He was not the sort of man she usually chose. Across the roulette table she studied him. He was young; yes, younger than she preferred. One wondered if he yet shaved. The pink blush of innocence still tinged the pretty Englishman's cheeks, and his bones were as delicately carved as her own.
But he was not innocent. And if he were delicate, well, tant pis.
The croupier leaned over the table. "Mesdames and messieurs," he said in his bad French accent, "faites vos jeux, s'il vous plait!"
She waved away the smoke from a nearby cheroot and placed a corner bet, pushing three chips across the baize with a perfectly manicured fingertip. Just then, the gentleman between them rose, scraping up his winnings as he went. An exchange of backslapping and bonhomie followed. Bien. The young man was alone now. In the dim light, she partially lifted the black veil which obscured her eyes, and shot him a look of frank interest. He shoved a stack of chips onto black twenty-two, and returned the stare, one brow lightly lifting.
"No more bets," the croupier intoned. "Les jeux sont faits!" In one elegant motion, he spun the tray and flicked the ball. It leapt and clattered merrily, punctuating the drone of conversation. Then it went crack! clickity-clack! and bounced into black twenty-two.
The croupier pushed out his winnings before the wheel stopped. The Englishman collected them and moved to her end of the table.
"Bonsoir," she murmured throatily. "Black has been very good to you this night, monsieur."
His pale blue eyes ran down her black dress. "Dare I hope it is the beginning of a trend?"
She looked at him through the fine mesh and lowered her lashes. "One can always hope, sir."
The Englishman laughed, showing his tiny white teeth. "I don't think I know you, mademoiselle," he said. "You are new to Lufton's?"
She lifted one shoulder. "One gaming salon is much like another, n'est-ce pas?"
His gaze heated. The fool thought she was a Cyprian. Understandable, since she sat alone and unescorted in a den of iniquity.
"Lord Francis Tenby," he said, extending his hand. "And you are...?"
"Madame Noire," she answered, bending far forward to place her gloved fingers in his. "It must be fate, must it not?"
"Ha ha!" His gaze took in her daring décolletage. "Madame Black, indeed! Tell me, my dear, have you a given name?"
"Those with whom I'm intimate call me Cerise," she said, the word husky and suggestive.
"Cerise," echoed the Englishman. "How exotic. What brings you to London, my dear?"
Again, the lifted shoulder. The coy, sidelong glance. "Such questions!" she said. "We are taking up space at the wheel, sir, and I am quite parched."
He jerked to his feet at once. "What may I fetch you, ma'am?" he asked. "And may I show you to a quiet corner?"
"Champagne," she murmured. Then she rose, inclined her head, and went to the table he'd indicated. A corner table. Very private. Very perfect.
He returned in a trice, a servant on his heels with a tray and two glasses.
"Ma foi!" she murmured, looking about as the servant departed. "I must have left my reticule at the roulette table. Would you be so kind, my lord?"
He turned away, and she snapped open her vial. Deftly, she passed it over his glass. The tiny crystals drifted down to greet the effervescing bubbles.
He returned just as she flicked a quick glance at the watch pinned to the lining of her shawl. Timing was essential. He smiled suggestively, and she lifted her glass to his. "To a new friendship," she murmured, so quietly he had to lean nearer.
"Indeed! A new friendship." He drank deeply of the champagne, and frowned.
But he was easily distracted. For the next ten minutes, she laughed her light, tinkling laughter, and said very clever things to Lord Francis Tenby, who hadn't a brain in his beautiful head.
The usual questions followed. She told her well-practiced lies. The widowhood. The loneliness. The wealthy protector who had brought her here tonight, quarreled with her, then so cruelly abandoned her for another. But c'est la vie, she suggested with another shrug of her shoulders. There were other fish in the sea.
Of course, she proposed nothing. He did. They always did. And she accepted, flicking another glance at her watch. Twenty minutes. They stood. He lost a little of his color, shook it off, and offered his arm. Her hand on his coat sleeve, they walked out of the hell together, and into the damp, gaslit gloom of St. James. A passing hackney rolled to a stop as if it had been planned. It had.
