Tangled in Sin – Lavinia Kent

Madame Blanche stopped and turned to stare into the mirror just before descending the long, curved staircase to the public rooms. The day was still early, but nerves drove her from her chamber. It was her first day running the house and her belly was a bucket full of minnows, swirling and dashing. It had been one thing when Ruby was still here, but now she was alone. It was all she could do not to turn and run back to her rooms. Instead she forced herself to meet her own gaze. She knew exactly what she would see, but still it came as a surprise. The heavy white mask that covered the top half of her face made her almost unrecognizable even to herself. White leather tinted with silver and glittering with crystals at the rim of its snowflake upper edges; it was a thing of beauty, mask and crown in one. A creation fit for a winter queen—or the daughter of a duke. She snorted to herself, her gaze taking one last look at the kohl-lined eyes that hid behind the mask and ruby-shaded lips below. No, she was no longer herself. She hadn’t yet discovered exactly who this new woman who stared at her from the mirror was, but she was far removed from the innocent fun-loving girl who’d peered back at her less than a year ago. That girl had trusted the world, trusted that the world was a kind and giving place. This woman had no such expectations.

She trusted no one. Adjusting the sparkling collar of diamonds about her neck, she turned back to the stairs and began to descend, ready to enter her new realm. She gave another snort, soft and personal. Madame Blanche’s Club for Gentlemen of Taste might be the finest brothel in all of London but it was hardly a realm, more of a prison, a prison she could not leave. Although, and her face softened, it was a prison that held the treasure of her heart, of her soul. “Madame,” Simms’s, her porter’s, voice called quietly from below. “You have a guest.” “A guest?” It was far too early for a visitor, much less a patron. If there was one thing she knew it was that the gentlemen who visited her never arrived before noon, and most often not for hours after. “Yes, a lady.

” “Truly, a lady?” Now, that was strange, although Ruby, the house’s previous owner, had explained that sometimes even the most proper of ladies sought out help, help they could find nowhere else. Her lips pursed at the thought. She was far from as experienced as Ruby and had no idea what advice she could offer anyone. Still, she could smile and nod and then talk to a few of her girls. One of them would surely know the answer to whatever was needed. “Yes, a Miss Cynthia Westhope. She’s as proper a one as I’ve seen. I’ve put her in the small parlor.” Cynthia? Sin? Her heart skipped a beat. What was she doing here? Once they’d been the dearest of friends, but now… Chapter 1 “Is it really you?” Lady Cynthia Westhope gasped, her sense of anticipation forcing the words out to echo about the finely appointed parlor as the pale woman swept in, her silvery white skirts trailing about her.

Cynthia began to rise, but the woman gestured for her to remain seated, not speaking, but only stopping to stare, making Cynthia wish she’d exhibited more control. She’d planned her words so carefully and now couldn’t remember a single one. Just being here filled her with nervous energy. She was at a brothel, a notorious brothel. Her toes curled in her slippers. She should be afraid, but all she felt was excitement—and anxiety; was she about to find Jasmine? “I am not sure what you mean.” The woman answered at last as she stepped closer, her pale blond hair swept back tightly, an elaborate mask covered her upper face, although it was not yet noon—nor a masquerade. Her lips were colored the crimson of a midsummer’s rose, the only splash of color on her icy countenance. Icy. That was exactly the right word, looking at her made Cynthia want to shiver.

Could this woman possibly be Jasmine? It seemed impossible and yet there was no single facial feature that made it so. The shape of the chin was Jasmine’s, as were the vivid blue eyes, although she’d never seen them so darkly lined. But could this cold figure really be the friend she had so dearly loved? Could her childhood best friend have become a scandalous madam? All she could do was forge onward. “I don’t know why you feel the need to pretend with me, Jasmine.” Her friend’s name left her lips both as a statement and a question. “I am Madame Blanche,” the woman stated, her tone stiff and formal, lacking the joy that had always marked Jasmine’s voice. She did not move to take a seat of her own, did not sit down to gossip and catch up, as Jasmine would have. Cynthia bowed her head, resting it upon her palm, examining the woman. She was as slim as Jasmine, the stiff, snowy brocade of her gown highlighting the fact. Her bosom was larger than Cynthia recalled, but such things could change—or simply be padding.

And the diamonds about her neck; Jasmine had owned such diamonds. But how could Jasmine, daughter of the Duke of Scarlett, have come to manage a brothel? The idea was horrifying—but also a little exciting. Chewing on her lower lip, Cynthia considered. Why had she come here, risked so much to see her friend? She knew she should not have, but as always her sense of adventure had pushed her forward, unmindful of consequence. “Why did you not tell me?” she asked, her voice low. She did not look up, hiding the moment of hurt that her friend had not confided her secrets. “Tell you what?” Madame Blanche replied, not a drop of warmth in her tone. “Tell me what happened. I would have helped. I still want to help.

” “I don’t know what you are talking about,” the woman answered, her voice growing sharp. Cynthia raised her head and stared at Madame Blanche until the woman met and held her gaze. “You know exactly what I am talking about, Jasmine. We have played dress-up together since we could walk. Do you think a little powder and a mask will keep me from knowing you?” Madame Blanche drew nearer, stopping only when she stared down at Cynthia. “I think if you are wise you will let it be, you will realize you are mistaken.” Cynthia blinked back tears at the cold words. All she wanted was to help. “I am already not wise; you know that. I should not even be here.

