Five days and nights. Honoria Wallis had planned each of them in her mind, arranging the pieces like bits of furniture. Five days and nights of wicked pleasures and fulfilled fantasies, almost within her grasp. All she needed now was the man she had chosen. The butler’s lips barely moved when he spoke, but she could just make out his heart-stopping words. “Your guest.” Taking a deep breath, Honoria tried to calm her raging nerves. This was what she wanted, wasn’t it? What she had chosen? Her gaze was fixed on the door, until a light tap on her arm caught her attention. She turned to face Jude, who waited patiently beside her. Jude, her kind tutor, her most trusted friend, lifted his hands to explain, gesturing to the door, “He, here.” Honoria nodded and put on a brave smile. Yes, he was here. Finally, after a month of searching for just the right man, he had arrived. She took Jude’s hand, giving it an affectionate squeeze. When she’d first proposed the idea, she’d worried Jude wouldn’t go along with it.
Ever since Jude had come to live at her parents’ house to teach her, when she was a spoiled, angry girl of fifteen and he all of twenty-four and fresh from Gallaudet’s school in America, where he’d learned to teach, she had known him to be of almost cautious character where matters of morality were concerned. It was why she had not considered him for this particular assignation. On her eighteenth birthday she’d asked him for a kiss, and he had scolded her for the suggestion. She’d been almost too afraid to ask him for his help in this. The man she had selected came through the parlor door, his cap in his hands. He wore exactly the same clothing he’d been wearing the day before—a rough cotton shirt and canvas trousers with suspenders and boots, covered in grime from unloading at the docks. His hair was cut as short as the stubble on his jaw and a jagged scar ran from his temple to his nose beneath his right eye. He cast his dark gaze from Jude to Honoria, then reached into his pocket and produced the note Honoria had given him at the dockside. “Welcome…” She looked to Jude, who asked the man his name and finger-spelled for her, “Esau Coal.” “Won’t you please sit down?” Honoria invited and, seeing the way he cringed at her speaking voice, she signed to Jude, “You translate.
” When she looked back to Coal, he still stared at her hands. He looked to Jude, and she could just make out the words, “She deaf, then?” As Jude spoke to the man, he translated his words for her with his hands. They stopped moving before his mouth did. Unencumbered by the limitations of spoken words, it took him half the time to sign what he said aloud. “She deaf. She here. You ask.” Coal’s eyes flicked to Honoria, then quickly away. “She gave me this.” She had scrawled her address hastily and handed it to him that morning on the docks.
“I can’t read,” she saw on his lips before Jude repeated it for her. “I had to ask someone to read it for me. I don’t know why I’m here.” She didn’t need to see Jude’s explanation. She knew what he would tell the man. Though Jude had been aghast at her suggestion at first, he was nothing if not loyal to her. He would tell the man exactly what she proposed. In seven days, her ship sailed for France, where she would live as the spinster dormitory minder at a school for deaf girls in Paris. Before that time came, she wanted to experience the life that would be denied to her. Namely, she wanted five days and nights of the kind of passion she’d read about in novels.
This man, Esau Coal, had been her choice from the moment she’d seen him. He’d been hauling a large burlap sack, looking for all the world as though he carried a bag of feathers and not the heavy load slung over his shoulder. His thick neck had been corded with tension and his arms bulging with muscles that looked too large for his skin. She’d imagined raking her nails down those arms, feeling them around her so tightly they could crush the breath from her. The scar that marred his face did not disguise the fact that he must have been a handsome man before whatever misfortune had befallen him, but not handsome in the way of the well-born young gentlemen she had associated with in her parents’ drawing room. Esau Coal represented, to her, powerful danger. Once they were alone together, she would not be able to communicate with him. She would be entirely under his power, without ever having to reveal her innermost self. For these reasons, she had chosen him for five days of reckless pleasure. As Jude explained the arrangement, Honoria watched Coal’s face.
His eyes went wide, then narrowed. In anger? Had she offended him? Jude had warned that any man would be offended to be offered money in exchange for sexual congress. “We no prostitute,” he had signed to her. “Women prostitute.” So the very act of asking a man to enter into such an agreement would insult him. She had been ready for this eventuality. Leaning forward, she cut off Jude’s explanation by signing, “No prostitute. You help me. I pay for your help.” “My…student,” Jude’s mouth paused before the word, “wishes you to know that she means you no offense.
She asks only for your help in this and she wishes to compensate you for that help.” Watching him speak, Honoria wondered again at the ridiculous nature of spoken English. So many useless words cluttering up the spaces between the few that actually meant anything. “So she…” Coal’s eyes flicked nervously to her. “She can’t hear anything at all? And she can’t talk?” “I hear,” she signed patiently. Of course she could hear. Just nothing that another person might find useful. She could hear a cannon firing perfectly well. Heavy footsteps in the room. The blast of a ship’s horn.
