Authors: Leda Swann
Tags: #Romance, #Erotica, #Fiction, #General, #Short Stories, #Historical, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Man-Woman Relationships, #Adult, #Erotic stories; American
A Novella from the collection,
Sarah Chesham pushed open the door to the coffee house…
Tom shook his head. It was hard to believe such…
“You are not a gentleman,” she complained, though her pussy…
Sarah watched as one of the gentlemen set a hard-backed…
Nearly a month of evenings passed. By now Sarah had…
Tom watched avidly as Sarah scurried out of the room…
Sarah Chesham pushed open the door to the coffee house and stumbled over the threshold. The interior smelled heavenly—of dark-roasted coffee beans and mouthwatering grilled meat—but it was dark and smoky, and her tired eyes took a few moments to adjust to the dimness of the light.
She made her way through the gloom to the closest table and sat down at it, settling her skirts over the tops of her sturdy work boots. Elbows resting on the table and her head in her hands, she concentrated on catching her breath and calming the overrapid beating of her heart.
A buxom young woman in an apron bustled up to her. “What can I get you, dearie?”
Sarah raised her head. “A ha’penny cup of coffee. And a chop,” she added with reckless haste, just as the serving woman had turned to walk away.
She counted out three pennies with careful deliberation and placed them to one side on the table. Her purse was left anxiously light, but there was no help for that. A girl, even an unemployed girl with scarcely a shilling in her pocket and no prospect of getting more, had to eat.
Her plate, when it came, was piled high with more meat than she usually ate in a month. The smell as the chops wafted past her nose was so delicious that she almost fainted with the joy of it.
Still, she shook her head and pointed to the three pennies on the table. “I can’t eat all that. I only wanted the tuppence ha’penny dinner.”
The young serving woman winked broadly at her. “You look like you need feeding up. I won’t tell if you won’t.” And she set the entire plate of food down on the table in front of her.
Sarah had been brought up to eat daintily, but she was too hungry to remember her lessons. She wasted no more time arguing in the face of such unlooked-for good fortune, but tucked into her pile of chops with gusto, barely remembering even to use her knife and fork in her haste to fill her belly.
The serving woman pushed the door of the study closed with the toe of her boot. “There’s a girl out in the front parlor who looks a likely prospect.”
The older woman sitting behind the desk took off her spectacles and laid them aside on the blotter. “Is she pretty?”
The younger woman screwed up her nose at the question. “Of course she is. Pretty as a daisy, though a mite scrawny. I gave her a decent feed,” she added defiantly.
The older woman frowned and tapped the end of her pen on the desk. “Her age?”
“Young enough, but not too young. Nineteen, twenty, maybe. No older.”
“Talks like a toff, and nice manners, too. She’s been brought up good, even if she’s fallen on hard times now.”
The older woman’s frown cleared a little and she stopped the tapping. “She was hungry, you say?”
There was silence as the older woman thought for a moment, her hands steepled in front of her. Finally she gave a decisive nod. “We could use a pretty new face.”
Tom Wilde slouched in the darkest corner of the corridor, his hands in his waistcoat pockets and his top hat pulled down low to shade his face. Checking once more that the farthest reaches of the corridor were still empty, he turned his head and peered once more through the tiny peephole strategically positioned in the ornate wainscoting to the room next door.
The knowledge of the risk he was running only added spice to his peeping. The old harridan who ran the coffeehouse knew his face too well for comfort. She would welcome the devil himself as a paying guest, but if she caught him spying on her coffee house guests? A sound cudgeling would be the very least of his punishment.
Coffee house guests. He curled his lip in a silent sneer. Old Madame Erskine did not make her money from selling watered-down hickory coffee or shoe-leather chops as the other coffeehouses did. No, her trade was in a far more lucrative business.
He swiveled his head a fraction to take in another aspect of the view. No hickory coffee for Madame Erskine’s guests. No, indeed. He took one hand out of his waistcoat pocket to adjust his trousers, which had suddenly shrunk several sizes. She traded in some of the most tempting morsels a man could hope to find on this side of paradise.
Scant wonder that his quarry, the right dishonorable Member of Parliament from Stoke-on-Trent, visited her establishment so often. The merchandise was tempting enough to give the Archbishop of Canterbury an irresistible itch to pull up his cassock and have at them with all his might.