Lord Francis gave the driver his address, almost tripping as he followed her in. By the weak light of the carriage lamp, she could see that perspiration already sheened his face. She bent forward, offering him a generous view of her cleavage. "Mon coeur," she murmured, laying her hand on his pink cheek. "You look unwell."
"I'm fine," he answered, holding himself erect now with obvious effort. "Jush fine. But I want...I want to see..." He lost his train of thought entirely.
She slithered out of her silk shawl and leaned even closer. "What, mon cher?" she whispered. "What is it you wish to see?"
He shook his head as if willing away a fog. "Your...your eyes," he finally said. "Want to shee your eyes. And face. Your ha -- ha -- hat. Veil. Off."
"Ah, that I cannot do," she whispered across the carriage, beginning to peel down her left sleeve. "But I can show you something else, Lord Francis. Tell me, would you like to see my breast?"
"Breasht?" He leered drunkenly.
Another inch of fabric eased down. "A bit of it, yes," she answered. "Look this way, Lord Francis. Yes, that's it. Focus, love. Focus. Can you see this?"
He made the fatal mistake of leaning closer.
"Tatt...tatt...tattoo?" he said, cocking his head to one side.
"Back. No, black...angel?" Suddenly, Lord Francis's eyes rolled back in his head, his mouth dropped slack, and his head thudded against the carriage door, leaving him gaping up at her like a dead carp at Billingsgate.
For his safety, she lifted his chin and pushed him back against the banquette. He flopped limply against the leather as she rifled through his pockets. Purse. Key. Snuffbox -- silver, not gold, blast it. Watch, chain, fob. A letter from his coat pocket. A lover? An enemy? Oh, Lud! She had no time for blackmail! She stuffed it back and plucked instead a sapphire pin from the snowy folds of his cravat.
Finished, she looked at him in satisfaction. "Oh, I do hope it was good for you, Lord Francis," she murmured. "It certainly was good for me."
Mouth still open, Lord Francis made a deep, snorking sound in the back of his throat.
"How gratifying to hear it," she answered. "And I daresay your pretty, pregnant, newly unemployed parlor maid shall soon be gratified, too."
With that, she dropped her loot into her reticule, thumped twice on the roof of the carriage, then pushed open the door. The cab slowed to take the curve at the corner of Brook Street. The Black Angel leapt out, and melted into the gray gloom of Mayfair. Lord Francis's head bobbled back and forth as the hackney rattled on into the night.
The Marquess of Devellyn was in a rare fine mood. So fine, he'd been singing "O God Our Help in Ages Past" all the way up Regent Street, despite not knowing the words. So fine, he had the sudden notion to have his coachman set him down near the corner of Golden Square so that he might stroll in the pleasant evening air. At his signal, the glossy black carriage rolled dutifully to a halt. The marquess leapt out, hardly staggering at all.
"But it's raining now, my lord," his coachman said, peering at him from atop the box.
The marquess looked down. Wet pavement glistened back. Well. Damned if the old boy wasn't right. "Was it raining, Wittle, when we left Crockford's?" he asked, slurring none of his words, though he was drunk as Davy's sow and wise enough to know it.
"No, sir," said Wittle. "Just a heavy mist."
"Hmph!" said Devellyn, tucking his hat brim a tad lower. "Well, fine evening for a walk anyway," he countered. "Sobers a chap up, fresh evening air."
Wittle leaned down a little farther. "B-But it's morning, my lord," he answered. "Almost six."
The marquess blinked up at him. "You don't say?" he answered. "Wasn't I to dine with Miss Lederly tonight?"
Wittle looked at him in some sympathy. "Last night, sir," he said. "And then, I believe, the theater? But you didn't -- or the club didn't..."
Devellyn scrubbed one hand along his face, feeling a day's worth of bristled beard. "Ah, I see," he finally answered. "Didn't come out when I ought, eh?"
Wittle shook his head. "No, my lord."
Devellyn lifted one brow. "Got to drinking, did I? And playing at hazard?"
The coachman's face remained impassive. "There was a lady involved, I believe, sir."
