Colleen averted her gaze, but the sounds still created a vivid picture in her mind. The slap of skin on skin. The grunting. The moaning.
She slid a glance out of the corner of her eye. Yes, the woman was most definitely barking like a dog. The collar around her neck, the man plowing into her from behind holding the attached leash, gave definite confirmation.
One of her girls was pretending to be a dog.
Colleen tilted her head heavenward and sighed. For the thousandth time she asked herself what in the blazes she had gotten herself into. Colleen Bonner was a respectable woman of business. A God-fearing woman. How she had managed to let that silver-tongued devil talk her into managing a bawdy house, she’d never know. And not just any bawdy house. The Black Rose. A Venus club for those with unusual tastes – and the blunt to pay the high membership fee.
Colleen sidled around the edge of the Gold Room. It was one of the smaller back chambers in the club. The walls were painted a rich amber hue, and the thick pile carpet underfoot was a light olive-brown that was the color of an antique locket. Plush pillows in varying shades of yellow were piled in the center of the floor, a soft, makeshift bed for the tomfoolery that went on under her roof.
Pulling her watch from the pocket of her waistcoat, she tried to gain the attention of her girl, Lucy. Who was currently howling like her fur, er, hair, was being plucked from her skin.
The small cluster of spectators made the task more difficult. Men and women lounged about on the semi-circle of settees surrounding the pile of pillows. Colleen slunk around the edges of the room, keeping her eyes firmly planted on Lucy’s face. Too many hands were creeping where they shouldn’t on the settees. Too many body parts exposed that only a doctor should see.
Lucy looked up, her glance sharp, but her howling and barking never ceasing. Colleen tapped her timepiece, and Lucy nodded, the motion small and quick. The girl dug her fingers into the carpet, and pushed back into the man’s thrusts, yipping and moaning like mad. Quite the performer her little Lucy. A performance she’d promised to another member in fifteen minutes.
Message delivered, Colleen escaped from the room. She leaned back against the closed door and stared at her feet, willing her stomach to settle. Working under this roof was a trial, but it was a trial she deserved. And her penance would soon end. Still, the urge to leave, to tell him just where he could shove his job, was as tempting as sticking her toes in the Thames on a hot summer day.
Having a roof over her head and food in her belly was a greater temptress. Much as she hated her new role, she couldn’t deny the relief at having a room to herself and a full meal to look forward to each day.
Her cousin had been all kindness and condescension, allowing her to share a room with his daughters when her own home had burned.
And he’d spent every day reminding her just how kind he was.
Insufferable man, her cousin. Almost as bad as he was.
Colleen smoothed her hand down her cotton skirts and strode down the hall to the main room of the club. The crystal chandelier hanging from the high ceiling scattered soft light throughout the room. The gold painted paper covering the walls shimmered under the one hundred and eighteen candles in the chandelier. The one hundred and eighteen candles that still weren’t sufficient to brighten the room to its current warm glow if not for the gas lamps burning discreetly on each wall.
Those one hundred and eighteen candles cost a fine penny to replace each day, and Colleen made a note to herself to ask him if they ought not rely solely on the gas lamps from now on. Not that he ever appreciated her thrift.
A three-piece band played a waltz from their nook on the small landing that separated the main room from the upper floor. Couples danced under that glittering chandelier, holding each other indecently close. The women wore diaphanous gowns of silks and satins, necessary uniforms for most of her girls if they wanted to project the right image to the club’s patrons.
Colleen looked down at her own apparel. When she’d first married, she and her husband hadn’t had the luxury of a maid, and Colleen had taken to wearing her husband’s loose shirts with skirts she’d fashioned to conveniently wrap about her waist. Easy to slip on and remove. After a while she’d paired it with an old waistcoat her husband had no longer worn and the look had become her daily uniform. Simple. Efficient. No-nonsense. The outfit she sported now was the one she’d had on the night of the fire. None of her other clothes had survived.
As the manager of The Black Rose, not one of the doxies, she thought her clothes appropriate to her position. She’d packed up the frivolous gowns the owner of the club had left behind in her chamber upstairs and donated them to the girls. If he had wanted a different sort of woman managing the club, he should have found a different woman.
Molly, one of the club’s higher-earning lady-birds, sidled up to her, a glass of champagne in her hand. Colleen resisted the urge to pull the shoulder of the woman’s gown up.