Even the rumble of Esau Coal’s voice. But she could not distinguish the words. They were muffled and far away. Jude had once tried to explain to her that she heard as he could hear from another room. But while Jude could open the door to that room and hear everything inside, no matter which side of the door Honoria stood on, she would never hear in the same way. Jude explained for her, and she watched as some kind of comprehension dawned on Coal’s face. “And she’s not…” Though she could not make out the word, she knew what he asked. Was she mentally defective, simple, stupid? She was already frightening enough to him, he could not stomach the thought that she might be unfit in another way. “The abilities to speak or hear aren’t marks of high intelligence,” Jude told him. “Many people speak and hear without thinking.
” Honoria hoped he didn’t scold Coal too much. Her father had once told her that Jude had an impertinent way about him and that he often scolded people where gentle handling would have eased the way far better. At the thought of her father, unexpected tears sprang to her eyes. It had been three months and still her grief caught her at the most surprising moments. She rose, and both men got to their feet. She did not know how it would appear if she ran from the room. She looked from one to the other, then shook her head and produced a handkerchief from her sleeve. Fleeing to the corner of the room to hide her tears, she knew she looked foolish. Worse, she feared Coal might think she wept because she didn’t wish for this arrangement at all. A hand fell on her arm, just below her elbow.
Not Jude’s hand, but a large, rough, square hand, with dirt under the nails. She lifted her gaze slowly, following the hand to the arm, to the broad shoulders, finally meeting the cool gray eyes above the scar. This heady moment when he studied her eyes, only her eyes, took the breath from her. Her knees felt suddenly very unsteady and she took a sharp breath. Then, as quickly as the startling contact had been made, he broke it, looking over her head to Jude. “Is this really what she wants?” She did not know what Jude’s reply had been, but she guessed at it when Coal once again met her eyes and spoke slowly, “Is this what you want?” A nod would have sufficed, but the aching need, the loneliness she felt to her bones and that she would carry with her for the rest of her life, demanded more. Giving him no time to react, she rose on her toes and, taking his face in her hands, she kissed him. He did not resist, but he did not submit. His arm went around her waist, his grip crushing. His mouth was equally ungentle, forcing her lips apart, invading her mouth with a tongue that tasted of ale.
His unshaven face pricked her, his body was every bit as hard and unyielding as she’d imagined, as she hoped he would be when he took her beneath him and made her breathless, like the heroine in one of her scandalous novels. When he released her, her entire body wept in anguish, though she managed to collect herself externally. She could not look at Jude. It was too embarrassing that he’d seen something so intimate, that she’d been so shameless before him when it must have made him acutely uncomfortable. Coal strode to the door and she watched after him, wondering if this would be the last time she’d see him. He’d made no indication of accepting her terms and a kiss was no assurance of compliance. Jude’s brow crumpled, the way it often did when he thought deeply, but his expression gave her no clue. Finally she caught his eye and signed, “He yes?” Jude nodded and lifted his fist, making a motion like rapping upon a door. She took a deep breath. It was done, then.
Tonight, she would surrender to Esau Coal, a complete stranger. She would give him her body, her trust. It would be the most terrifying thing she’d ever done, and she had never wanted anything more. * * * * * The moment Esau stepped from the parlor, the butler, who looked as if someone had taken a gray rat and stretched him out over a man’s bones, directed him up the stairs. “This way. Sir.” “Don’t say it, if it pains you,” Esau bit back. “I don’t know what I’m thinking, doing this.” The butler fixed him with the kind of look a man reserved for the bastard who just cheated him at dice. “It does not concern me.
Sir. This way.” The rat-face led Esau up the stairs to a bedroom ten times as large as the room he slept in back at the boarding house. There was a bed that looked as though it could be another room in itself, its tall mahogany columns reaching all the way to the ceiling. Everything was intricately carved, far too delicate for him to touch. Like the woman downstairs. He could still feel her mouth on his, her desperation flowing into him like water through a broken dam. She was so small, so fragile. And he was supposed to get under her skirts, because she had chosen him to be the first. He didn’t know her, and it didn’t make sense.
And he was petrified. What would happen when they were alone? How would he talk to her, calm her? What if he was being had and she didn’t want this at all? How could he trust anything that man downstairs had said? What if she was simple? Oh, God forgive him, that wouldn’t be right. If she had no more understanding than a child, and he took her, what kind of a man did that make him? A scullery maid stoked the coals beneath a kettle in the fireplace, lifting the vessel by the handle, a thick towel steaming beneath her hand to protect her from the heat. She poured water that hissed and bubbled into a copper hipbath in the center of the room. She curtsied to him, as if he was the bloody queen, and ran out as though the room were on fire. Alone with the bath, it didn’t take him long to figure out what was expected. Beside the tub, on a little brass stand, a razor, a cake of soap, a mirror and a small brush were laid out like tools for a surgeon. Esau stripped off his stained shirt and boots, shedding his trousers last. He looked over his shoulders to make sure no one lingered in a corner, not the rat-face or the maid or anyone else in this strange house. He tested the water with his toe, then stepped in.