A lady? Oh, yes. He remembered now. A delicious, big-breasted blonde. And definitely not a lady. He wondered if she'd been any good. Hell, he wondered if he'd been any good. Probably not. And he didn't give a damn, really. But the theater? Christ, Camelia was going to kill him this time.
He rolled his big shoulders restlessly beneath his greatcoat and looked up at Wittle. "Well, I'm going to walk to Bedford Place," he repeated. "Don't need anyone else witnessing my humiliation when I get there, either. You go on back to Duke Street."
Wittle touched his hat brim. "Take your stick, my lord," he advised. "Soho's rife with footpads."
Devellyn grinned broadly up at him. "A mere footpad?" he chided. "Taking on the old Devil of Duke Street? Do you really think he'd dare?"
At that, Wittle smiled wryly. "Not once he'd seen your face, no, sir," he agreed. "Unfortunately, they do tend to strike from behind."
Devellyn laughed hugely and tipped his hat. "The bloody stick it is, then, you old hen," he agreed, reaching inside to grab it.
Wittle saluted again, then clicked to his horses. The carriage began to roll. Devellyn tossed his stick into the air with a spin, then gracefully caught it before it hit the ground. Not that drunk, then. The thought oddly cheered him. He set off along the pavement, picking up his hymn again as he hit his stride.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come!
Our shel-ter from the de-da-dum,
And our da-de-da-dum!
No footpad dared accost him on his short stroll through Soho and into Bloomsbury. Perhaps it was his abysmal singing. Or perhaps it was the fact that the marquess was tall and broad, and with his broken nose, not all that inviting. Hulking, he'd heard it said. He didn't give a damn what folks called him. At any rate, he had no need of his stick on his walk. But when he entered the portals of his very own house, still bellowing heartily, things changed.
A thou-sand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone!
Short as the something something night!
Before the de-da-dum!
"You bastard!" The hurtling platter came out of nowhere. "By God, I'll give you an evening gone!"
The marquess ducked. Porcelain bounced off the lintel and rained down upon his head. "Cammie -- ?" he said, peering into the drawing room.
His mistress stepped from the shadows, brandishing a fire iron. "Don't Cammie me, you pig!" she growled. She picked up a Meissen figurine and hurled it at his head.
Devellyn ducked. "Put the fire iron down, Camelia," he said, holding his stick sideways as he walked, as if it might repel the next flying object. "Put it down, I say."
"Go frig yourself!" she screamed like the Spitalfields shrew she secretly was. "Go rot in hell, you hulking, oversized, ignorant bastard!"
The marquess made a tsk tsk sound. "Camelia, your limited vocabulary is showing again," he said. "You've bastardized me twice now. Pour us a tot of brandy, my love. We'll work it out."
"No, you work this out," she said, brandishing the fire iron. "Because I'm going to shove it sideways up your arse, Devellyn."
The marquess winced. "Cammie, whatever I've done, I'm sorry. Tomorrow, I'll go down to Garrard's and buy you a necklace, I swear it." He turned but an instant to put down his stick and hat. A very bad decision. She hurled the fire iron at his head, then came at him like a rabid rat terrier, eight stone of kicking, clawing female.
"Bastard!" she screamed, leaping on his back and pounding his head with one fist. "Pig! Pig! Stupid pig!"
Camelia was nothing if not theatrical. Servants were peering from the passageway now. Devellyn spun around, trying to get a grip on her; but Camelia had him round the neck, trying to throttle him with one arm, while pounding the living hell out of him with the other.
"Selfish, coldhearted son of a bitch," she cried, hitting him with every syllable. "You never think of me. You! You! Always you!"
And then he remembered -- the blows having apparently beaten some sense into his head. "Oh, dash it!" he said. "Cleopatra!"
He finally grabbed her skirts and dragged her off. She landed on the floor on her rump and looked venomously up at him. "Yes, my Cleopatra!" she corrected. "My debut! My opening night! I was finally the star -- and I brought down the house, you selfish dog! You promised, Devellyn! You promised to be there."
The marquess slid out of his coat, and his butler crept timidly forward to take it. "I swear I'm sorry, Cammie," he said. "Really, I am. I'll be there next time. I'll come -- why I'll come tonight! Won't that do?"
