they call you pretty? Did you get a kiss or two?”
Petra opened her mouth to speak but her mother interrupted her.
“Of course not! Those things are reserved for rich pretty girls, and you my dear, are neither.”
“I know.” Petra said calmly, “Now, let us get you to bed.”
“No.” her mother jerked back, “I have a surprise for you.”
Petra took a steadying breath and exhaled, “What?”
Her mother’s eyes took on a venomous gleam. “Mr. Robbins, you may come in.”
Petra turned around to see a tall gentleman in black clothing jeering at her. “Ah, I see what you mean. Yes, yes she will sell quite well.”
“Sell?” Petra repeated, her stomach dropping to her knees.
“Take her.” Her mother waved a hand in the air.
Mr. Robbins moved to grab Petra, but she stepped away from him, “Take me where?”
“For once, Petra, just this one time, do something for someone else in your life? You’ve spent years with good ton, while I rot away in this god-forsaken house! Do as you are told! You will never gain a proposal, therefore you are worthless to me and to the memory of your father. Just look at you!”
Petra choked on her tears as they streamed down her cheeks. “But I—“
“-take her.” Petra’s mother cleared her throat, “The money you promised?”
“Right.” Mr. Robbins looked from Petra to her mother, almost looking uncertain. “Two thousand pounds.”
“You said three.”
“Things change.” Mr. Robbins shrugged.
“She’s a bloody virgin!”
A vein in the man's temple began to throb, “Fine. Once we assess the girls state, the rest of the money will be sent.”
“Lovely.” Her mother cackled, and sauntered out of the room, money in hand.
“Sir, please, please don’t do this, please.” Petra kept backing away from him in hopes that he would give chase and she could escape his clutches.
“Miss, it isn’t so bad, you’ll see.” His voice sounded sad, “And if I don’t bring you in, many a gentleman will be disappointed, you see I promised a virgin for the final unveiling tonight, and you my dear are to be the main event! Just look at you! Men will adore you, they will pay thousands for you.”
“Please…” Petra’s eyes clouded with more tears, “I just want to stay home. I just want—“
“—it matters not what you want, my dear. Reality is…I own you, and tonight, another gentleman will own you for eternity.”
The last thing Petra recalled, as the man lunged for Petra’s body and held a cloth against her mouth, was the feel of Lucius’ lips.
Lucius squinted, as the candles were light one by one causing gasps to resound around the dim room.
The minute he’d walked in he’d wanted to do nothing more than abandon Miss Siffon and go in search of Petra.
Had she made it home safely?
Was she upset with him?
Scowling he looked away from the stage. Who was he kidding? Of course she would be upset with him! The girl was probably dancing the night away with available gentleman, all wise enough to hold onto such a treasure.
HE was an idiot.
Decision made, he looked around the room for Miss Siffon. She had stepped away for a brief moment, but now she was nowhere to be seen. Not wanting to be rude twice in one night to the female race, he pushed through the hoards of gentleman now crowding the stage.
What the devil was so interesting about the stage anyway? There were no instruments, no actors?
Clenched fists wrapped round notes, men thrust their hands into the air. “A thousand pounds for the lovely lady!”
“Two thousand!” Another yelled.
Betting? They were betting on a woman?
Disgusted, he turned to walk away. But as his eyes faced the door, a prickling awareness gave him pause.
“Three thousand pounds!” Another man shouted.
Perhaps he was going mad?
Lucius cursed and pushed against the crowd towards the stage, almost urgent in his quest to see who was lowering themselves to such an extreme to actually sell their body for money.
“Hear she’s a virgin!” A man elbowed him in the side, “Such a tasty piece too! Untouched! Imagine!”
“Right.” Lucius grumbled and stepped to the side just as a man threw a punch causing the crowd to separate enough for him to see the young woman in question.
Long wavy hair cascaded down her shoulders hitting just past her breasts. The silky tendrils teased every inch of skin that was exposed. And there was a lot of skin exposed.
He stared at her feet.
Barefoot. Why the devil would she be barefoot?
His eyes slowly rose, taking in her shapely legs and thighs, until he settled upon her heavy breasts, plump lips, and then her large eyes.
Her very large brown eyes.
“Ten thousand pounds.” He choked, pushing through the crowd as he noticed Petra’s eyes meet his in shame. A single tear ran down her cheek as she looked away.
Perhaps she shouldn’t have smiled, for the very minute she did men began shouting and fighting, each of them trying to gain a piece of her.
Mortified, she closed her eyes. She didn’t want to see anyone, didn’t want to know who was betting on her and who’s arms she would spend eternity in. It was all too much.
“Ten thousand pounds!” Was shouted from the crowd.
Stunned, she opened her eyes.
