Her Ladyship's Curse

Page 3


“Neither,” I said firmly. “I’m a friend.”
He pouted a little. “Her’s still abed.”
“So I’ve been told.” I went past him and made my way to the kitchen, where Mrs. Eagle’s cook stood cracking eggs into a large mixpot with one hand and flipping rashers with the other.
“Morning, Almira.” I asked, nipping a piece of bacon from a platter and dodging a swat from her spatula. “Have you sent up her tea?”
“Why would I? She left word that she’s not to be disturbed before noon.” Almira nodded toward the kettle. “If I were you, I’d drop in a pinch of willowbark.”
I winced. “Rough trade last night?”
“Mariners in for their first shore leave since the Skirmish.” She pulled a whisk from her apron pocket and began beating the eggs. “Randy boys, the lot of them.”
I made up a tray and took it to the back stairs, where I carried it up one flight to the mistress’s chambers. Walking into Mrs. Eagle’s private sanctuary was like crossing the threshold of a dark church: a cool rush of shadows and incense-scented air. I made my way to the cart carefully, and after depositing the tray, I lit the wall lamp and turned to the bed.
“For the love of Jesu,” a muffled voice said from beneath a mound of golden silk puffs. “Piss off.”
I poured and carried a cup of tea over to the mound. “You know this is why your mother wanted you to be a nun.”
“Too hard on the knees.” A small head of tousled blond hair appeared, and a slender hand took the cup from me. “What do you want, and sweet Mary, don’t say anything that involves my bum in motion, or I’ll thump you.”
“As ever-tempted as I am by your charms”—I sat down on the edge of the mound—“I came for a gown.”
She waved a hand toward her armoire of indecently beautiful negligees as she guzzled the tea. “Take whatever you want and be gone with you.”
“Not that sort of gown.”
She pushed a handful of hair out of her eyes to give me an irate squint. “You said you were through working the Hill.”
“Special exception, just this one time,” I promised. “Someone’s taken the cut direct to a new and nasty level.”
She yawned. “How nasty?”
“Slicing hateful words into her skin while she sleeps.” I touched a whisker burn on her cheek. “Does that sound like anyone you’ve thrown out lately?”
“Chastity had a biter last month. Horrid man. I had Wrecker relieve him of his front teeth before showing him out.” She sat up and held out her cup. “More.”
I poured her tea and waited as my friend gradually roused. Without her jewels and cosmetics, Carina Eagle looked too young to be let out on her own. She had been, once upon a time, long before she had become the queen of backstreet brothels.
We’d found each other, Rina and I, drawn together as fellow outcasts in a society that wanted nothing to do with either of us. I’d had it a bit easier, coming to Rumsen as a penniless, nameless waif who’d had as much chance at being respectable as a hemp picker had of residing on the Hill.
Rina’s family had been merchant class, indecently successful, and had employed their hard-earned riches in hopes of marrying her off to better. The hard-fisted gambler they’d snagged had strung them along while gaming away her bride price. When the bleeding sod had wagered Rina’s maiden night in a card game, and lost, she’d been forced to pay the debt. The morning after, the vicious bastard had refused to marry her, claiming publicly that she was bespoiled goods, which conveniently canceled his financial and social obligations to her family. Rina had been ruined, of course, and turned out onto the streets.
I’d met Rina shortly after that, when she’d still been green enough to let herself be cornered. Stopping the brute I found beating her half to death in a back alley had required only a brick to the back of the head; the real task had been convincing her to come home with me so I could fix her up. She’d stayed with me for a few days, but as soon as she was mostly healed she left and went back on the stroll.
Since then I’d tried to persuade her to give up the business, but the money had always been too good, and the trade too steady. Because Rina was young, beautiful, and posh enough to attract a better sort, she’d quickly built a list of generous regulars. They’d funded the purchase of her house of ill repute, which in turn provided shelter and protection for the lost gels my friend regularly plucked from the streets. For those too young to know what they were about, Rina even found decent employment. Her success had made her notorious, but Rina took great pleasure in being the most scandalous female in Rumsen—and still banked more money in one month than I did in a year.
My friend finally emerged from her bed and tottered to the lamps to light a few more. The old, threadbare flannel gown she wore made me stifle a chuckle—it bore no resemblance to the lacy, gauzy negligees she wore when entertaining her clients.