Camelia rearranged her skirts and stood with as much grace as she could muster. "No, it won't do," she said, turning and speaking theatrically over one shoulder. "Because I am leaving you, Devellyn."
Camelia strolled to the mantel. "Yes, as in casting you off," she went on. "Throwing you over. Tossing you out of my life. Need I go on?"
"But Cammie, why?"
"Because Sir Edmund Sutters made me a very pretty offer tonight." Camelia looked down her nose at him, and the girl from Spitalfields vanished. "Whilst we were all drinking champagne backstage after the play."
"Where you should have been."
Camelia was caressing the matching Meissen figurine now, sliding her long, thin fingers over it in a way which he once would have thought erotic, but now looked faintly dangerous. "Of course," she went on, "had you been there, he would not have dared, would he? But you weren't. And so he did." Suddenly, she spun about. "And I accepted, Devellyn. Do you hear me? I accepted."
She really meant it this time. What a bloody inconvenience. Oh, there were always other women. He should know. Well, he did know. He just didn't have the ambition to go looking for one. But he knew from past experience that once a woman got fed up with him, there was no stopping her from packing up and leaving.
Devellyn sighed and opened both his hands expressively. "Well, dash it, Cammie, I hate it's come to this."
She lifted her chin disdainfully. "I shall be moving out in the morning."
The marquess shrugged. "Well, there's no real rush," he said. "I mean, I'm in no hurry for the house, and I'll be a fortnight or better settling on someone else, so just take your ti -- "
The last Meissen caught him square in the forehead. Shards flew. Devellyn staggered back, but she caught him before he hit the floor.
"Bastard! Pig!" The tiny fists flew again. "Pig! Bastard! I ought'er ring your neck like a scrawny Sunday chicken!"
"Oh, bugger all!" said Devellyn wearily. It was a good thing Camelia didn't write her own material.
Devellyn just collapsed onto the floor, Camelia still clinging to his neck.
Sidonie Saint-Godard was a woman of independent means, with far too much of the adjective, and just enough of the noun to pay the bills. At first, her independence had fit like a new shoe with a perilously high heel; something one teetered about awkwardly on, in the faint hope one would not trip and fall face-first into the carpet of polite society. Then she'd returned to London, her birthplace, and found that the shoe soon began to pinch. For unlike France, female independence in England came buckled and beribboned with a whole new set of shoulds and oughts.
It had taken her one full year of mourning before Sidonie had realized the solution was to kick off her shoes altogether and run barefoot through life. Now, at the great age of twenty-nine, she was sprinting for all she was worth. And when she died, she told her brother George, she wanted her gravestone inscribed with the epitaph A LIFE FULLY LIVED. It was what she planned to do, for life, she well knew, was uncertain, and despite old saws to the contrary, both the good and the bad often died young. Sidonie wasn't even sure which category she fell into. Good? Bad? A little of both?
Like many a wellborn French girl, Sidonie had gone from her mother's sheltering roof to the high, strong walls of the convent school. There, however, she'd suffered one of her more wicked moments. She'd run away with a handsome man who'd possessed neither roof nor walls -- not in any conventional sense. Instead, Pierre Saint-Godard had possessed a fine new merchantman, fitted out with a two-room captain's suite and a bank of tidy windows from which one might view the world as it floated past.
But Sidonie had soon seen enough of the world. She had sold the ship, packed up her clothes and her cat, and moved to London. Now she lived in a tidy town house in Bedford Place, surrounded by the equally tidy homes of merchants, bankers, and almost-but-not-quite gentry. And at present, she was taking in the fine view from her upstairs window. One door down, on the opposite side of Bedford Place, a removal van had drawn up, and two men were loading trunks and crates into it with nervous alacrity.
"How many mistresses does that make now, Julia?" Sidonie asked, leaning over her companion's head and peering through the draperies.
Julia counted on her fingers. "The pale blonde in December made seven," she said. "So this would make eight."
"And this is but March!" Sidonie kept toweling the damp from her long black hair. "I should like to know who he is, to treat these poor women so cavalierly. It's as if he thinks they're old coats, to be thrown out when the elbows wear!"