And came face to face with her savior.
The Earl of Stratford.
Face menacing, he looked ready to kill as he made his way towards the stage. Unable to meet his gaze, she closed her eyes again this time praying for God to strike her dead.
Her heart twisted in her chest. It wasn’t supposed to happen his way. Her knight wasn’t supposed to buy her love. He was supposed to freely give it. And the princess was supposed to be in a white tower. Not a white see through night dress that left nothing to the imagination.
All wrong. The story was all wrong. Devestated, she almost didn’t feel Lucius’s warm hands as he pulled her into his embrace and whispered into her ear. “Are you alright?”
She shook her head no. How could she be alright?
“Damn it.” He picked her up into his arms and strolled confidently towards the door she had come through. Once they were in, he set her on her feet and addressed the guard.
“I’ll have the money sent straightaway.”
The guard mumbled something about the gentry taking all the good ones but must have agreed because the next thing she felt was the chilling outside air.
Lucius cursed again and set her on her bare feet as he quickly shrugged out of his jacket, no easy feat considering how tightly he wore them, and wrapped it around her shoulders.
Once they were in the safety of his carriage.
And once he was finished damning everyone to hell.
He spoke, “Tell me everything.”
Never in her life had Petra felt so dirty—so used. She jerked away from Lucius touch and pulled her knees to her chest. With a whimper she opened her mouth but nothing came but a foreign sound.
Large arms wrapped around her.
Was she rocking back and forth?
She clung to her lifeline---grasped at the lapels of his jacket as if by releasing them she would be sent back into hell.
“Shhh,” Lucius whispered as he held her in his lap, “You are safe, my pet.”
She shook her head. Safe? Possibly. Pure? Deserving? Lovely? No. She was none of those things. Being his arms was a luxury she knew she would only be granted just this once. He had paid for her—and that meant one thing, he had saved her, but viewed her as every other man in that establishment had.
And now she was to, what? Become his mistress? How had this night, this evening of magic turned into something so tragic?
“I—“ Her voice croaked, “I was sold.”
Lucius arms tightened around her, “Who Pet? Who sold you?”
Several unholy curses poured from Lucius lips as his grip around her body tightened. “You shall return to my house.”
“I couldn’t!” Petra fought against Lucius, tried to pull away from his vice like grip, “I cannot! You cannot ask me to enter your home dressed like a whore! I would rather die than have your mother see me as such! Please just…leave me be. Drop me off.”
“Drop you off?” Lucius repeated angrily, “You want me to simply drop you off?”
“Yes.” She looked down at her hands, “I will be fine.” Her smile was forced.
“But of course you’ll be fine.” Lucius cursed, “For about five bloody seconds! You are dressed like a—“
“—I know what I look like, Lucius! I know what I am now!”
Lucius gripped her wrists and tugged her body close to his until their lips were only inches apart, “Sweetheart, you are still my Petra, that much has not changed.”
“You’re wrong.” Her voice shook with emotion, “Everything has changed.”
It was a totally unacceptable feeing—to feel such an earth shattering attraction to a woman who was recently just put up for auction. But there it was, black and white, he wanted her. Wanted her more than air.
He paid for her.
But he did not yet own her heart or her trust, and those were two things he knew he could not go without.
Petra’s wide eyes held so much fear he had half a mind to shoot the girls mother for her grievous misdeeds.
“Pet..” He reached out to cup her chin, “Look at me.”
She did, but only because she had no choice.
“You are still the same. The Petra I know would not allow others to define who or what she was. You are the same, it is your perception of others that has changed. The world is evil, people are cruel, but you, my dear, you are the same. I am the same. Us, together. Nothing has changed between us.”
Tears streamed down her face, “You paid a fortune to save me.”
“I’d give my life to save you.” He snapped, “Do you not see? I would sell my estates, my horses, my very soul---to secure your safety.”
“Why?” She choked on a sob, “Why would you do such a thing for me?”
The carriage jolted to a stop ruining the precious moment.
“I cannot, Lucius, please do not ask me to do this. Do not put me through such embarrassment I cannot—“
“—mother is sleeping and upon the morrow I’ll give her strict instructions that it will be in her best interest to take the waters at Bath. Never fear, Pet. I will protect you from her.” But from himself? That was a different scenario entirely. Good God he was going to sleep like a madman.
Visions of Petras sleek body in the white transparency would haunt him for the rest of his days.
“Now, off you go. I’ll wrap you in one of the blankets we use for chilly evenings, no one will be the wiser.”
Petra’s shoulders slumped in defeat as she allowed Lucias to wrap the blanket around her body. Her skin was frozen, she shook beneath Lucius touch. As he wrapped the blanket and tucked her under his arm, he simply could not help himself, his lips touched the bare skin just above her shoulder.
