Vanquished, p.14

Vanquished, page 14

 

Vanquished
 


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  "Mum?" He pushed himself up on his elbows.

  "No, it's me. Can I come in?" The whispered voice coming from the hallway belonged to his friend, Sally, one of the new girls and three years his senior.

  Sally, how could he face her now or ever again? He flopped back down on his back without answering, hoping she would give up and go away. No such luck. The door opened partway, and she slipped inside. "You all right, Harry?"

  He found solace in sarcasm. "Bloody grand. The best day of my life, don't you know it?" He fixed his gaze on the ceiling but not before he noticed her face was free of paint, which could only mean she wasn't seeing any "gentlemen callers" today.

  She sat down on the bed beside him. "He hurt you, didn't he, the lousy bugger?" Her tone was a soothing balm of outrage and loyalty.

  He dropped his gaze from the cracked plasterwork and turned on his side to look at her, hot tears of shame rolling down his cheeks. "Oh Christ, Sal, Jesus Bloody Christ." Digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, he willed the back flash of images to stop.

  "First time's always the hardest." She reached down to pat his shoulder, the bodice of her castoff gown dipping open. Through the waterfall of tears, he caught an eyeful. Breasts, big as melons and tipped with nipples the soft pink he'd seen in a rainbow just the week before.

  He shook his head. "There isn't going to be a next time. I like girls. I like you, Sal." All at once, the tears stopped and against all odds he found his smile.

  He reached up and slipped a hand inside her gown. Soft and supple as he imagined a cloud might feel.

  "I like you, too, Harry, but you know we can't. House rules and all." Despite her protest, he noticed she didn't pull back.

  "No pay, no lay," he repeated, heartily sick of Madam Dottie and her rules.

  Sally nodded, solemn as if they sat in a church pew instead of half-naked on a whore's bed while he played with her breast, the nipple hardening beneath his thumb.

  But not as hard as Harry's cock, miraculously come to life and standing out straight as a pikestaff.

  "Oh, what the 'ell." She lifted his shirt, looking at him long and hard before taking him in her hand. "My, you're a big lad," she said, licking her lips in a way that had him shivering.

  He dropped his hand. "Is it . . . all right, then?"

  She giggled. "Better than all right, I'd say, so long as you know how to use it." Her hand began moving up and down him, smooth, sure strokes that had him pulsing against her palm.

  She lifted her skirts and moved to straddle him. Other than her stockings and garters, she wasn't wearing undergarments. He stared at the triangle of dark hair between her full thighs, at the dark core of pink inner lips, and felt his mouth go dry.

  Arching his hips, he poked around her thighs, sweat breaking out on his forehead when he didn't immediately hit home. "Easy, ducks, it's not a race." She reached down between them and guided him to her.

  "Will it hurt you?" he asked, going still, reminded of his own stinging bum. Sally might be a girl, but she was his friend, too. He didn't ever want to make her cry.

  "No, silly, I'll like it." She came down on him hard, taking him full inside her, or at least he thought so--he still hadn't chalked up the courage to look down.

  Lying still, he closed his eyes and let her ride him, thinking nothing in his life had ever felt this nice, this good. Then she did something with her hips and pleasure so stark it bordered on pain bolted through him. He came, losing himself inside her.

  Afterward they lay facing each other atop the sheets. Hands pillowed beneath her tousled auburn curls, Sally was the first to speak. "He'll be back for more, you know he will."

  "I won't be here when he does." Reaching beneath the pillow, he pulled out the money he'd stowed there. "Come away with me, Sal. I'll take care of you."

  She shook her head. "My place's here, at least for the time and sure there's worse places I could end up. Only promise me that someday when you're a fine gentleman, a photo . . ."

  "A photographer," he said to save her from stumbling over the word.

  She smiled, but her eyes were sad. "Yes, that. Promise me you'll visit me sometimes, will you? And you can take my picture again, if you like."

  "I swear I will."

