London, 1839 He was twenty-four, and it was the first time he had ever visited a brothel. Nick Gentry damned himself for the icy sweat that had broken out on his face. He was burning with desire, cold with dread. He had avoided this for years, until he had finally been driven to it out of desperate carnal need. The urge to mate had finally become stronger than fear.
Forcing himself to keep moving, Nick ascended the steps of Mrs. Bradshaw's red brick establishment, the exclusive business that catered to well-heeled clients. It was common knowledge that a night with one of Mrs. Bradshaw's girls would cost a fortune, as they were the best-trained prostitutes in London.
Nick would easily be able to pay any price that was required. He had made a great deal of money as a private thief-taker, and on top of that, he had garnered a fortune from his dealings in the underworld. And he had earned a great deal of notoriety in the process. Although he was popular with most of the public, he was feared by the underworld and detested by the Bow Street runners, who regarded him as an unprincipled rival. On that point the runners were correct-he was indeed unprincipled. Scruples had a way of interfering with business, and therefore Nick had no use for them.
Music drifted from the windows, where Nick could see elegantly dressed men and women mingling as if they were at an upper-crust soiree. In reality, they were prostitutes conducting business transactions with their patrons. This was a world far removed from his flash house near Fleet Ditch, where buttock-and-file whores serviced men in the alleys for shillings.
Squaring his shoulders, Nick used the lion's-head brass knocker to rap sharply on the door. It opened to reveal a stone-faced butler, who asked what business he was about.
Isn't that obvious?Nick wondered irritably. "I want to meet one of the women."
"I am afraid that Mrs. Bradshaw is not accepting new patrons at this time, sir-"
"Tell her that Nick Gentry is here." Nick shoved his hands into his coat pockets and gave the butler a grim stare.
The man's eyes widened, betraying his recognition of the infamous name. He opened the door and inclined his head courteously. "Yes, sir. If you will wait in the entrance hall, I will inform Mrs. Bradshaw of your presence."
The air was lightly scented with perfume and tobacco smoke. Breathing deeply, Nick glanced around the marble-floored hall, which was lined with tall white pilasters. The only adornment was a painting of a na*ed woman regarding herself in an oval mirror, one delicate hand resting lightly at the top of her own thigh. Fascinated, Nick stared at the gold-framed picture. The female image in the mirror was slightly blurred, the triangle between her legs painted with hazy brush strokes. Nick's stomach felt as if it were filled with cold lead. A servant wearing black breeches crossed through the hall with a tray of glasses, and Nick's gaze dropped swiftly from the painting.
He was intensely aware of the door behind him, of the fact that he could turn and leave right now. But he'd been a coward for too long. Whatever happened this night, he was going to see it through. Clenching his fists in his pockets, he stared at the gleaming floor, the swirls of white and gray marble reflecting the glow of the chandelier overhead.
Suddenly a woman's voice broke lazily through the air. "What an honor it is to receive the celebrated Mr. Gentry. Welcome."
His gaze traveled from the hem of a blue velvet gown to a pair of smiling sherry-colored eyes. Mrs. Bradshaw was a tall, wonderfully proportioned woman. Her pale skin was lightly dotted with amber freckles, and her auburn hair was pinned up in loose curls. She was not beautiful in any conventional sense-her face was too angular, and her nose was large. However, she was stylish and impeccably groomed, and there was something so appealing about her that beauty seemed entirely superfluous.
She smiled in a way that caused Nick to relax in spite of himself. Later he would learn that he was not alone in this reaction. All men relaxed in Gemma Bradshaw's agreeable presence. One could tell just by looking at her that she didn't mind coarse words or booted feet on the table, that she loved a good joke and was never shy or disdainful. Men adored Gemma because she so clearly adored them.
She gave Nick a conspiratorial smile and curtsied low enough to display her magnificent cleavage. "Do say you've come here for pleasure, rather than business." At his brief nod, she smiled once more. "How delightful. Come take a turn through the drawing room with me, and we will discuss how you may best be served." She came forward to slip her arm through his. Nick jerked slightly, checking the instinctive impulse to fling off her hand.
The madam could hardly fail to notice the rigidity of his arm. Her hand fell away, and she continued to chat comfortably, as if nothing untoward had occurred. "This way, if you please. My guests often like to play cards or billiards, or relax in the smoking room. You may chat with as many girls as you wish before deciding on one. Then she will show you to one of the upstairs rooms. You will be charged an hourly rate for her company. I have trained all the girls myself, and you will find that each has her own special talent. Of course, you and I will discuss your preferences, as some of the girls are more willing than others to engage in rough play."