With a gasp she froze.
He waited to apologize, but instead found her slump even easier into his arms.
With a sigh, he made his way to the front door and entered the house.
Though the minute he entered, he very much wish he would have thought through the situation better, for his mother was not in bed.
But entertaining a young woman and her mother. Why the devil weren’t they still at the ball?
“Oh, Lucius, there you are I—“
His mothers mouth dropped open, “Petra?”
“Was in a bit of a scuffle after the ball, accosted on the street.” He said smoothly, “We are lucky she’s alive.”
His mothers eyes narrowed before she answered, “Praise God she is not harmed.”
Curious to hear his mother speak of God in a way that wasn’t a curse.
“Yes.” He agreed, “Praise God, she is unharmed.”
“Mary!” Lady Stratford clapped her hands, “Please see to Petra while Lucius and I discuss arrangements with the duchess.”
“Duchess?” Lucius repeated.
“But of course,” His mother smiled, “The Duke and Duchess have just arrived in town from an extended stay in Scotland, they have agreed to our suit.”
“Our suit?” Confused Lucius looked to the young woman standing before him, she could not be a day over one and eight by the looks of her.
“For marriage.” His mother beamed, “Remember? I had you write them a few months ago?”
No she hadn’t. He’d done no such thing, which meant his mother had written as him and somehow used his seal. Bloody hell.
“Of course.” He bent over the daughter’s hand and then the duchesses. “What can I do for you?”
His mother laughed, “Oh his sense of humor! Marriage, you oaf. This is your betrothed.”
A small gasp was heard from the top of the stairs. Lucius looked up just in time to see fresh tears fall from Petra’s face
Through a fog of lust, Lucius realized what he was doing was not only a mistake, but one he could not bring himself to feel guilty about. Her lips were so soft, so eager as they pressed against his.
He reached up to cradle her head, clearly losing his mind in the process considering he should be stopping this madness immediately. She tensed beneath his touch and then her lips relaxed, just slightly, enough that he was able to taste the flavor that was purely Petra. A flavor, in all his existence he hadn’t known he craved until this very moment.
Lucius groaned as he pulled her tightly against his chest, and then just as quickly as it started, he ended it. For both of them. Not because he didn’t want the kiss to continue, not because he wasn’t enjoying himself immensely, but because to go any further would mean certain ruin. His hands had already found themselves placed on her hips, his fingers itching to run down her thighs and lift up her skirts right there in the hallway.
“Sorry.” He repeated, even though it was a lie of gigantic proportions. He’d never been less sorry for anything in his life.
Petra looked well and kissed, her lips were slightly swollen, her cheeks flushed and part of her hair had fallen across her forehead softening her appearance so much tha the could do nothing save gawk at the girl for a good minute before his mouth began working again.
Words. He needed to use words and none would come.
“Sorry?” Petra said hoarsely, eyes narrowing.
He knew that look. It was the same one worn by his sister when she was about to say something stupid. It was also the same look worn by women everywhere when they were about to slap a man.
She stayed paralyzed in place.
Lucius licked his lips and nervously backed up.
“I’m not going to hit you.” Petra scowled.
Well that was a relief. “Apologies, it’s just you were wearing that exact same look last year when you slapped Lord Heathrow across the face. Didn’t want a repeat offense.”
Petra mumbled something under her breath and turned on her heel so fast Lucius was surprised he didn’t hear air whoosh by his ears.
“Wait,” He reached out and grabbed her wrist.
Petra jerked her arm away from him, “Unhand me this instant!”
“We need to discuss what just happened.” He said smoothly, still tugging on her arm so she would at least look at him.
“We just did. You said you were sorry. I refuse your apology and now I must see to your sister.”
“—Good day, Lucius.”
He released her hand and watched as Petra walked down the hall back in the direction she came.
A feeling of dread washed over him as she turned the corner. It felt as if, he had crossed the invisible line in their friendship, never to return again.
But after that kiss.
Well, he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to return at all.
What the devil had he come back into the house for anyway?
Perplexed he ran down the stairs and out the door, not pausing once to think more on what just took place, rather, relying on the promise of whiskey to numb the lust still pulsing through his body.
Petra’s fingers trembled as she touched her swollen lips. It was just as she imagined it would be. The feeling of being in his arms, the completeness she felt at being held by the one man she’d always wanted.
However brief it was, it was worth it. Even if it ruined their friendship forever. At least she knew what it was like to be kissed, to be wanted, for a few minutes, she felt beautiful.
“There you are!” Damara scolded from the sofa, “Mother is terrible, I am so sorry that she said those things, Petra. Forgive me?”
Petra grasped her friends hands and kissed her cheek, “The fault lies not with you but the dragon.”