The premier grub of Fleet Street, however, was made of sterner stuff than to turn knock-kneed at the sight of a few half-naked women. They were nothing but a distraction to his real business here—evisceration. Not the messy business with a stiletto knife, but using the infinitely cleaner and deadlier weapon of a pen. He ignored the throbbing in his trousers and mentally sharpened his quill.
He wasn’t called the Adder of Fleet Street for nothing. A little bit more research to pad out his salacious pamphlet, a bit more dirt-digging that turned up another juicy tidbit like this one, and Sir Richard Eddington, the right dishonorable Member from Stoke-on-Trent, would be the laughingstock of all London.
He smiled to himself in the darkness. His writing was not only poisonous, but also highly profitable. Salacious pamphlets were the most lucrative market in his line of business, and he was well-known for writing the best of them. All those who had something to hide, politicians and business tycoons alike, shuddered at his name.
Sir Richard Eddington might not know it yet, but his well-deserved disgrace would keep Tom, the Adder of Fleet Street, in comfort for six months or more.
Sarah carefully laid her knife and fork down on her plate atop the pile of chop bones and dabbed at her mouth with the napkin, slightly ashamed of her greedy haste now that her desperate hunger was appeased. Slowly she drained the lukewarm dregs of her coffee and set the cup down on the table. The last excuse she had to linger in this oasis of warmth and food was now gone, but she could not yet bear to leave.
The kindness shown to her by the serving woman had touched her heart as well as filled her belly. Kindness had been a rare commodity in her life of late. She blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over. Self-pity was an indulgence she could not afford.
Reluctantly she pulled her checkered woolen shawl around her shoulders and stood up, leaning on the back of her chair for support. She would be strong, and somehow she would survive. She was still too young and too full of hope that her life would one day be more than drudgery and starvation to welcome death.
The serving woman in her clean white apron bustled up to clear away Sarah’s dishes.
Sarah clenched her fingers tightly over the back of the chair. “Excuse me, miss, if you don’t mind me asking, but would you be needing another girl to help in the kitchens?”
The serving woman stopped still, dirty dishes in her hands. “You’re out of work?”
Sarah lowered her eyes to the table. “I am,” she confessed, ashamed of her need. “I was trained up as a milliner, but there’s no work for us this winter and we’ve all been laid off with no pay and can’t find no work anywheres, so I’m looking for a different sort of position.”
“What can you do?”
“I’m healthy and strong and I’ll turn my hand to any kind of work you wanted done.”
The serving woman bustled over toward the kitchen, Sarah on her heels. “Well, we
do with another girl around the place, but I doubt the work would be to your liking.” She shook her head slowly back and forth. “It wouldn’t be what you were used to.”
Sarah’s heart leaped at the tantalizing prospect of being allowed to stay. “I’m not proud, though I was brought up a curate’s daughter,” she said, trying to quell the desperation in her voice. “I’ll scrub hearths and wash dishes and wait on the rudest gentlemen ever so politely.”
“A milliner is used to earning good money,” the serving woman said doubtfully. “What wages would you be wanting?”
To her horror Sarah found herself weeping. “I wouldn’t ask for any money,” she sobbed. She sank to the floor and clasped her arms around the serving woman’s knees. “Please take me on. You won’t be sorry. I’d work from dawn to dusk for a corner of the kitchen floor to sleep on and a morsel to eat. Anything to keep me off the streets. I’d die there, I know I would.”
The serving woman patted Sarah’s head with a comforting hand. “Now then, dearie, don’t take on so. There’s many a girl who’s had to go on the streets before you and has come out again none the worse for it.”
Sarah sobbed into her shawl, her shoulders heaving with every breath she took. “I couldn’t go on the streets, miss. Not with my father being a curate and all. He’d turn in his grave to see me brought so low.”
“We’ll have to see what we can do about getting you a position here then, won’t we, dearie. Now, come on and dry your eyes and I’ll take you to see Mrs. Erskine. She’s the lady as owns the coffee house and she’ll be the one who says whether you can stay or no.”
Sarah dragged a cotton handkerchief from her skirts and wiped her eyes as she slowly got to her feet. “I didn’t mean to take on so,” she whispered, ashamed of her sudden outburst. “Truly, I didn’t. It’s just that Emma from the milliner’s shop who got laid off just before me got so desperate she went on the streets last week.” She gave a sniffle. “Nobody’s seen her since.”
