Vanquished, p.10

Vanquished, page 10

 

Vanquished
 


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  "You don't believe me?"

  She settled her head on his shoulder, such a lovely feeling, that. "Simply say I think you're rather guilty of gilding the lily. Only in my case, the lily is more in the way of being a rather stout weed."

  "Oh, Callie, what am I to do with you?" He turned his head, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. "You're a very sensual woman whether you care to admit it or not. You also happen to be lovely to look at, to touch." He slid his hand down her spine to the swell of her bottom beneath the padding of her wrinkled skirts. "A great many men would pay dearly for the privilege of taking you to bed."

  Stunned, Callie felt heat rushing her cheeks. She wasn't sure at which she was more appalled, Hadrian's scandalous statement or the traitorous thrill that shot through her at the thought that a man, this man, might covet her that much.

  Instead of rising up in indignation as well she ought, she turned her face up and asked, "Would . . . would you pay for me?"

  Looking down into her eyes, he didn't hesitate. "Yes, I would. In fact, I believe I'm paying even now."

  "How so?" She licked dry lips, very much aware of the slow, sweet ache drumming the moist space between her thighs. A single word from her and Hadrian would move to release that ache and bring her satisfaction that until now had existed only in her dreams, and yet she held back.

  "There are all sorts of ways of paying one's dues, Callie," he said, somber gaze steady on her face. "Those who can afford to do so pay with pounds sterling. And those of us who cannot, we pay with our flesh. But then I think you already know that. After all, that is why you came back here with me, isn't it?"

  Rather than answer that, she rose up over him, touching her lips to brow, his eyelids, the sensitive spot where the pulse struck the side of his throat. Even with clothing separating them, the sensation of touching a flesh-and-blood man after a decade of self-denial and empty fantasies was nothing short of exquisite. Eyes on his face, she said, "I love touching you. Do you mind it terribly?"

  "Touch me anywhere you like. Anywhere but my heart," he added on a whisper and let his head drop back against the cushion.

  Hadrian was buttoning on a fresh shirt when the shop bell sounded from below. Callie, back so soon? He'd seen her to the door mere minutes before. Had she left something behind? Better still, perhaps she'd decided she wanted more from him than kisses?

  Anticipation thrumming through him, he called out, "I'm upstairs, love," trusting his voice to carry through the half-open door.

  Footfalls, rather heavier and slower than he remembered hers being, announced her presence on the stair landing. Without turning around, he said, "Decided to come back for another photography lesson after all?" He whirled about, welcoming smile withering when he saw who it was darkening his door.

  Cane in hand, Josiah Dandridge stepped across the threshold. "I believe I shall leave any photographing to you, St. Claire."

  Despite the cheerful fire he'd got going earlier for Callie's sake, Hadrian felt as though the temperature in the room had dropped a good ten degrees. Without preamble, he asked, "Why are you here?"

  Leaning on his cane, Dandridge paused in plucking off his leather gloves to survey the two teacups set on the table, their contents barely touched. "A picture of the Rivers woman frolicking in the park like an inmate escaped from Bedlam with her skirts blown beyond her knees may not be the piece de resistance I am paying you to produce, but it constitutes a promising beginning to building the case against her. I want it."

  So his initial instincts about being followed hadn't been pure paranoia after all. "You've set someone to watch me."

  The older man dismissed the question with a flick of his hand, the thin fingers gnarled like the trunk of a knotted oak, the top liberally dusted with dark hair yet to turn full gray. Hadrian stared at the appendage for a long moment, disgust and something more--anxiety--taking root in the pit of his stomach. It was only a hand, after all, and an old man's hand at that. Why it should bother him he couldn't say but there was no dismissing that it did.

  I'm overwrought. I haven't been sleeping. Yes, that must be it. . .

  "How long will it take you to develop it?"

  Hadrian hesitated, weighing the merits of claiming the image had been destroyed in the proving process. But no, a green-behind-the-ears assistant could be expected to make such a mistake but not an experienced photographer.

  "I'm afraid that's impossible. No such image exists."

  That got the MP's attention. "The devil you say."