Both girls giggled. The dragon was the nickname for Lady Blackwood, even the servants had taken to whispering it behind her back when she wasn’t paying attention.
“Now,” Damara took a seat, “Please do not be angry with me, but I think mother has a point.”
Petra felt all the color drain from her face as she clenched her hands in her lap, “Whatever do you mean?”
“I think we should start with you.”
Damara nodded, “The club, yes. You are my dearest friend in the world, do you know that?”
Petra sat there dumbfounded. She opened her mouth to speak but nothing would come. The swell of hot tears threatened her eyes. She looked away and focused on the wall.
“Petra,” Damara patted her leg, “You are beautiful. It isn’t fair that because you are poor that you were never able to have a proper debut.”
Blunt as ever, Damara waited. But Petra couldn’t say anything for fear she would burst into tears.
“Let me help.” Damara whispered, “Please? It will be the perfect start to our club. Think how it will encourage Lady Salisburg.”
At that Petra laughed, “You wretch! How dare you bring her up, she has the most dreadful blush when she’s in public, and you know how sorry I feel for her.”
Damara laughed, “Don’t I know it. And what about Miss Lisa Porter? What of her? The poor thing has had four seasons and no offers! I believe she has permanently placed herself on the shelf and has not even received her first kiss.”
At the word kiss. Petra gasped and bit her lip.
Damara’s eyes narrowed, “Petra, is there something you haven’t told me?”
“Absolutely not.” Petra said breathless forcing a smile, “What did you have in mind for my transformation?” She had to change the direction of the conversation before she blurted everything to Damara.
“You mean it!”
“I have not yet agreed to it.” Petra pointed out.
Damara clapped, “Oh but you will! Come,” She held out her hand, “I believe a trip to Bond Street is in order.”
That’s what I’m afraid of. Petra wanted to add, but didn’t. The last time she went shopping for gowns was for her debut into society. They hadn’t the money to make anything new, so she bought second hand and tried to stich in some lace to make the fashion seem current. Instead, she ended up looking like a fool.
On the eve of her first ball, she received one dance. A pity dance from Lucius, who said her dress was pretty and that her eyes were brighter than the sun.
She still had that very dress.
But only because he said he liked it. Clearly it was nothing special, but a part of her held on to the memory and the dress so that when things made her sad or got her down, she was able to remember one good thing. One thing that made her happy.
In fact, if she were to count on her fingers the times she had truly been happy in life, it all lead back to Lucius. Hope spurned in her chest, perhaps if she were prettier, maybe if she wore another dress like the one that night. Maybe, he would give her another kiss.
“I’ll do it.”
“I knew it.” Damara was already waiting by the door, “Now, shall we?” Her hand was outstretched for Petra to take it. A sudden shiver ran down her spine. Maybe this was the moment. The one that people talk about in story books, where the sad lonely girl turns into a beautiful princess. She let out a sigh and grasped her dear friends hand. “I’m ready.”
Lucius hated attending balls. It meant meaningless conversation with boring people and to make things worse he always had the dreadful job of guarding his sister as well as Petra from men who would love nothing more than to take them down a darkened hallway.
Just like you did old fellow. The thought hit him like a punch to the chest. Truthfully, he did nothing of the sort. For one thing, she was crying and he was doing nothing more but comforting her. And it wasn’t his fault that her eyes were so large, or her lips so kissable.
Damn, they tasted good. He needed to get ahold of himself before he embarrassingly had to excuse himself from the ball altogether.
“Late,” he muttered as he took another sip of brandy.
“Brother?” Damara called loudly from the entryway.
“Coming.” He threw back the contents of his glass and strolled into the entry way taking his hat and cane from the nearby butler.
A throat cleared. He looked up. Damara was grinning from ear to ear. Oh, God what had she done now. He hated to ask.
“Minx, tell me you haven’t been drinking.”
Damara laughed, “No, dear brother. I have not been drinking, though something tells me you have. Always did feel the need to inebriate yourself before balls.”
“I can only imagine why.” He answered dryly.
“Rogue,” She slapped him with her fan, “Now, be a gentleman and escort us.”
“Us?” He looked around and saw nothing.
Damara winked, “Oh, Petra, hurry up dear.”
“I’ll just see to the carriage then,” Lucius walked out into the cold air and waited near the carriage. He wasn’t’ sure why, but he suddenly felt stifled in that house as if the air had been all but sucked out of the room. Which was ridiculous. Perhaps he shouldn’t have drank before tonight.
Giggling was heard behind him. He rolled his eyes and turned around.
And truthfully wished, in that moment that someone would have prepared him for what he was now facing.
And to be more exact, Petras breasts, her lips, her eyes, her hips. Really, the list could go on forever and he would still be there, without words, and looking like a complete idiot just out of school.