“Don’t worry about it.” She pushed open a back door that led into a dark corridor and shooed Sarah along. “Now come along sharpish, dearie. You can wait for Mrs. Erskine out back in the sitting room. It’s nice and private there, and you won’t be disturbed.”
The corridor echoed hollowly under her tread. Sarah stumbled quickly after her, hurrying to keep up. “Do you really think Mrs. Erskine might take me on?”
The serving woman gave a little laugh. “Soon as she sees your pretty face, dearie. Soon as she sees your pretty face.”
The door at the far end of the corridor opened, letting through a shaft of dim light. Two women appeared silhouetted in the doorway for a moment, before the door shut behind them. Their footsteps clattered on the bare wooden floor as they came toward him.
Tom shrank back into his corner and stayed as still as a statue. Thanks to the gloom of the corridor, he remained invisible as a ghost.
To his relief they did not come the length of the hallway, but opened a door halfway down, the door that led to the empty salon. He knew it was empty. It had been the first room he’d checked out when looking for the right dishonorable MP for Stoke-on-Trent.
“Wait in here, dearie,” he heard one of them say to the other. “I’ll let Mrs. Erskine know you’re waiting and she’ll be with you presently.”
One of the women went into the salon, and the other tripped her way back along the hallway and through the same door the pair of them had come in by.
As soon as she had gone, Tom came a little ways out of his corner and stretched his cramped limbs. Clearly another pretty little bird was about to be snared in Mrs. Erskine’s nets. He was curious to see her up close to see if she was as attractive as the girls in the other salon. From what he had seen so far today, Mrs. Erskine employed the best-looking girls in London. No other girls could match them.
His hands outstretched, he felt for the tiny peephole he had found earlier. His fingertips found it almost right away, and he crouched down to look through into the salon beyond.
He shook his head at the irony of his position. How his fellows would laugh if they saw him, the Adder of Fleet Street, behaving just like any two-a-penny peeping Tom.
Sarah sat on the edge of one of the sofas, waiting in trepidation for Mrs. Erskine to appear. Would she be a kindly woman who would give her a chance to live a decent life, or would she be rough and cruel and send her away again, her hopes dashed to the ground? She clenched her fists tightly together to stop herself from trembling. How she hoped that her luck was at last about to change, and that Mrs. Erskine would welcome her into her house hold.
She waited for some time wrapped up in her own thoughts, but Mrs. Erskine did not appear. Eventually she raised her eyes and looked around her, curious at last to see what kind of a house hold Mrs. Erskine ran. Maybe the room held some clues as to her character that would help during the coming interview.
The room was more sumptuous than she had realized on first entering. A large ornate rug covered the floor, while around the walls half a dozen sofas peered into the middle of the room, as if it were a stage.
She rose from the sofa to take a look around. At the far end of the room stood a pair of sideboards. One of them was covered with books and journals, casually resting in untidy piles. The other sideboard held a liberal collection of cut-glass decanters filled with spirits. She was tempted to take a hasty nip to calm her nerves, but she did not want Mrs. Erskine to think her a drunkard or a thief.
Instead, she idly examined the painting on the wall behind. One glance at the subject matter and she let out a gasp of shock before bending her head to look at it more closely—at once shocked and fascinated by the graphic detail. A man and a woman were locked in an intimate embrace. Her clothing, if you could call mere draperies clothing, had fallen largely away, displaying her wanton nakedness. His hands were on her bare stomach, and her naked breasts, artfully framed by the falling draperies, were clearly visible.
She bent her head closer. Even more shockingly, the man’s phallus could just be seen, poised on the brink of entering the woman from behind.
She straightened up, her face burning, and moved hastily backward, not knowing what to think. Mrs. Erskine must be a brave woman of singular tastes to display such a picture in her public sitting room.
Her gaze wandered to safer ground, to the sideboard beside her. Next to a highly polished silver tray holding an intricately detailed crystal decanter was a brass and wooden contraption with lenses at one end, and a place to rest the forehead and an arrangement for holding photographs at the other. A stereoscope viewer, she thought with budding excitement. She had heard tell of these in the milliner’s workroom, but she had never thought she would get the chance to look in one.