Reclining on a red plush sofa, Grace took a sip of her sickly sweet orgeat and forced a haze over any thoughts about the night ahead. Madame Chambon only allowed her girls champagne when the gentlemen were paying for it and although Grace was not a drinker she liked the way it dulled her senses to the present. The others were gathered in companionable groups on the fashionable Egyptian sofas, their heavy scent perfuming the air, their soft murmurs imbuing the atmosphere with a falsely domestic air. She glanced at Hope, another of those who, like her, kept to themselves. Hope was favoured by the gentlemen who patronised their St James’s establishment for her milky white skin and delicate, elfin features. Grace had heard the girl had been a governess before she’d eloped with the squire’s son who’d abandoned her. She’d been too ashamed to return to her family. Maybe it was the truth. Each girl had a story to suit herself. To Grace, the only truth was that they were all on a path to hell. It didn’t take much for a girl to lose her character but once it was gone there were precious few options for her to put food in her belly and keep a roof over her head. An expectant hush fell as the heavy draped and tasselled curtain was drawn aside and Madame Chambon arranged herself theatrically in the opening, ready to address her petites choux. “Ravissement!” she complimented them in thickly accented English, clapping her hands. Grace suspected the elegantly ravaged Madame came from Lambeth rather than the Left Bank. Not that it mattered.
No one in this business was who they said they were. Least of all, Grace. The girls, awed and anxious, straightened their rich, colourful gowns nervously. Despite her appearance of bonhomie Madame Chambon could turn on a coin. And it was she who ensured the girls did not return to where most of them had been plucked from— the gutter. “A great opportunity awaits one of you tomorrow,” she addressed them, “for I have just been honoured by the visit of a woman of great discernment …” A couple of the girls tittered. “A woman?” They closed their mouths at Madame Chambon’s beady stare, attending as she went on, “who has requested I supply her with one of my loveliest …” She drew out the pause as several of the brothel’s most popular young ladies preened. “… most hard-hearted girls.” All heads turned towards Grace. She blinked, surprised to register shock when she rarely felt anything these days.
Is that how they regarded her? Hard-hearted? Surely she was not alone in a profession that demanded one’s soul in return for the necessities to live? She simply had nothing left to offer once she’d done what was required in order to pay Madame Chambon her keep and just survive. Madame Chambon levelled her expectant look upon Grace, whose mouth dropped open in protest. “A woman? But—” “The woman wants to give her son a present to remember for his twenty-first birthday. She is obviously a very fond mother—” Madame Chambon allowed herself to share the girls’ amusement, adding, “with very good sense in choosing our select establishment to provide him with the very best initiation—” Her smile grew cloying as she continued to look at Grace—“without fear of him being lured into a transfer of affections amidst all the other … ahem … transfers that take place.” Though she made a gesture with her hands to indicate the transfer of money, the girls tittered at the double entendre. Redheaded Faith, known for her noisy exuberance, leaned in towards the girl beside her. “Grace doesn’t have a heart to lose.” Her whisper resonated. Nor did Grace have the heart to participate in the banter that followed. So what if she’d been selected? It was just another job and a good thing she need not worry about eliciting the emotions of a twenty-one-year-old virgin.
Pleasing, also, was the knowledge that any business with a virgin meant it would all be over in less than five minutes. * * * Madame Chambon selected her dress for her, in royal blue and silver stripes to complement her dark hair and pale skin. Grace’s slender form lent itself to the silhouette of the day: a close-fitting cuirass ending in a draped fan train emphasised with knife pleat ruching. The expensive gown was at the forefront of fashion and made Grace feel she was rubbing shoulders with those she’d once served. She contoured the flat of her stomach with her hand, turning to look over her shoulder in the looking glass at the stylish figure she cut. It was true she enjoyed wearing a gown the like of which she’d once not even been entrusted to fold and put away but of course, like everything else, it came with a caveat: she could take only mincing six-inch steps and Madame Chambon required that her girls pay for the clothes she insisted they wear. “Lor’, but yer look like a duchess,” breathed her dresser, little Maisy, standing back to appreciate the ensemble. It was nice praise, and not surprising the girl didn’t add that she envied Grace. Grace patted her on the shoulder and smiled. “Make sure you’re in bed early, Maisy, not hurting your eyes with those penny dreadful novels you do so love.
” Maisy need look no further than those she served for lurid tales of ruined girls to provide the same moralising warning she got from her beloved stories. Grace hoped Maisy found another situation before Madame Chambon ‘elevated’ her from serving tired and often ungrateful young women who’d been up all night, to eager, high-paying gentlemen. 2 Another job in another grand, fashionable West End townhouse, Grace thought wearily as she paused on the step of the hansom cab the jarvey put down for her. Until desperation had forced her to London, Grace had spent her entire life in the country working for a family who, like their rich and titled friends, decamped to the capital for the sitting of parliament and to further their ambitions through the social pleasures of the season— probably peppered with clandestine visits by girls such as herself. No doubt she was the icing on the cake for a spoiled rich boy destined for some dreary, horsey-looking wife. She was surprised when the lady of the house answered. But then, absolute discretion would be required, Grace reasoned, slanting a glance up at her from beneath the little spotted veil which hung from her neat flower-festooned straw hat—a suitably concealing millinery confection she was immediately grateful for as she found herself staring into the familiar cold blue eyes of the woman who’d once paid her wages. “Hurry now. I shall take you immediately to my son, Miss—?” “Fortune.” It came out as a thin whisper as fear of recognition skittered up Grace’s spine.