“Brother, do close your mouth.” Damara joked taking the footmans hand and quickly getting into the carriage.
“I was…yawning.” As he said it, he realied it was most likely the worst lie that had ever fallen from his lips. Yawning? Truthfully? Not only was it a blatant lie but it gave the impression that he was bored.
Which could not have been further from the truth. His body, in fact, at this very moment was anything but bored. It was ready to toss up Petras skirts and ravish her against the carriage.
He cleared his throat, once, twice, finally a third time and motioned for Petra to step into the carriage.
She gave him a nervous smile and swiftly stepped around him.
He wanted to die.
What was that scent? And why did it smell so warm and intoxicating? And..He tugged at his cravat, and jumped into the carriage. With a curse he glared at Damara who was sprawled against the seat, “You know how I need my space when we travel, Lucius. You may sit by Petra. Doesn’t she look divine?”
Divine? She looked like a goddess. Her pale blue dress hung tightly across her breasts giving him just enough of a view that he nearly cleared his throat for the fourth time that night. Stupid nervous habit.
Soft brown curls framed her petite face making her eyes appear larger. A man could get lost in those eyes, and those lips. He swallowed slowly as he memorized the way they parted. Touching them had been heaven. As close to heaven as he’d ever been.
The carriage jolted.
Petra reached out to steady herself and touched his thigh.
He gasped and had the sudden urge to toss his sister out of the moving carriage if only he could have one minute with Petra.
“You look,” He searched for the correct words, “Perfect.”
“Me?” Damaras asked. For his gaze had flickered away from Petra for fear tha this eye would give him away.
“Yes, and also, Petra.” He turned to look at her. A smile brightened her face causing his heart to slam in his chest. Madness took over his body as he leaned forward. His lips so near hers, yet he could not bring himself to care about propriety.
It was his sisters turn to clear her throat and then kick him in the shin. “Honestly, Lucius! Do not even think of it. She is my best friend, not some courtesan out to warm your bed.”
“Damara!” He rolled his eyes, “Must you always be so crude?”
“You practically raised me. The fault lies with you.”
“Great. I’ll most likely go to hell.”
“Impossible.” Damara shrugged, “I refuse to go to any place where mother will surely reside.”
Petra tried to control the muffled sobs coming from her mouth by slapping her gloved hand across her lips but it only seemed to make things worse.
Her body convulsed with the memory of Sir Wilcox words. Of course, she was aware of her status with the ton. After all, her very own mother had told her repeatedly that Petra was beneath those she acquainted herself with, but she never listened. The entire evening had been a terrible idea! From the choice of her dress to the dane with Sir Wilcox. She should have stayed home, stayed where she belonged.
After all, if Sir Wilcox would not even give her the time of day, then what hope was there for her to find a suitable husband, thereby making Damara’s plan a rousing success?
A disgrace. She had become a disgrace, and the one man whose arms she wanted to be in—was somewhere with a bottle of brandy drowning his sorrows at being at the ball in the first place!
With a final huff, she gained control of her emotions once again and turned on her heel. She would simply announce to Damara that she was feeling ill and--
“—Oomph!” Her body slammed very awkwardly into something warm and hard and—her eyes traveled up from a muscled chest into a pair of beautiful eyes.
“Have you been crying, Pet?” Lucius raised a gloved hand to her wet cheeks and cursed, “Have you been harmed? Who did this? I”ll string them up by their innards, tell me Pet!” His hands had moved to her shoulders. The comfort of his touch caused her eyes to flutter closed and her head to move closer to his.
With a tiny gasp she realized she was about to kiss him and almost pulled away, but then she opened her eyes and saw that Lucius was staring very hard at her lips. As if the worlds secrets were kept there and he needed to be the one explorer to seek them out.
So she leaned in closer.
His hands tightened on her shoulders but he tugged her body flush with his.
Inches, they were inches away. Seconds apart from sharing a kiss.
“I’m going to rot in hell.” Lucius announced, just as his lips crashed down onto hers.
Pet was an addiction. The taste of her cherry red lips, the way they softly worked against his. He groaned against her mouth and wrapped his arms around her body as her hands slid from his chest to his neck. Her delicate fingers began playing with the back of his head, and the hair that seemed to grow long over his cravat.
It had started innocently enough. After all, wasn’t he the one to kiss her when she had a scrape? But this was no scrape, and he had promised himself he wouldn’t fall prey to his own lust again.
But there he was. Kissing his sisters best friend—his best friend. Twice in the same week. Twice in two days! He was losing his damn mind!
Abruptly, he pulled back and steadied himself, careful not to push Pet away. Her eyes scanned his.