As they entered the drawing room, a few of the women cast Nick flirtatious glances. They all looked healthy and well tended, entirely different from the whores he had seen near Fleet Ditch and Newgate. They flirted, chatted, negotiated, all with the same relaxed manner that Mrs. Bradshaw possessed.
"It would be my pleasure to introduce you to a few of them," came Mrs. Bradshaw's gentle voice in his ear. "Does anyone catch your eye?"
Nick shook his head. He was usually known for his jaunty arrogance, for having the smooth, easy banter of a confidence trickster. However, in this foreign situation, words had deserted him.
"Shall I make a few suggestions? That dark-haired girl in the green gown is exceedingly popular. Her name is Lorraine. She is charming and lively, and possesses a quick wit. The one standing near her, the blond...that is Mercia. A more quiet sort, with a gentle manner that appeals to many of our patrons. Now, Nettie-that is the little one by the looking glass-is practiced in the more exotic arts..." Mrs. Bradshaw paused as she observed the stiff set of Nick's jaw. "Do you prefer the illusion of innocence?" she suggested softly. "I can provide you with a country lass who makes a most convincing virgin."
Nick was damned if he knew his preferences. He glanced at them all, dark-haired, blond, slim, voluptuous, every shape, size, and hue imaginable, and suddenly the sheer variety overwhelmed him. He tried to imagine going to bed with any of them, and fresh sweat broke out on his forehead.
His gaze returned to Mrs. Bradshaw. Her eyes were a clear, warm brown, surmounted with ruddy brows a few shades darker than her hair. Her tall body was an inviting playground, and her mouth looked plush and soft. But it was the freckles that decided him. The amber flecks decorated her pale skin in a festive spray that made him want to smile.
"You're the only one here worth having," Nick heard himself say.
The madam's fiery lashes swept downward, concealing her thoughts, but he sensed that he had surprised her. A smile curved her lips. "My dear Mr. Gentry, what a delightful compliment. However, I do not sleep with the patrons of my establishment. Those days are long past. You must allow me to introduce you to one of the girls, and-"
"I want you, " he insisted.
As Mrs. Bradshaw saw the raw honesty in his eyes, a faint wash of pink spread across her cheeks. "Good Lord," she said, and laughed suddenly. "It is quite a trick to make a woman of thirty-eight blush. I thought I had forgotten how."
Nick did not smile back at her. "I will pay any price."
Mrs. Bradshaw shook her head in wonder, still smiling, then stared at his shirtfront with concentration, as if struggling with some weighty matter. "I never do anything on impulse. It's a personal rule of mine."
Slowly Nick reached for her hand, touched it with great care, drew his fingertips across her palm in a cautious, intimate stroke. Although she had long hands befitting a woman of her height, his were much larger, his fingers twice as thick as her slender ones. He caressed the damp little creases on the insides of her fingers. "Every rule should be broken once in a while," he said.
The madam lifted her gaze, seeming fascinated by something she saw in his world-weary face. Abruptly she seemed to make a decision. "Come with me."
Nick followed her from the drawing room, heedless of the gazes that pursued them. She led him through the entrance hall and up a curved staircase that led to a private suite of rooms. Mrs. Bradshaw's apartments were elaborate but comfortable, the furniture deeply cushioned, the walls covered in French paper, the hearth glowing with a generously stocked fire. The sideboard in the receiving room was laden with a collection of glittering crystal decanters and glasses. Mrs. Bradshaw picked up a snifter from a silver tray and glanced at him expectantly. "Brandy?"
Nick nodded immediately.
She poured golden-red liquid into the snifter. Expertly she struck a match and lit a candle on the sideboard. Holding the snifter by its stem, she turned the bowl of the glass over the candle flame. When the brandy was warmed to her satisfaction, she gave it to him. He'd never had a woman do that for him before. The brandy was rich and nut-flavored, its gentle spice drifting to his nostrils as he drank.
Glancing around the receiving room, Nick saw that one wall was lined with bookshelves, every available inch of space occupied with leather-bound volumes and folios. He drew closer to the shelves, investigating. Although he could not read well, he discerned that most of the books were about sex and human anatomy.
"A hobby of mine," Mrs. Bradshaw said, her eyes gleaming with friendly challenge. "I collect books about sexual techniques and customs of different cultures. Some of the books are quite rare. Over the past ten years, I have accumulated a vast wealth of knowledge about my favorite subject."