For a moment she thought she was going to faint. She gripped her reticule tightly and forced herself to drag in an even breath. Oh God, of all the people … No, she couldn’t faint. Too much depended upon it, she warned herself as she forced steel into her spine. Fortunately her unlikely procuress seemed to have as much desire to further acquaint herself with her son’s special indulgence as Grace did the woman who’d cast her onto the pavement after five years of loyal service three years before. “Follow me, Miss Fortune.” Her former employer led the way up a flight of stairs, not turning as she continued, “I’m assured my son will find you pleasing yet professional enough that he will be in no danger of forming an attachment. Not that there’s any danger of David doing that.” David? Grace could barely keep up. Her feet felt encased in lead slippers.
And yet, what was her alternative? Shame weighed heavy on her shoulders. Oh no, David the Golden Boy had an idealised vision of women’s virtue. He’d made clear his contempt and disgust for creatures like herself. No, this interview would not be long. Passing a housemaid, Grace turned her head away, the fear of discovery almost debilitating. Although the fearsome widow Mrs Willowbank maintained two establishments, Grace knew her former employer took her personal dresser and at least one other servant from her Cotswolds estate to her London townhouse for the season. While Grace was no longer the Barton Manor parlourmaid they’d remember, she knew if one of the servants were to look more closely at her, like Brice the butler, or her old friend Jenny, they’d see through the trappings in an instant. Grace dare not risk eye contact with anyone. Meeting David, of course, was unavoidable. Sick anticipation of his inevitable reaction made her heart thunder in her ears and sweat prickle her skin as they turned towards the sleeping quarters.
Breathe evenly and smile. Grace remembered receiving the same advice when she’d had to fill in for the footman at table during one of Mrs Willowbank’s dinner parties and when she’d first undergone training as one of Madame Chambon’s “girls”. Now her carefully cultivated facade of disdain all but deserted her. For a moment she contemplated picking up her constricting skirts and simply fleeing for her very life. But to lose courage now had consequences: her likely return to the dungheap of society, inevitably to become a diseased creature vying with the fresh dollymops to the capital who supplemented their poor earnings selling their bodies. Nor would she ever know the answer to the greatest mystery of her life: the reasons behind the betrayal that had thrust her into this despised life of vice. For wasn’t this her chance at last? Mrs Willowbank stopped at a door at the end of a dim corridor and turned. “You know the rules?” She seemed reluctant to look Grace in the eye, for her gaze hovered just above the girl’s head. “I was quite explicit. My son has reached his majority seemingly averse to the charms of the ladies.
” Grace’s heart hitched a little. That wasn’t exactly true. “However, he is to be married. It is a good match and the young lady worthy and apparently understanding of David’s—” she hesitated “—deficiencies.” Even after all these years Mrs Willowbank’s condescension fuelled Grace’s anger. Better to concentrate on that, she thought, than her devastation at this latest piece of information. She swallowed, the moment nearly upon her as Mrs Willowbank knocked then pushed open the door. It was not how Grace had imagined it, but finally she would find out why David had not been the loyal friend he’d sworn to be. “David.” Mrs Willowbank beckoned Grace to follow her.
“I’ve brought you a visitor. Miss … Fortune is her name. She knows what is required of her.” With a cursory nod she turned, closing the door behind her. Blinking at the strong light that streamed through the windows, Grace took a moment to orient herself. It was a large room, with a four-poster bed against the far wall. Quickly scanning the familiar paintings on the walls she felt a confused pang to discover there were none of herself. It was clear the room was more artist’s studio than bedroom, for in the centre was a dais upon which was arranged a chair for the model. The very same chair in which Grace had sat for companionable hours while David painted her portrait. A little distant was positioned an easel.
Breathing in the familiar smell of oils and turpentine Grace blinked back the tears which burned her lids. She breathed deeply, tensing herself against David’s judgemental scrutiny, but though he’d risen at her arrival, his whole stance conveyed disinterest and his expression was trained upon an object in the far corner of the room. While she waited for the shock of recognition to register on his face she tried to quell the spontaneous surge of longing for him with the reminder of what he’d done to her. Proudly, she stared at him. The silence continued. With a sigh, David gripped the back of his chair, angled his body towards her and trained his gaze upon hers. Through hers. With horror Grace registered his vacant stare: the glassiness and the faint scarring around his eyes that nevertheless did not mar his fair handsomeness. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Fortune