Neither of them spoke, they merely stared. Quite unromantic if you asked him, considering he was supposed to be the one whispering sweet nothings in the moonlight, ye the couldn’t find words, so he continued to stare at her lips, her eyes, her nose. Everything about the woman was delightfully wicked and delicious.
He cupped her cheek and exhaled a shuddering breath, “Apologies.” He coughed, “Again.”
“Does this happen often?” Pet asked in a breathy voice.
“What?” Damn and blast those red lips were swollen, just begging for him to suckle them more and--
“Apologize to women after they are thoroughly kissed?” Petra gave a small smile, “After all, there are much better things to say to a woman after you’ve kissed her than sorry.”
“Like what?” Amused he watched her lips press together in thought.
“Pardon?” His head jerked to attention as he gazed into her eyes. “You think I should thank you?”
“Why of course.” Her hands pressed against his chest burning a damn hole through his clothes. “I would much rather have you thank me, then apologize. To apologize means what happened was wrong.”
“What was wrong yesterday, is still wrong today it seems.” Lucius said bitterly, knowing yet again that he could never touch what wasn’t his. Nevermind that he’d done so twice. But she was not his to toy with. Pet was not another mistress looking for a tumble.
“If it is wrong. Then at least have the decency to do it right.” Pet smirked.
What the devil kind of spirit was possessing the woman? She looked confident, happy? Good God she’d gone mad! Was she drunk?
“Pet?” He rasped, as her hands moved to his cravat then slinked around his neck, “Pet?” Perhaps if he kept repeating her name the spirit would uninhabit her body and she would release him from her sensual spell.
“I would like a kiss.” Pet stated matter of fact, “And I would like for it to be wonderful. I would like for it to be the best damn kiss you’ve ever given a woman. When it is over with I will simply walk away and pretend it did not happen. But I have had a horrid night and come to some terrible conclusions about my person and my future. This kiss. I need it to make all of those things go away, if only for a few brief moments. Can you do that, Lucius?”
He groaned. How could he say no? Damn, he was having a hard time denying the woman before she was asking him so sweetly to press his lips to hers.
“Yes.” He nodded his head, “God yes.” With a hungry growl he swept her into his arms and dipped his tongue into her hot mouth.
The music from the ball faded into nothingness as he devoured every inch of her lips. Nothing else mattered. Hell, he didn’t even mater. All he could feel was Pet, all he wanted to feel for the rest of his life was her soft body in his arms. All he wanted to hear was the happy sighs escaping her lips.
“God, I want you.” His hands dipped lower, skimming the top of her dress.
Pet instantly stepped out of his embrace. “I’m waiting.”
For? What? Him to take her on the balcony? Lift her skirts? For another kiss? He opened his mouth to speak but she pressed two fingers against his lips.
His lust filled mind quickly picked up the few words he was able to communicate. “That was….” He cleared his throat, “One of the best kisses I’ve ever shared with a woman.” With my best friend. With a goddess. All things he omitted so she wouldn’t scurry off like a scared rabbit.
“Thank you.” Petra’s eyes held unshed tears. Had he done something wrong?
He reached for her, but she shook her head. “No, please don’t touch me. I do not have the ability to deny you anything. Thank you, Lucius for kissing me, for showing me what it could have been like.” She gave a low curtsy and without another word left him alone on the balcony.
What the devil just happened?
Lucius hadn’t realized how much Petra’s kiss had affected him—at least not until Miss Siffon, had attacked him once they reached his carriage.
She had been looking for a protector for a few weeks now, and he’d been looking for a way to push a very unavailable Petra from his mind.
“How may I pleasure you?” Miss Siffon asked reaching for his trousers.
He pushed her hands away, “Not now.”
Her lips fell into a pout, “Why? Do I not please you?”
Lucius took in her low décolletage, ruby red lips and dark as night hair. “You are…beautiful.”
“I know.” She sighed happily, “Now, you look sad, and not at all like a man of your age should look.”
He couldn’t argue that.
“I have a plan.” She purred into his ear, “Let us take the carriage to Sir Arthurs Palace.”
Immediately aroused, he cursed the fact that he had always been curious of the going ons of that place. Especially considering they called it the pleasure palace. The very idea that he would walk into such an establishment, after near ruining Petra was abhorrent, yet, he was a male, therefore his body responded immediately.
“I see the idea…excites you.” Miss Siffon licked her lips and took in his aroused state before moving her hand down his chest, “I promise, you will not regret it.”
“Fine.” He snapped, “But only for a little while. I have other things to attend to.”
“Me.” She lifted a perfectly arched brow, “you will be attending to me, and I will not let you down, in fact…I believe you will appreciate how I am able to uplift, even the sourest of dispositions.”