"I suppose it's more interesting than collecting snuffboxes," he said, and she laughed.
"Stay here. I'll be just a moment. While I am gone, you are welcome to view my library."
She went from the receiving room to the adjoining room, where the end of a poster bed was visible.
The leaden feeling returned to Nick's stomach. Finishing his drink in one gulp of smooth fire, he set the glass aside and went to the bookshelves. A large volume bound in red leather caught his attention. The antique leather creaked slightly as he opened the book, which was filled with hand-painted illustrations. His seething insides tangled in a huge knot as he saw drawings of bodies writhing in sexual positions more peculiar than anything he could have imagined. His heart hammered against his ribs even as his c**k surged with aggravated desire. Hastily he closed the book and shoved it back onto the shelf. Going back to the sideboard, he poured another brandy and downed it without tasting it.
As Mrs. Bradshaw had promised, she returned soon, coming to stand in the doorway. She had changed into a thin dressing gown trimmed with lace, the long sleeves draping in medieval points. The white silk garment revealed the pointed crests of her full breasts, and even the shadow of hair between her thighs. The madam had a magnificent body, and she knew it. She stood with one knee eased forward, protruding through the opening of the dressing gown to display the long, sleek line of her leg. Her blazing hair rippled over her shoulders and down her back, making her look younger, softer.
A shiver of longing chased down Nick's spine, and he felt his chest rising and falling in a labored rhythm.
"I'll have you know that I am selective about my lovers." The madam gestured for him to come to her. "A talent such as mine should never be squandered."
"Why me?" Nick asked, his voice turning raspy. He drew nearer, close enough to realize that she wore no perfume. She smelled like soap and clean skin, a fragrance far more arousing than jasmine or roses.
"It was the way you touched me. You instinctively found the most susceptible places on my hand...the center of the palm and the insides of the knuckles. Few men have such sensitivity."
Rather than feeling flattered, Nick experienced a flare of panic. The madam had expectations of him-expectations that he was guaranteed to disappoint. He kept his face expressionless, but his heart dropped in a sickening plunge as she drew him into the warm, firelit bedroom. "Mrs. Bradshaw," he said awkwardly as they approached the bed, "I should tell you-"
"Gemma," she murmured.
"Gemma," he repeated, every coherent thought scattering as she pushed his coat from his shoulders and helped him remove it.
Untying the knot of his sweat-dampened cravat, the madam smiled up at his flushed face. "You are shaking like a boy of thirteen. Is the notorious Mr. Gentry so intimidated by the thought of bedding the famous Mrs. Bradshaw? I wouldn't have expected it of such a worldly man. Certainly you are not a virgin, at your age. A man of...twenty-three?"
"Twenty-four." He was dying inside, knowing there was no way he could deceive her into believing that he was a man of experience. Swallowing hard, he said hoarsely, "I've never done this before."
The ruddy arcs of her brows inched upward. "Never visited a brothel?"
Somehow he forced the words up from his aching throat. "Never made love to a woman."
Gemma's expression did not change, but he sensed her astonishment. After a long, diplomatic pause, she asked tactfully, "You have been intimate with other men, then?"
Nick shook his head, staring at the patterned wallpaper. The heavy silence was broken only by the drumming in his ears.
The madam's curiosity was almost palpable. She ascended the moveable wooden step that had been placed beside the tall bed, and climbed onto the mattress. Slowly she reclined on her side, relaxed and catlike. And in her infinite understanding of the male sex, she remained silent and waited patiently.
Nick tried to sound matter-of-fact, but a tremor broke through his voice. "When I was a boy of fourteen, I was sentenced to ten months on a prison hulk."
He saw from Gemma's expression that she understood immediately. The wretched conditions on the hulks, the fact that men were chained together with boys in one large cell, was hardly a secret. "The men on the ship tried to force themselves on you, of course," she said. Her tone was neutral as she asked. "Did any of them succeed?"
"No. But since then..." Nick paused for a long moment. He had never told anyone about the past that had haunted him-his fears were not easy to put into words. "I can't bear to be touched," he said slowly. "Not by anyone, in any way. I've wanted..." He paused for a moment, floundering. "At times I want a woman so badly I almost go mad with it. But I can't seem to..." He fell helplessly silent. It seemed impossible to explain that for him, sex and pain and guilt were plaited together, that the simple act of making love to someone seemed as impossible as making himself jump off a cliff. The touch of another person, no matter how innocuous, triggered a perilous need to defend himself.