Julia straightened up from the window. "No time for that now, dearie," she warned, pushing Sidonie toward the fire. "You'll be late as it is. Sit, and let me comb that mess of hair dry, else you'll catch your death going down to the Strand."
Dutifully, Sidonie pulled up a stool. Thomas, her cat, jumped at once into her lap. "But it really is vile behavior, Julia," she said, slicking one hand down the sleek black tabby. "You know it is. Perhaps the crossing sweep can tell us his name? I shall ask."
"Aye, perhaps," said Julia absently as she drew the brush down. "Do you know, my dear, you've hair just like your mother's?"
"Do you think so?" asked Sidonie a little hopefully. "Claire had such lovely hair."
"Left me green with envy," Julia confessed. "And to think, me on the stage with this mouse brown straw! If we were seen together -- which we often were -- she cast me in the shade."
"But you had a wonderful career, Julia! You were famous. The toast of Drury Lane, were you not?"
"Oh, for a time," she answered. "But that's long past."
Sidonie fell silent. She knew it had been years since Julia had played a significant role in the West End theaters. And far longer than that since the rich men who had once vied for her favors had moved on to younger women. Despite being several years younger, Julia had been a close friend of Sidonie's mother, for they had run with the same fast crowd; the demimonde, and all their hangers-on. And those hangers-on had always included a vast number of wealthy, upper-class rakes with a taste for women of less-than-blue blood.
But Claire Bauchet's blood had been blue. She had also been heartbreakingly beautiful. The first advantage had been cruelly and rapaciously stripped from her. The second she had cultivated like a hothouse orchid, for like Julia, Claire had made her living with her beauty. But while Julia had been a talented actress who had sometimes had the good fortune to be kept by a wealthy admirer, Claire had been, simply put, a courtesan. Her talent had been her grace and her charm, and very little else. Well, perhaps that was not quite fair. For much of her life, Claire had been kept by one man only.
When Sidonie had returned to London, her mother's old friend had been the first to ring her bell and welcome her home. And it had been painfully obvious to Sidonie that Julia was lonely. As it happened, Sidonie had been in dire need of a lady's maid. Not to mention a companion, a cook, and a confidante. Unfortunately, she had been unable to afford all of those things. The cook she had promptly hired. Julia, the consummate actress, had proven the perfect solution to all else. And although Sidonie had not asked, she suspected Julia had been living a little too close to the bone, as women who lived by their wits and their looks so often did.
"Missing her, are you?" Julia asked out of the blue.
Sidonie looked over her shoulder and considered it. Did she miss Claire? "Yes, a bit. She was always so full of life."
Just then, a horrible crash sounded. Thomas shot off her lap and under the bed. Julia and Sidonie rushed back to the window, boldly drawing wide the draperies. The remover's van was gone, and over the door of the opposite house, someone had thrown up a sash. A petite redhead was leaning halfway out the window, holding a chamber pot.
"Pig!" she cried, hurling it to the ground. "Bastard!"
"Lord God!" said Julia.
The next sash flew up. The redhead appeared again. Another pot. "Bastard! Pig!" Down it went, shards of white porcelain bouncing off the pavement.
Sidonie burst into peals of laughter.
Julia shrugged. "Well, whoever your mystery gent is," she murmured, "he won't have a pot to piss in when she's done with him."
Copyright © 2005 by Susan Woodhouse
The Devil to Pay
By day, Sidonie Saint-Godard is a quietly elegant young widow who teaches deportment to the unpolished daughters of London's nouveau riche. By night, she is someone altogether different....
The notorious Black Angel -- so called for her lusciously located angel tattoo -- ruthlessly takes from powerful men who exploit, and gives to those who suffer at their hands. Always in disguise, she has eluded capture and her identity remains a mystery....
The Marquess of Devellyn, one of the least noble noblemen in town, uses and discards women as he pleases. But when the Black Angel entices him into her bed, ties him up, and pilfers his most valued possession, she may have gone too far. This time, Devellyn tells her, she'll have the devil to pay. And he definitely means to collect.
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