“All right.” Rina fell into an armchair and propped her brow against her hand. “Tell me who it is.”
“Nolan Walsh’s wife.”
“Lady Diana.” She exhaled heavily. “You’ve picked yourself a right one there. She’d be the eldest spawn of one of the Landau brothers.”
I thought through all the scandals I knew that involved Landaus. “The one who gambled, or the one who drank?”
“The investor. Lost everything in mine speculation.” She winced. “William or Wilson or something like that. In any case, he tugged the old school tie, sold her off. Pretty little thing, but no spine at all. You know she cried at the wedding?”
Rina faithfully attended every society wedding open to the public, always arriving heavily veiled and dressed in widow’s weeds. She claimed it was to drum up trade, as virginal brides always sent their newly wed husbands looking for satisfaction elsewhere, but I knew better. Rina had a passion for watching ceremonies and rituals, the grander the better. In a strange way, they seemed to comfort her.
“Would Walsh have a hand in this?” Men who secretly abused their wives disgusted me, but there was always a possibility that the banker had acquired a taste for hurting women or perhaps had his sights set on a third wife.
“Doubtful. He shows her off too much. He’d never rip up a brand-new waistcoat and then wear it after.” Rina smothered a yawn. “My money’s on the son.”
“Diseased. Sent home from Oxford after a bad case of the drips.” She said it with a strumpet’s satisfied relish. “Married five years now, but no children.”
I sat back. Since he only otherwise had two daughters . . . “Oh. So that’s why he married her.”
“And why he took her so young,” Rina agreed. “Walsh has a good twenty, thirty more years on this earth. Plenty of time to do the deed and then some. But why are you taking this job, Kit? You know how it will end.”
“She thinks she’s been cursed,” I said softly.
Rina hmphed. “If anyone’s under an evil spell, it’s you.” She stood and stretched. “When do you call on her?”
“Today, for tea. I’m a newfound, poor cousin.” I thought for a minute. “I need something in sprigged muslin, genteel-cut but no sashing. Lace. A very little lace.”
Already thinking, Rina nodded. “Yellowed or shabby?”
“Yellowed. I’m a working lass.”
I followed her into the adjoining room, which was filled with freestanding racks of gowns. Rina had once made a vow never to wear the same gown more than twice, and after making a mutually satisfactory arrangement with her neighbor the spinster dressmaker, she had managed to keep it.
“I did a garden party play a few years ago,” she said as she sorted through one rack. “Old gent, wanted all of us dressed like debs. Had each of us sit on his lap so he could fondle us while we fed him biscuits and called him Daddums.”
I hid my revulsion. “I can’t wear white.”
“No one can, love.” She winked as she extracted one gown, held it up to me, and then exchanged it for another. “If you don’t soon start carrying a shade when you go out, you’ll be as dark as a shaman.” She switched the gown for a third, and nodded. “This will do for tea.”
I glanced down. “It’s pink.”
“I despise pink.”
“It’s baby’s blush, and it makes you look like a proper lass. Turn round.” When I did, she held the yoke of the bodice to my shoulders. “If I snip out the pads, it should fit.” She tugged at the chain around my neck. “Can’t wear this.”
“I’ll tuck it under.” I only took off my pendant when I bathed, and even then I kept it within reach. I’d promised my mum I always would.
“Slippers.” She bent to retrieve a pair from a box beneath the gowns and handed them to me.
“They’re too big.” And even pinker than the gown.
“Stuff the toes with paper. Satchel.” She found and placed a fringed drawstring reticule on top of the slippers. “Crinoline.”
“No,” I said flatly.
“They itch and they make me sweat,” I told her. “I’d rather go naked.”
She glared at me. “Then it will have to be three petticoats.” When I opened my mouth she tapped my cheek sharply. “This is not open for discussion, you silly twit. You’re going to the Hill. You know the butler will be counting them before he lets you through the door. Showing up underdressed is as smart as standing in the marketplace and shouting you’ve become an agent for the Crown.”
“I’d hang myself first.” She was right. “I hate being female.”
“Well, until you sprout a beard and a cock, there you are.” She patted my shoulder. “Come on, while you’re here I might as well feed you.”