“We have a good crowd tonight.” Molly took a sip from the flute. A large blood-red stone on her ring glinted in the light. “It’s a shame Madame Sable isn’t here to see it. After all, you had said she might be back by now.”
Colleen gritted her teeth. “I said I didn’t know when she’d return from her tour of the continent. She could return tomorrow or a year from now.” That was the story she was to tell, anyhow. That her dear friend had needed a respite and had asked Colleen to act as manager of the club until her return. Colleen knew the true reason for the woman’s departure as much as she knew the woman. That was to say, not at all. But the need for secrecy had been impressed upon her.
“Yes, where did you say she was?” Molly asked. “The south of France?”
A serving girl passed by, and Molly grabbed another glass of champagne. Colleen narrowed her eyes. That champagne ran two hundred quid a cask. “I didn’t say. Madame Sable’s letters are too infrequent for me to keep track of her whereabouts.” Reaching into a deep pocket sewn into her skirts, she pulled out a small notebook and a bit of black lead. She scratched herself a note. “How many glasses of that wine have you had tonight?”
Molly snorted. “Are you going to dock my pay? Madame Sable was never so stingy.”
“It isn’t only the expense.” Although keeping an equal or greater level of profit as Madame Sable was important to Colleen. “But you girls need to keep a sober mind, what with all you get up to. An impairment of any kind could be dangerous.”
“What would you know about it?” Molly edged into Colleen’s space, her slight form vibrating with animosity. “Your knees are bound together so tight, I don’t see how you even manage to walk.”
Colleen kept her expression placid, but a pulse throbbed in her temple. Her new workers liked to push her, test her boundaries, and no one more so than Molly. “And yet I walk quite well. I can even climb stairs. If I wanted, I could climb to my office and write a note of dismissal if the urge took me.” She was gratified when the girl stiffened beside her. She needed the workers to respect her. A touch of fear, even, wouldn’t go amiss. It was difficult to wield authority when Colleen didn’t know her own limits. Could she fire someone? She didn’t want to write to him to ask.
One of the members, Lord Halliwell, swaggered up and clicked his heels together as he bowed. A broad smile was plastered across his face. “Mrs. Bonner. A treat, a real treat to see you down here. You so often hide your lovely self away from us.”
Colleen stifled a groan. With a smirk, Molly raised her glass in farewell and sauntered away. Colleen looked around for the serving girl. She could use a glass of that obscenely-priced champagne.
“Good evening, Lord Halliwell,” she said. Her shoulders sagged. The alcohol was on the other side of the room. “I hope you fare well.”
He shrugged and dipped his chin. “I did something quite naughty today. I was hoping to confess my sins.”
Colleen huffed out a sigh. “Lord Halliwell, I will tell you again that I only manage the premises. I am not available for …” Her mind whirled, searching for a polite form of speech that wouldn’t insult the paying member before her. “I’m not available for entertainment purposes.”
The earl slid his gaze up and down her body. Colleen didn’t quite understand what he was looking at. Unlike the scantily-clad doxies, Colleen’s high-necked shirt and mannish waistcoat hid her attributes. Of all the peacocks flitting about, she was the boring brown hen.
The earl leaned close. “Can I tell you a secret, Mrs. Bonner?” He didn’t wait for her response. “Something about you reminds me of my old nurse. She raised me to be the man I am today. If I ever misbehaved, she was there to correct my course.”
Colleen stepped back. “Flattering as that may be, I’m not available. I believe Molly is free, and I know how much she enjoys your company.” Colleen felt a slight qualm at the lie. But not enough to take it back. “Now if you will excuse me, I have to go, uh, check a room.”
The earl stood in front of her, so she turned around and disappeared down the hall with the play rooms. The thick carpet muffled her footfalls. She glanced over her shoulder, but the earl had disappeared. Probably to find a woman to correct his misbehavior.
A group of young bucks crowded the entrance of the hall, laughing and jostling each other, obviously deep in their cups. She could only hope they didn’t have similar nurse fancies.
She opened the door next to her and peered in. Only to pull it tight. A shudder ran through her body. No hiding in that room. One of the young men at the end of the hall playfully shoved a friend, and the group surged towards Colleen. She hustled to the next door and peeked within the chamber. Dark and empty. She darted inside and leaned her back against the wall. But the sight of what went on in the room next door lingered.