He’d only just settled into the hot water, a hiss escaping his lips, when the door opened. At first he did not recognize the girl who’d slipped through the doorway. She wore a nightgown, pristine white muslin that glowed in the firelight. Her face glowed too, like the pale milky glass in a streetlight. Small, dark eyes glittered from between two curtains of chestnut hair that hung, wavy from her braids, to her waist. She came forward slowly and he waited, motionless. It occurred to him to stand and leave, to collect up his clothes and never come back. He might joke about this over a pint, but deep down, he would always be unsettled by the strange woman who had invited him into her home and had a man ask him politely, would he fuck her. But the memory of her slender body in his arms, fragile as a china doll even through her clothes, kept him where he sat. She knelt beside the bath, the firelight illuminating her body inside her nightgown.
The rosy points of her nipples stood out dark against the muslin, jerking upward with every ragged breath, though she appeared otherwise calm. Her eyes met his and she searched his gaze with an intensity that discomfited him. He’d never in his life been so shaken, that he could recall. Not even as a child in the workhouse. There, and later at the docks, he’d been able to stand before any man or woman, regardless of station, look them in the eye and make it clear that he was no man to be crossed. This woman, Honoria, didn’t deserve to be frightened of him, and so he did not glower. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure it would have worked on a woman as bold as she was. For all her timidity as she trailed her fingers through the water, studiously avoiding his thigh, she had come up to him in view of God and everyone at the docks and handed him that scrap of paper. She’d known what she was doing and that she wanted him for the job. That struck him with a new sense of responsibility and made him doubt even more that he should stay.
She dropped her gaze, still playing at fanning her fingers through the too-hot bath. Slowly, the circles she made widened to brush his skin beneath the water, from knee to hip, and her breath hitched. Transfixed by the sight of her own hand touching him, she did not see him studying her or, thankfully, the way he held his own breath as she laid her soft palm across his skin. The water made a ghost of her touch, and she lowered her head. A tremor shook her shoulders and he feared for a moment she might be crying, but when she lifted her head, she was composed. She went to the little stand and lifted the soap, asking wordlessly, with eyebrows raised, if she could wash him. He nodded, only slightly unsure he answered the question she asked. Kneeling again, she plunged the soap into the water and brought it to his shoulder, soaping over the broad expanse of his back in circles. He thought of the last time he’d been with a woman. They’d tumbled together after he’d won a hand of cards and he’d had enough money to buy her another pint.
He’d had her up against the wall out back of the pub, and afterward he’d left her standing there laughing drunkenly and asking too often for him to come back. There had never been a time when he’d had to be gentle with a woman. He didn’t like hurting anyone, and he never sought to, but he’d never been particularly careful either. She cupped water between her small hands and lifted it to sluice down his back. Some ran down her arms, sprinkling the front of her nightgown as it dripped from her elbows. The wet muslin clung to her skin and as she leaned over him to wash the other shoulder, her tight nipples brushed across his chest. She drew back, her face close to his, hand still braced against his soapy shoulder. He thought for a moment that she might kiss him, even pictured kissing her himself. Vividly he imagined smiling at her, reassuring her without words then capturing her mouth. But the moment passed and she sat back on her heels, out of reach.
Slowly, she lathered the soap over his chest, her fingers inching through coarse black hair. This time, when she reached across to scoop up the water, he did kiss her, fitting his mouth over hers and winding his arms around her back. She stiffened, her hands coming up almost defensively. Then, as if remembering this was what she wanted, she relaxed, but only slightly. Sliding an arm under her backside, he lifted her into the tub, her knees parting on either side of his legs. She pushed against his chest and forced their mouths apart, breath tearing rapidly from her throat. She reached slowly between them, down, down, close enough to his groin that his cock leapt greedily toward her hand. He couldn’t remember ever being so hard, so sure that he would burst the second she touched him. She lifted up the soap she had dropped and climbed from the tub, her dripping nightgown folding around her legs, revealing the dark triangle between them. She knelt again, concentrating now on his arms, on scrubbing his fingernails with the little brush.
His hand was so large in hers, he felt at once like a lumbering giant and the most powerful man in the world. It was a good thing she had chosen him and not another of the men on the docks. There were men who would see her smallness and want to crush it, who would delight in ruining something so pure. Capturing her wrist, he dunked her hand into the water then brought it to his lips, still tasting a faint trace of soap as he sucked one fingertip into his mouth. She heaved a shuddering sigh and closed her eyes, her face as close to pure rapture as Esau had ever seen. She trembled like a rail tie when the engine steamed through, and he took her other hand, slick with the soap, and guided it to his cock. She shot to her feet, eyes wide, covering her mouth and nose with both hands folded in a silent prayer. “Deliver me from mortification,” he assumed from the way she turned her back.