  Hadrian crossed his arms. "Had I attempted to make such a photograph, Miss Rivers would have been on to me in an instant. She is no fool, after all."

  Indeed, Callie was no fool. Nor was she the ruthless, cold-hearted bitch he once might have made her out to be. Instead he'd found her warm and loving, gracious and kind. True, she was passionate about her beliefs, opinionated to the point of obstinacy even, but those were small sins compared to what Dandridge had in store for her. What she could have done to warrant the MP's very personal hatred Hadrian couldn't begin to imagine. Surely pushing a suffrage bill through Parliament wasn't the whole of it.

  Another mystery yet to be answered was why the devil he'd let her off so easily that afternoon. Lying pliant in his arms, it would have been easy enough to strip off those confining clothes of hers and seduce her--and in full view of the camera he'd set up, no less. With one pull of the striking chord, his debt to Dandridge would have been paid in full. And yet, as in the park, he'd prevaricated only . . . why?

  Dandridge assessed him through narrowed eyes. "She is a handsome woman, is she not?"

  Careful to keep his expression blank, Hadrian answered, "Some might find her so."

  "It is not the opinion of 'some' that interests me. How do you find her?"

  Meeting Dandridge's gaze, he chose his words with care. "She is passably attractive, though the clothes she chooses to wear cannot be said to flatter."

  Without warning, Dandridge brought the tip of his cane down hard onto the floor, sending Dinah scurrying. "Then get her out of them, by God!"

  Hadrian held his ground. "It's as yet early days. We've had but two sittings so far. Had I proposed she strip off so much as a glove, she would have fled out that door never to return, let alone promise to return again tomorrow."

  Dandridge aimed a knotty index finger at Hadrian. "I may not comprehend the menial mechanics of a camera but I am something of an expert in human nature, St. Claire, and I detect a wavering in your resolve."

  Despite the battering of his heart, Hadrian managed a shrug. "You must be imaging things. Beyond the blunt her photograph will fetch, Caledonia Rivers means nothing to me."

  His words had the desired effect. Dandridge backed down. "Mind you keep it that way." Cane in hand, the MP made to leave. Halfway out the door, he turned back. "The suffrage bill comes before the Commons for a final read in precisely thirteen days. I must have the evidence in hand well before that."

  "As you shall."

  "I hope so, St. Claire. For your own sake, see you do not fail me."

  Carriage skirting the Victoria Embankment, Dandridge pushed aside the window curtain and peered out. Sighting the shadowy yet unmistakable form stamping his feet at the base of the riverside road, he touched the tip of his cane to the carriage ceiling, signaling his driver to pull over. A moment later, the door opened. The conveyance dipped as a hatchet-faced hulk in a worn tweed coat and shapeless hat climbed inside.

  Sam Sykes pulled the door closed and settled into his seat, setting springs creaking. "Good day, guv."

  "You took long enough." Dandridge turned to his newest retainer and felt his nostrils twitch in recoil. Leeks, he rather thought, or was it garlic? Whichever, it was flavored with the unmistakable pungency of unwashed flesh. He'd always been fastidious, a failing of his, he supposed. Yet he'd never understood why being born in the gutter apparently compelled one to carry the stench of the stews about wherever they went.

  And yet persons such as Sy
kes had their uses.

  Dandridge waited until the carriage continued onward before asking, "What do you have for me?"

  Settling back against the leather squab, Sykes blew on cold-chapped hands the size of small hams. "She spent close on to two hours in there alone with him."

  "You're quite sure?"

  "Oh, aye, I stood watch from across the street, though it were cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. Saw 'em go in together and then him leave the shop sign turned to closed. A couple minutes later a light came on in the upstairs window, but the shop below stayed dark. She didn't come out 'til nigh on three o'clock."

  Dandridge paused to stare out to the elaborate ironwork standards ranged along the riverside, their fierce-looking dolphins coiled about the bases, before asking, "Alone?"

  Sykes shrugged. "Well, not alone exactly. He was standing just inside the door."

  "How did you find them?"

  "Sorry?"