“Right.” Lucius turned away and barked orders to the footman. The pleasure palace. Good God, what was he thinking?
A vision of Petra flashed through his mind, of her swollen lips and wide trusting eyes.
He would never have her. Though he wanted her. Jewels like Petra were meant to be cherished, and his greatest fear was that he would tarnish what was so pure, breaking her heart in the process.
Men married women like Petra, they did not dally, therefore he was left with women like Miss Siffon. He sighed heavily as the womans’ hand inched up his thigh.
He swatted it away. “Later.”
“Now.” She snapped.
“Do not make me repeat myself.”
Pouting like a two year old, Miss Siffon folded her arms across her chest and huffed. Silent the rest of the way to the palace.
The smell of perfume jolted Petra awake. Women of all ages and sizes stood around her. “Is she dead?” A young lady asked poking Petra in the ribs.
Petra squealed and scrambled away from them. It was then that she noticed her hands were bound, making it only possible to crawl or slide away from everyone.
“Where am I?” Fresh tears streamed down her face as she looked pleadingly from one girl to the next.
An elderly woman walked briskly into the room. Her gray hair was piled high on her head and pulled back so tight her eyebrows seemed to be in a constant state of surprise. Her ruby red lips pursed together as she tilted her head in examination of Petra. “Well, don’t just sit there looking forlorn. Stand up, girl.”
Petra struggled to her feet still feeling woozy from whatever that man had given her. The sound of the womans boots clicked against the wooden floor as she approached and then grabbed Petra’s chin.
“You are too thin.”
“—have you not been fed recently?” She poked her rib and scowled, “I do not know what he expects me to do with you. Pretty yes, beautiful…” She sighed, “You will be.”
“Pardon me but—“
“—Not another word. The girls here, they do not talk to each other and they do not speak unless spoken to. Do you understand?”
Petra nodded once.
“Good.” The lady stepped back and wiped her hands on her crisp green dress. “I am Madame Red.”
Petra swallowed against the dryness in her throat and willed her tears to stay in as she nodded again and waited for instructions.
Madame Red snapped her fingers. Three girls were suddenly in front of her with different pieces of lace and see through chemise’s. A few of the pieces looked like what one would buy for a Trousseau.
“What do you think?” Madame asked the girl to her left, “The white?”
The girl looked at the fabric longingly and then nodded silently.
Madame Red snagged the material from the girl, “Move!” With another snap of her fingers the girls scurried. “Charles! Charles! It is time!”
The girls parted like the Red Sea, making room for a man who stood about at about five feet to stomp through.
“Charles, she needs your assistance.”
The man clapped once. A stool was sat next to Petra. She wasn’t sure if he was to stand upon it or she was to sit. So she did nothing.
“Sit.” He commanded, though it sounded more like “Seat.” His accent was undoubtedly French.
“Thes es all wrrong.” It sounded as if he was rolling his r’s on purpose either that or Petra was grasping at anything to concentrate on that would make it so she didn’t pass out from pure terror.
“Then fix it.” Madame Red snapped, while she moved behind Petra and began pulling the pins from her hair.
Had she any idea that the person taking the pins from her hair this night would be a complete stranger, she never would have put them in, in the first place.
Had she known her mother was going to sell her to what was looking more and more like a brothel.
She would have ran.
Not that it would have helped. Women do not last long on the streets of London and Petra had no money. Most likely, she would have ended up in the exact same position she was currently in.
Petra focused on Lucius. On his lips, on what it felt like to kiss a man who at least cared for her. Even if it was only a little bit.
Her hair fell about her waist.
Charles walked around her and smiled triumphantly. “We shall make a cut here.” He held out his hand. Scissors were dropped into it. He picked up her dark locks of hair and snipped around four inches off, still leaving the hair long but no longer heavy.
“The wave.” He nodded, “it is natural, no?”
Petra bit her lip and squeaked out a whispered yes.
“Now.” With his left hand he combed through her hair and fluffed it. “Now, you shall be beautiful.” He stepped back and handed the scissors back to one of the girls. “Dress her.”
With that, he walked out the same way he came in. Suddenly three girls were in front of her pulling off her once beautiful gown.
Tarnished and wrinkled from laying on the ground, it was ruined anyways. But it didn’t matter. It reminded Petra of the magical night she had. Of the one memory she could hold on to when everything went pear shaped.
As the dress was lifted, cold air sliced through her skin.
Hands moved to her corset undoing the strings in back while someone else reached beneath her chemise and began unrolling her stockings.
Embarrassed she closed her eyes.
Yes, they were women, not men. But the only person she had been naked in front of in her lifetime had been her maid, and that was years ago when she still had one.