” “No, you should not.” The woman looked away again, heartless. Closing her eyes to hold back her emotions, the questions that had been troubling her for days, Cynthia asked, “How could I not come? You were my best friend. I know I should have inquired earlier, but…” “It is too late now. And it was probably too late even then. Go home, Miss Westhope, and forget about this day, forget about everything.” Trying to be strong, to do what she must, Cynthia raised her head and stared at Madame Blanche. She would not abandon her friend. “It would be impossible to forget. How can I forget, when I loved you like a sister? How can I forget, when I failed you in some way that you could not come to me? Just tell me what has happened and then I will go.

” The woman gave a small snort, the first sign of actual humanity, of the friend Cynthia had known so well—Jasmine had always been prone to just that tiny noise. “If I were to admit to knowing you, Miss Westhope, I would surely know that you rarely follow through on such statements. There is always one more step before you will do as requested. If I were to tell you my story, then you would have six more questions.” “But Jasmine…” “No.” “At least tell me if the rumors are true. Do you have a child? Is that why…?” “It does not matter. I have already said too much. Go home, Miss Westhope. Go home and forget all this.

What is done is done. There is no going back.” “Talk to me, Jasmine.” “Please just let it go, Sin.” There was a desperate edge to Madame Blanche’s voice. “Please. There truly is nothing that can be done now. If you’ve heard rumors, then surely so has half of London. Let it be.” Hearing the familiar nickname, Cynthia felt a pang deep in her chest.

James, Jasmine’s brother, had first taken to calling her Sin, and Jasmine had soon followed, both making it clear that it was Sin and not Cyn. At first, she’d hated it, but now it made her long for the world she’d always known, the friend who was closer than any sister and the beautiful and aggravating young man that she’d cared for far too much. And that was the problem. She knew Jasmine was right, that she should leave, should pretend to have never come to this place. She should leave the infamous brothel, draped in all her disguising veils, and never think of it again, never think of the friend she had loved and lost, never think that she might have helped, never think that…How could she leave Jasmine, leave her here? Even thinking about it made her stomach roil, made her forget the sense of excitement she’d felt in coming. “Please, Jasmine, I need to understand before I go. I need to know there is nothing I could have done—anything I can do know. I will never forgive myself if I leave without knowing.” If it was possible, Madame Blanche grew even paler. “You think this is about you?” How could Jasmine say such a thing? “You know I don’t mean it that way.

I care about you. I have always cared about you. Let me know how I can help.” Madame Blanche turned and walked away, standing at the window, but clearly not seeing anything. “There is no help. You must accept that, Miss Westhope, and also accept that I am not distraught. I have found safety in this place and it has provided me with far more than I ever dreamed.” She gestured about the elegantly appointed room. She must convince Jasmine to come away with her. It was unthinkable to leave her friend here.

“I know what this place is—what the women do here. How can working as a whore be a good thing? Please come with me, Jasmine. I have enough money that I can set you up someplace, nothing grand, but clean and—and if we told my father, you know he would help you regardless of what the story is. The earl has always regarded you as a second daughter.” Madame Blanche’s voice grew tight. “My own father, the duke, was more than ready to help—I just did not care for the type of help he offered. It came with a stiff price, as it always does. If my father would not help me freely, do you really think your father would be any different? Men always want something.” It was impossible to mistake the bitterness of her tone. “I can still help you myself.

” Madame Blanche turned back to Cynthia. “How? Do you really have such funds? Are you going to send me your pin money for all eternity? And what of when you marry? Will you explain me to your husband? No, Sin, you must go. Go and do not look back. Go now, before anyone finds you here. You always were foolish, but this is beyond all.” She could not deny the foolishness, but all she had ever wanted to do was help. Jasmine had to understand that. She opened her mouth to speak, to try once more to explain, but even as her lips started to form the first words, a commotion arose outside the parlor door. “I will see her and see her now,” a loud and commanding male voice stated. Jasmine’s eyes met Cynthia’s.

They both knew that Cynthia could not be found here. “Really, sir, just let me announce you and—” “It’s ‘my lord’ and I am quite capable of announcing myself.” Cynthia’s gaze flew about the room. There was no exit. No way out. But there must be someplace to hide. There must be. She glanced back at her friend, but Jasmine stared as if she’d seen a ghost, what little color she’d had beneath the powder gone. Fruitcakes! Fruitcakes! What was she going to do? Hide behind the drapes? They didn’t look full enough for that. Boot heels clicked in the hallway, drawing closer and closer.

It seemed impossible to move. Her whole body was as frozen into stillness as an icicle. Any movement would mean shattering into a million pieces. The click of the door handle. In a single motion she dived behind the settee, flattening herself to the floor. She was not even sure if she’d gone over the top or around the side. It was not a good hiding place, but it was the best she could do. The door flew open, banging against the wall. It would be a wonder if the plaster was not cracked. The footsteps pounded closer.

Her breath caught and held.

.

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