What was wrong with people? She’d been married for over eight years, and she’d seen more of the male anatomy in a night under this roof than in her entire marriage. Why they felt the need for the toys, the odd positions, the games, she didn’t know. Relations were meant to be under the cover of night, the man doing his business to procreate, and getting out. She didn’t think Mr. Bonner had ever seen her entire body all in one go. A leg here when he raised her gown. A shoulder there if it slipped down her arm. Their intercourse had been efficient, with a sole purpose in mind. As God intended.
Making her way to the nook where an oil lamp held the faintest of glows, she found the screw on the side of the lantern and lengthened the wick. The room brightened, and Colleen fisted her hands on her hips. Her workers hadn’t straightened the chamber after its last use. A web of ropes hung from the sturdy rafters instead of laying coiled neatly in their spot on the wall.
She trailed her fingers along the tails of hemp that hung like vines to the floor. Pieces of rope were knotted horizontally between the vertical lengths. The arrangement could almost be used as a net. She fingered the rope that hung at hip height. Or a swing.
Colleen glanced at the door. No one had reserved this room for the rest of the night, but that didn’t stop members from popping in. Gripping one of the ropes, she tugged. It seemed sturdy enough. She leaned her weight on it and held on with both hands. The hemp shifted against the rafter but didn’t slip.
With a sidelong look at the door, Colleen slid her torso through a rectangle created by the ropes. Raising up onto her toes, she pulled a length of hemp beneath her bottom. Her boots slid against the smooth wood floor, and she wrapped her arms around the ropes above her. Tentatively, she raised one foot from the ground. Then the other. Her body swung easily, and for a moment, she felt like a child again. One without a care in the world.
Bending her knees, she kicked her legs out and leaned into the swaying motion. The hemp creaked against the beam. Colleen floated, enjoying her moment of solitude. The club boasted plenty of rooms, and she could always find somewhere to be alone. That was the one thing about this place that she was going to miss.
She pointed her toes towards the ceiling and swung higher. Cool air slid beneath her skirt and petticoat as she flew through the air, causing a delicious shiver to dance up her spine. Her mind emptied. She forgot the sad state that her life had become, enjoying this moment of escape.
It didn’t last. The web shifted, and Colleen clutched the rope at her chest. The left side of the net dropped another inch, and Colleen yelped. She tried to wriggle from her seat, and one of her feet tangled in the hemp. Her grip on the ropes slipped, and she fell backwards, rope snapping tight against her thighs.
Colleen blinked. The floor was inches away from her face, and she swung in a lazy spiral above it. Wiggling her legs, she tried to slide free of her bonds. She grabbed a rope by her hip and heaved. She struggled until she was out of breath. It was no good. She was stuck.
The ropes gently swayed, creaking softly against the beams, and Colleen’s breaths slowed. Not her most graceful moment, but at least the ropes had saved her from knocking herself senseless on the hard wood floor. She tugged again at her trapped leg, but three ropes had seemed to loop themselves around it. She shimmied her hips. The rope at her bum slipped, and she dropped an inch. Her skirts crept up her legs. She wiggled some more but achieved nothing but louder creaking from the beam above.
The scrape of hemp against wood couldn’t hide another sound. One far worse. That of the door opening.
Pushing at the hair that had fallen around her face, Colleen tried to see who the intruder was. She rather hoped it was a member. There was no way she would improve her position of authority over her workers if one of them caught her like this.
“Hallo? Who’s there?” With one hand pressed to the floor, she pushed her skirts back over her knees.
A pair of black top boots edged into view, a smudge of soil dirtying one of the toes. Colleen levered her head. Wool trousers disappeared into the wheat-colored leather bands that ringed the top of the boots. Her gaze rose over broad thighs to the bottom of the trousers’ falls. And the bulge behind. Try as she might, she couldn’t crane her head to look higher than that bulge.
The man dropped into a squat, a bushy black beard replacing her view.
Colleen closed her eyes and dropped her head to the floor. She wished it had been a worker.
“This is a splendid way to greet a man,” said Maximillian Atwood, Baron of Sutton. He rubbed his jaw, his fingers disappearing into the beard that looked as soft as a beaver’s pelt. “Like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. I wonder who the lucky man was who was supposed to eat you.”