  Teeth gritted, he prompted, "Was she flushed? In a state of dishabille--undress?"

  "Oh, she were buttoned-up proper, with one of them big fancy hats on and a boxy coat that went clear past her ankles. He was in his shirtsleeves, but he had on his breeches and they was buttoned, too--I looked."

  Putting aside his disappointment, Dandridge picked up the string-wrapped bundle on the seat beside him and handed it across to Sykes, careful not to let his gloved fingers come into contact with any part of the henchman. "I see. Keep a watch on them until you receive further instruction."

  Sykes's thick lips stretched into a gap-toothed grin. He stuffed the money inside his coat. "Oh, aye, I will. In fact, you might say as it'll be my pleasure."

  "Well, well, this is an unexpected pleasure. I've never known you to sneak off shopping on a weekday before."

  Callie started. She looked up from the display of gentlemen's business cases she'd been perusing to find Teddy standing beside her. Blast, but she'd as good as forgotten he clerked at Harrods.

  Finding her smile, she said, "Yes, well, I need to purchase an attache case."

  Ever since leaving Hadrian's studio hours earlier, she'd been obsessed with the notion of giving him something, a memento, by which to remember her. An attache case seemed to strike a reasonable middle ground between the practical and the personal; personal, to be sure, but not embarrassingly so. Earlier she'd noticed that the leather case he carried along with his camera was worn to the point of shabbiness. Likely he'd been so buried beneath commissions he hadn't given a thought to replacing it.

  Teddy frowned, twisting one end of his waxed mustache as he was wont to do when puzzled. "But didn't Lottie just give you a crack case for your last birthday? If it's worn, we'll make good on it, you've only to bring it in."

  Callie cleared her throat. Dear Lord, was it ever her lot in life to be caught out over even the smallest deception? Choosing her words with care, she said, "It's not for me. It's a gift . . . for a . . . colleague."

  "I see." The wounded look he sent her made her think he did see the situation in all its sordid truth.

  Fighting back a blush, she pointed at random to the display shelf and said, "That black one is awfully smart."

  "You have excellent taste." All at once the dutiful clerk, he walked over and popped open the case. "The lining is lambskin, not the green baize of the less dear models. Not that there's anything wrong with baize--"

  "I'll take it," she interrupted, desperate to break away if only to be alone with her thoughts and the truly momentous, disastrous, and altogether wonderful course her life had careened toward since earlier that afternoon. "How soon might I have it engraved?"

  "The gent responsible for our leatherwork has a few items in queue before yours, but I'm not without influence." He snapped a suspender and added, "I can put in a word on your behalf--important friend waiting and all that. It should be ready by tomorrow, late morning. Will that do?"

  "Oh Teddy, that would be so good of you. You're quite certain you don't mind?"

  "Quite." He clicked together the heels of his polished shoes. Looking down, he said, "I lay off work in a few minutes. Any chance of you joining me in the tearoom upstairs?"

  "I wish that I could but I haven't time." What with the hours she'd already spent with Hadrian, she'd need every remaining minute of the evening to catch up.

  "Don't give it another thought, old girl. It's only that . . . well, dash it, I miss you, Callie. I miss you dreadfully. We scarcely see each other these days."

  She waved a hand, hoping to appear matter-of-fact rather than what she was--a guilty person, a loose woman, a liar on the verge of being caught out. "With the suffrage bill set to be reintroduced, I've been so busy lobbying potential backers I haven't had a moment to myself. But in a fortnight and a day, this business will be resolved one way or the other, at least until next session, and then we'll have a nice long catchup, I promise." She summoned what she hoped passed for an easy smile, even as she felt her heart sinking like millstone tossed into a stream.

  A fortnight and a day. What she didn't say, couldn't bear to think on was that her photographic portrait soon would be finished as well. That meant she would have run out of reasons for seeing Hadrian St. Claire.

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  "The suffrage is the right of all women, just as it is the right of all men, and although the immediate need may not be felt by the happy and the prosperous--by the women with kind husbands and comfortable homes--we insist on it on behalf of the solitary, the hard pressed, and the wronged; we insist on liberty so that all may share the blessings of liberty."