  The first lights of dawn streaked the coal-fogged sky when, belongings tossed into an empty pillowcase and the five-pound note folded into his pocket, he climbed out the bedroom window under Sally's watchful eye. He waited for her to give the all clear, three sharp raps on the window pane, before skirting the ledge of gabled roof. Reaching his chosen spot, he dropped down into the alley.

  Straightening, he turned to look up at the window but the room had gone dark. "I won't forget you, Sal, I swear I won't. Someday I'll be back, you'll see." He turned and walked out into the cleansing mist.

  Hadrian shot upright in the bed, the echo of a scream dying on his lips, the shattering of glass ringing in his ears. Sweat slid down his chest, drenching the sheet he'd let drop to his waist. He wrapped shaking arms about himself, a solitary hug, torn between relief that he'd woken alone and a terrible fear that alone was what he always would be.

  He raked a trembling hand through his damp hair. As always, his first thought upon waking from the nightmare was: I have to have a woman. Sally kept a clean house and when she wasn't occupied with one of her regulars, she was always happy to oblige. When he had money he paid her and when he didn't, she did him for free. But going out in search of a quick coupling, soulless sex, struck him as entirely too great an effort to expend for such scant, temporary reward. He still wanted release, that hadn't changed, but he just possibly wanted something more, too. He wanted someone to hold, someone to hold him, to feel something, not just with his body but with his heart, too.

  His thoughts turned to Callie, a condition that was becoming more and more common of late. By God she'd felt good in his arms, her generous figure fitting to him like a hand to a tailor-made glove. Though he'd yet to see her without her clothes, touching her through them had given him the feel of her. Imagination, his at least, was a potent force and his mind was more than capable of filling in the missing details.

  Closing his eyes, he reached beneath the covers to take hold of himself, imagining the creamy whiteness of her thighs, the thick thatch of curls framed between them, the moist inner lips hidden inside. In his mind's eye, he saw himself burying his face in that musky heat, pleasing her with lips and tongue and teeth. The fantasy was becoming so real he could swear he tasted the brine of her on his tongue.

  He squeezed his eyes tighter, letting his imagination carry him further along as he worked his turgid flesh. Eventually he would enter her. He would wait until he felt the first telltale tremors tickle his tongue and then he would take his mouth away and replace it with his cock. He was large, he knew, and very thick, not a conceit on his part but a simple acknowledgement of fact. One look at his open trouser front and the women he'd brought upstairs with him hadn't been able to get their clothes off fast enough.

  Callie, however, would be a virgin. He'd never been with a virgin, but he imagined that she would be very tight at first, perhaps a bit dry. He would take care with her, be gentle but not overly so. At the core of all pleasure was some degree of pain and if she was anything like him, she would prefer to take hers sharp and fast. He would breach her with one clean thrust and then hold himself back until she got used to him. Once she did he would ride her, slowly at first and then faster until she was as wild for it as he was and then and only then would he let himself go.

  Hadrian's eyes shot open as the first spasm overtook him. Oh, God, Callie. A few more rough strokes completed his release. He fell back against the pillow, wiping his hand on the empty sheet next to him.

  Oh, Callie, do you sleep soundly, the slumber of perfect innocence, or lie awake in your lonely bed as I do?

  Were he a normal man with an intact heart to offer, Callie Rivers would be very easy to love. As it was, how could he possibly work to destroy someone so p
ure of heart, so perfectly good?

  Dinah jumped up on the counterpane, butting her head against his chest. He reached out and stroked her silky back until she arched, mimicking the silhouette of a perfect witch's cat. "What am I to do about her, Dinah? More to the point, what am I to do about me?"

  One Week Later:

  "Callie, my dear, what am I to do with you? These past days, you've not been yourself at all." Lottie looked up from the typed letter she'd just folded into precise thirds.

  Callie hid a yawn behind her hand. She'd passed yet another restless night but then at this point she'd stopped counting. They were at the Langham Place office. She'd shooed Harriet and the volunteers off to lunch, not because she was being noble but because she wanted to be alone with her thoughts. Lottie, true to form, had refused to budge. By way of a compromise, they'd sent out to the sandwich shop across the street.