Once her clothes were completely removed, the white silk was put over her head. It was nearly transparent and felt wicked against her skin as it slid smoothly over her.
An outer silk robe was given to her, not that it did any good, for it was lace, making everything even more transparent.
The silk fabric was cut so low in the front that if she moved suddenly, she would completely fall out of the dress.
Shame washed over her.
Maybe her mom was correct. Too ugly for a husband and too poor for any use, this was to be her future, her destiny.
“Head high, my dear!” Madame Red instructed, “Now, when you step into the room, you will not be able to see any of the gentleman’s faces, we have it that way for a reason. Once the bidding is over with, you will leave this place and cease to be under our protection. Do not come back. Do not bang on our doors claiming that your owner is cruel to you. This is your lot in life. Do your best to make him happy and you will not be beat.
“Do not speak.” Madame Red reminded her sternly. “Now hold your head high and be sure not to slouch. We are to do the inspection.”
“Must I continually remind you not to talk?”
Petra was silent while Madame Red ushered the rest of the girls out of the room and in a hushed voice commanded, “Doctor, you may enter.”
Embarrassment washed over Petra as she tried to wrap the silk robe tigheter around her, not that it was doing anything to cover her.
“This is Doctor Black.”
Petra bit her lip to keep from asking why it seemed everyone was named after a color. Perhaps it was their way to keep identity a secret? At any rate, nobody was going to touch her. The doctor walked briskly towards her and grasped her arm.
“This shall be over before it begins.” Black said in a hoarse voice pushing her to the ground.
Panicking, Petra tried to kick him, but he was more than twice her size. His heavy weight pushed her down further onto the ground as he quickly pushed up her dress and touched her.
That’s what she was.
Warm tears spilled over her cheeks as the doctor said something to Madame Red and then released her. “Pure.”
The fight hadn’t left Petra, the minute he spat out Pure, she kicked him in the shin, only to have him backhand her.
Face stinging she grasped her cheek and wept.
“Doctor, you are not to touch the girls. However am I going to explain a mark on that face?” Madame wrung her hands.
“Some blokes like a little violence, madame. Good evening.” He strolled out, head high like a peacock, leaving Petra writhing with pain on the ground.
Madame cleared her throat, “Well, at least you know what the consequences of your actions will be if you as much as talk back to any man.”
“Please.” Petra whispered through her tears, “Please don’t’ do this. Please just let me go! I’ll find a way to pay you what my mother owes.”
Madame threw her head back and laughed, “Oh my dear, you think your mother is in debt? Quite the opposite. She has been selling girls to us for years, but never has she received such a high price. Virgin’s sell the best. I wager she was just waiting until the right moment, until your price was high enough.”
Shaking with rejection. Petra could only listen numbly as she realized there had never been any affection for her, nor love. Except Damara, and papa. Both of them had loved her.
Not that love had rescued her from her destiny.
No, instead the love lost, pushed her mother clearly into madness, leading Petra to a life of cruelty.
“It is time!” Madame clapped her hands, “Now, remember. Head high, chin up, no speaking, and when the gentleman buys you. Do your best to smile.”
Smile? She wanted Petra to smile? At having been bought and sold like a cow?
Two burly men stormed into the room, took one look at Petra, and picked her off the floor, carrying her to the door.
“This the one?” The man holding her grunted.
“That is she.” Madame answered, “Be sure not to bruise her skin, it is quite...sensitive.”
The man chuckled as he carried her down the darkened hallway.
As the hallway became darker, the noise from outside was louder. People laughing, classes clinking, and some sort of violin music played through the air.
Petra tried despeartly to think of a way to escape but the hallway was never ending, with no doors whatsoever.
Finally, the man stopped and dumped her onto her feet like a sack of poattoes. “When the bell rings, you walk in. Understand, love?”
Was she allowed to answer or did she nod?
“I said, do you understand?” The man grabbed her chin between his fingers, “My but you’re a saucy piece. High price indeed.”
The muffled sound of a bell pierced the otherwise deserted hallway.
“Off you go.” He opened the door, pushed her in, and closed it.
Everything was black. Everywhere she looked. How was it possible to see anything?
And then, one by one, candles lit as if on a stage…and then she realized she was on a stage. On a pedestal.
As the row of candles lit in front of her, it became easier to see. With a gasp she wished—no prayed that the building would burn down.
With the last candle lit.
She realized with horror that whatever this was, it was not private.
Around two hundred men stood around the large room. Some of them leered, others pointed, while a great many began counting out money and nudging one another.
The few women present refused to look at her, as if her shame was there burden as well.
She wanted to scream for help, but remembered Madames threat of being beat. So she stayed silent as her pride slowly dissipated along with the realization, that she was never going to be saved from this hell.
Head held high, she did the only thing she could think to do.