  --MARY LEE, South Australia Register, 1890

  The encounter with Dandridge had shaken Hadrian mightily. He was still in a filthy mood the next afternoon when Callie breezed inside his flat, brown-paper-wrapped parcel tucked beneath one arm. She stopped in her tracks when she saw him seated at the window, cat in his lap. "Hadrian, are you quite all right?"

  Unshaven and unwashed, he knew he likely looked like hell, perhaps stank even worse and yet he couldn't resist. "Why do you ask?"

  "Because you seem, well . . . not quite yourself."

  He had a mind to point out that she didn't really know him, at least not outside of bed, but of course he couldn't say such a thing, not at this stage at any rate. Setting Dinah down, he rose stiffly as an old man might. "We had an appointment. Do you imagine yours to be the only time of value?"

  What remained of her smile faded to bewilderment. "Of course not. She glanced back to the door. "I can come back another time if you'd rather. If the light isn't good or . . ."

  Ordinarily a ten minute or so infraction wouldn't have fazed him in the least, but since Dandridge had admitted to having him watched, he felt vulnerable in ways he could scarcely own. Mired in such a state, it was easy enough to convince himself that the MP and Callie were cut from the same cloth. Political persuasions aside, they were all too willing to rampage over others to achieve their precious ends. No sacrifice was too great so long as it was made by somebody else, somebody beneath them.

  "The light is fine. Sit down." Without waiting for her to answer, he pulled out a chair. "Now tell me about this meeting of yours, the one that was so important you must be late."

  She set her package on the table and slipped into the proffered seat. "It was a lecture on the plight of East End women and girls given by Mrs. Catherine Booth who with her husband founded the Salvation Army. Owing in no small part to Mrs. Booth's guiding hand, the Salvation Army gives women equal responsibility for preaching and welfare work."

  "How . . . inspirational." Voice dripping with sarcasm, he scraped out a second chair and took his seat.

  She hesitated. "Indeed, it was. In fact, Mrs. Booth recounted a case just last week of a young woman, a girl really, who came to the shelter seeking refuge from her father who meant to sell her to a house of prostitution to make ends meet."

  Hadrian thought of his childhood friend, Sally, now the madam of the house where he'd grown up. It had been a hard li
fe but at least they'd never starved. Not until he'd left to strike out on his own had he known real hunger. The memory of that gnawing belly ache would stay with him for the rest of his life. Sometimes in his dreams he felt it still.

  In his dreams.

  He rolled his shoulders. Taut as they were, they barely moved. "Brothel, workhouse, everyone's version of hell-on-earth takes its own shape. Better that than she should starve and her family along with her."

  She paused in pulling off her gloves to stare at him. "Hadrian, you can't be serious."

  "Indeed, I am wholly so."

  She dismissed his comment with the flick of her hand, not unlike Dandridge had done the day before--more fuel to the fire. "Better she should be given refuge and trained for some gainful employment, some useful occupation that provides a true service to society."

  For whatever reason, the way she said society set his teeth on edge. "There are those who would say that prostitution provides a necessary service, a safety valve if you will."

  He was being unpleasant, deliberately so, risking his mission and his very life into the bargain. But the old recklessness was coursing through him potent as any drug and for the life of him he couldn't bring himself to care. In truth, he hoped she would take it into her head to simply get up and walk out. Better yet, run while she still had the chance.

  Run Callie, run.

  Slapping her gloves atop the table, she shot back, "Easy for you to say so, a man." Man, she all but spat out the word. "Did you know that, in England alone, as many as forty-odd percent of unmarried women live in dire poverty, a condition that makes them vulnerable to succumbing to prostitution and sundry other degradations."

  Good, he'd got to her at last, that was his aim after all. "What would someone like you know of whoring?" That he didn't say prostitution but rather the coarser term was a measure of just how far beyond control he was. It should have been a warning sign but for the moment he was past caring. As it was, he was a heartbeat away from shouting at her: If you want to know about whoring, ask someone who knows. Ask me.

 
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