  Seated across from her at the mahogany conference table cluttered with typewriter, stacked petitions, and the handbills advertising the upcoming march on Parliament freshly back from the printer, Callie quipped, "If not myself, then whom do I seem?" She knew she sounded snappish but lately she was too restless to care.

  Lottie's knowing look cast that assurance into grave doubt. "If I didn't know better, I'd say you very much resemble a young woman in love."

  "As I am neither young nor in love, I'd suggest you go back to reading your tea leaves." A pause and then, "Oh, Auntie, I am sorry. I'm a beast to speak to you so and especially when you're sacrificing your day in this stuffy office to help with our mailing."

  "Think nothing of it, pet. But you are in the doldrums, I can see it."

  Callie made no move to deny it, though missing Hadrian wasn't entirely the cause. The day after the match-factory strike had descended into rioting, she'd gone to the magistrate's office and sworn her statement that Hardcastle had directed his henchmen to attack. After that, there'd been nothing left to do but pay the women's fines and pray the press didn't get a whiff of her involvement before month's end when the suffrage bill came back before Parliament. On a personal note, she'd penned Iris Brown a letter of introduction to a Manchester factory owner known for his fair practices toward workers. As Iris was the ringleader of the strike, Hardcastle would never take her back. It seemed little enough given the depth of trouble into which she'd led them all. But then again, as with most matters in life, only time would tell.

  Lost amid her thoughts, she struggled to pick up the thread of what her aunt was saying, something to do with a ball and cheering her up. "Why not come with me to the benefit for the Tremayne Dairy Farm Academy? It's to be held at the Covent Garden Opera House the evening after next. There's to be an auction early in the evening followed by a ball and buffet supper."

  Social gatherings such as this were apt to be famous bores no matter how worthy the cause and these days she couldn't seem to think much beyond her next "session" with Hadrian. At some point the sittings had become simply a vehicle, an excuse, for seeing each other. They'd make a show of posing her, only to end up talking for hours until at some point he'd glance toward the window and announce they were losing their light; it was winter, after all. "In that case, shall I come back tomorrow or the day after?" she'd ask, and they'd both smile and agree that yes, yes she should.

  Never mind that by now he must have taken enough pictures to fill an entire album. It was a game, a lovely diversion from the stark reality of real life. Some days no matter how hard she worked at juggling, she couldn't manage to break away. Those were dark days indeed, although until now she'd fancied she'd made a rather good show of hiding her true feelings.

  Of course they couldn't go on as they were forever. A man like Hadrian must have scores of women vying for his time and attention. She was a novelty at present but eventually he would tire of her, sooner rather than later--or so she suspected. A wise woman would wean herself from him before he cut her off, and yet she couldn't find the willpower to do so any more than a drunkard could dole out his stash of gin. Even though dwelling on the futile fantastical hope that their "relationship" such as it was might somehow blossom into something greater and grander than mere friendship wasn't remotely good for her, she wasn't prepared to stop. Not just yet. To no longer see him, hear his voice, or brush against his sleeve gave rise to a sense of sick emptiness she couldn't shake off. Even the low whistle he was wont to launch into when puttering with his camera equipment had grown familiar to her--and very dear.

  Distracted as she was, it was a moment or two before the import of Lottie's words sank in. "Why, that is the vocational school Lady Stonevale founded, is it not? I must admit to being skeptical at first--but from what I've heard the school does quite good work training former prostitutes for gainful employment."

  Lottie nodded. "That is so, and by all accounts her ladyship retains the closest of ties with the school. Her sister-in-law serves as its headmistress, in fact. To be seen to support it can only help advance your cause. It is common knowledge Stonevale dotes on his wife as though she was a new bride rather than a matron of a quarter century. Who knows but you might just have the occasion to bend his lordship's ear in your favor."

  Lord Stonevale was Simon Belleville, former MP for Maidstone in Kent. Years before he'd distinguished himself among his fellows by pushing to extend the borough franchise to increase representation among the townships. Only when his grandfather, the old earl, died did he leave the Commons to take his rightful place in the Lords, and then with regret. His word held tremendous sway with his colleagues in both Houses. Though a highly respected leader among the Conservatives, he'd been known to cross the floor on more than one occasion to back the opposition's bill when he deemed the cause to be just. The welfare and protection of women and children were particular concerns of his, or so Callie recalled.

  Reaching across the table for a fresh stack of letters, Lottie elaborated, "It promises to be the charity event of the year. Oftentimes a change of scene can work wonders to elevate one's mood. Besides Stonevale and his lady, there will be any number of influential persons in attendance, including several Members of Parliament who have not yet taken a public position on the suffrage bill. It might well be that this is your golden opportunity to bring them around."

  "I'll go, of course. I can't very well let my dear auntie attend unchaperoned, now can I?"

  "Actually, I rather suppose it is I who will be chaperoning you and your escort."

  That woke her up. "My escort?"

  Lottie clucked her tongue. "It's a formal function, Callie. For a woman of your youthful years and position, you cannot very well go alone."

  "But I won't be alone. I'll be with you."

  Lottie finished wetting the postage stamp before answering with a shake of her head. "It's just not done, my dear. You're not on the shelf yet no matter how high you button your shirtwaists."

  Callie grimaced. It was far too early in the day to reprise this old argument most especially when the problem was so easily solved. "Oh very well, if I must go, I suppose I shall ask Teddy."

  Callie had expected the discussion to end there, but instead Lottie looked at her for a long, thoughtful moment before saying, "Is there no one else you might ask? You seem to spend a great deal of time these days with that nice young photographer."

  Callie felt herself bristling, for hadn't Teddy said as much just the other day, but with a sobriquet other than "nice young photographer"? "I told you, Mrs. Fawcett commissioned him to make a portrait series of me. I am in the way of being his client. I can hardly impose on him to squire me about town."

  Lottie tilted her head to the side, gaze piercing. "Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps Mr. St. Claire might wish to be imposed upon, as you put it, or that he might not necessarily view a pleasant evening spent in the company of a lovely, intelligent young woman as an imposition at all?"

  She was about to demur when a thought, too awful to bear contemplation, hit her. "Lottie, you wouldn't dare."

  "On the contrar
y, I would dare a great deal to see you happy. If losing the person I loved best on Earth has taught me anything, it is that life is entirely too short and too precious to waste on foolish pride--or brooding on past ills, for that matter." Her sharp-eyed gaze honed in on Callie's face. "Take a chance, Callie. Be brave in this as you are in so many other ways. Ask Hadrian St. Claire to be your escort."

  Callie smiled, she couldn't help it. "Auntie, you have the face of an angel and the cunning of a fox. You ought to run for office yourself."

  Lottie grinned from ear to ear. "Why, that's just what my dear Edward used to say."

  CHAPTER TEN

  "I say, mister, here's me and my mate wants our fotergruffs took; and mind, we wants 'em 'ansom, cos they're to give to two ladies."

  --Punch, "Photographic Beauties," 1858

  Charlotte Rivers was not the sort of woman who believed in leaving matters of the heart to chance. She'd married Callie's uncle, Edward Rivers, after contriving to get the poor, dear man drunk as David's sow and into her bed. Though he'd been too muzzy-headed to make so much as a move once he landed there, she'd been ruined all the same. Even that starchy family of his finally came around and agreed that a wedding was the only honorable recourse. So had commenced forty-odd years of connubial bliss.

  So despite her promise to Callie to leave off meddling, the next afternoon she directed her carriage driver to let her off at Great George Street. Big Ben tolling out the hour, she came upon the shingled sign announcing HADRIAN ST. CLAIRE, PRACTICAL PHOTOGRAPHIC ARTIST. Standing on the sidewalk, she peered through the plate-glass shop window, squinting to make out the small print of the framed advertisement.

  A correct and lasting likeness!

  Sitting generally occupies no more than one second.

  Backgrounds representing a variety of landscapes, Grecian temple, the interior of a library, et cetera.

 
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