What a Courtesan Wants – Victoria Vale

Benedict Sterling stood against the wall of the gallery in the home of his dear friend, Lady Millicent Dane. Raucous cheers went up as two men raced toward a finish line constructed of ladies’ stockings. “Come on, Mr. Graham!” shouted a woman from beside Benedict, waving a lace-edged handkerchief. “I’ve bet my pin money on you!” “He’ll never beat Mr. Burke,” murmured her companion—a man swigging port from a cut crystal glass. “The man has the legs of a gazelle.” Chuckling, Benedict watched the competitors—each with a woman riding his back, arms around his neck and legs circling his waist—compete for the winner’s purse as well as the glory of victory. Neither of them was as desperate for the money as they might have been two years ago, which made this nothing more than a bit of sport for the sake of a laugh, as well as drawing the attention of the women who might pay good coin to bed them. Both David Graham and Dominick Burke were between keepers, thus the reason he’d insisted they attend this party with him. The Widow Dane was known for her exclusive gatherings, where debauched happenings were par for the course, and no one ever spoke of what went on inside her townhouse on Half-Moon Street. Champagne and spirits flowed freely, inhibitions were lowered, and after a sumptuous dinner, the guests had broken into groups based on how they wished to conclude the evening. Pairs and threesomes of lovers had disappeared into bedchambers without further ado—and not everyone retired with the person they had arrived with. It was a common occurrence at Lady Dane’s parties for guests to explore new desires, free to pair with multiple people or even those of their own sex if they wished. Some rooms contained implements meant to torture as well as titillate, and from behind closed doors the occasional yelp or scream of ecstasy could be heard.

This particular group had taken to parlor games, most of which would be considered scandalous in anyone else’s home. Blind Man’s Bluff had seen the men groping about in blindfolds, pretending to be contrite when grabbing a handful of some woman’s bosom or buttocks while licentious laughter filled the gallery. During Hot Cockles, blindfolded women had taken turns kneeling and laying their heads in the laps of a randomly chosen man—which had happened to be Benedict. He’d served as nothing more than a headrest as the other men had taken turns delivering open-handed blows to the women’s backsides, leaving them to guess who had spanked them. If they guessed wrong, another man would take his turn, leaving one unfortunate woman prey to a dozen blows before she deduced correctly. She hadn’t seemed to mind, lips parted and cheeks flushed with arousal as she rubbed at her sore arse. From there, the games had been improvised, becoming more lewd and outlandish by the hour. There had been a competition to see which man could remove a woman’s garter with his teeth the fastest, then the women had been tested at untying men’s cravats in the same way, hands tied behind their backs. A few couples had slipped off here and there, the excitement of the games giving way to lust that simply could not wait. Now, as Benedict enjoyed his umpteenth tumbler of brandy, David barreled through the finish line, the string of stockings tangling around him as he stumbled to a stop.

Bellowing his outrage, Dominick came in a few paces behind, almost dropping the woman clinging to him for dear life. More cheers rose up to echo off the high ceilings, Benedict watching for signs of interest from the gathered women. Several pairs of eyes moved with predatory hunger over Nick’s long, athletic body, and he detected more than a few sighs and fluttered eyelashes at the sight of David’s pretty face. “Oh, bollocks!” Nick groused with an accusing glare in David’s direction. His green eyes were heavy-lidded from too much drink, and his aristocratic features were softened by a tumble of dark brown hair and full, pouting lips. David’s blue eyes stood out bright and clear in the olive hue of his complexion, black hair tumbling over his brow. “Come now, Nicky. Do be a good sport about this. Won’t you congratulate me for winning?” Dominick crouched to let the woman off his back, then gave her bottom a pinch. She squealed, then giggled, leaning into him as over-imbibing began to take its toll.

“I will not congratulate you for cheating,” Nick grumbled. “You wouldn’t have won if you hadn’t selected the smallest woman in the room! You knew you would never outmatch me otherwise.” Ignoring his own companion—who clung to his neck while placing open-mouthed kisses against his jaw—David scoffed. “It is called strategy, and I am not to be blamed if you didn’t think of it. Honestly, I believe you chose your woman solely because of her … erm … attributes.” Several gazes fell on the woman leaning against Dominick, plump, white flesh spilling from the neckline of her gown. Dominick leered at her breasts, reaching out to cup one and give it a squeeze. The woman tittered. “Apologies if I caused us to lose the race, Mr. Burke.

” Dominick wrapped an arm around her waist and drew her closer, as someone handed David the winner’s purse, guineas and sovereigns clinking together inside. “There’s no need to apologize for something you’ve been endowed with naturally. And I daresay the spoils of defeat will be even better than those of victory.” He whispered something in the woman’s ear that Benedict couldn’t make out—but then, he knew an illicit invitation when he saw one. Sure enough, she took Dominick’s hand and led him away from the guests who stood about either paying or collecting on their bets. The man gave Benedict a look over one shoulder, and he offered a nod of permission. Dominick knew the rules as well as any other gentleman courtesan. On nights such as these, tumbles were free—a chance for potential clients to sample what they might have were they willing to part with the coin. In the morning, if the lady wanted an arrangement with Nick that lasted more than a night, she would need to visit Benedict at Madame Hershaw’s dress shop in Cavendish Square. From his secret back office, he’d produce a contract—one that would continue to keep Dominick in grand style while allowing Benedict a percentage as the broker of the agreement.

A moment later, David slipped away with his own companion. Benedict gave him the same permissive nod he’d given the other courtesan, and with that his mission had been accomplished for the evening. With his own arrangement firmly in place and most of the other courtesans similarly engaged, he need only snare keepers for three men to ensure everyone’s future remained secure—for the next few months, at least. None of them ever knew when a client would want to end her contract, leaving them to start this whole song and dance again. Benedict glanced up to find his hostess for the evening approaching. She wore a gown that called attention to the ample curves of her body, the low neckline showing a generous amount of cleavage, and her pale blonde hair atop her head in an elaborate coiffure. She wafted a fan before her face and gave him a little smile, plump lips stained with rouge. Lady Dane proved a scandalous figure amongst the ton. Having married an elderly baron in her youth, she’d only been forced to bear him a short time before his death had freed her. Childless and wealthy due to the terms of his will, she lived her life as she pleased, taking lovers and hosting her decadent parties.

Her exploits had seen her become the subject of scorn in some circles, while she was praised in others. Those who came to her soirées did so seeking a haven where they could be themselves away from the prying eyes of the ton. When becoming aware of Benedict’s own pressing problem, she had graciously stepped in to help. “Things seem to be going well,” she said. “Yes, and I thank you for having us tonight.” “It is no trouble at all. Besides, you and Aubrey have been such good friends to me over the years, so I am happy to aid you in any way I can. Where is he, by the way? I noticed David and Dominick have found amusement for the evening, but I haven’t seen Aubrey since dinner.” Benedict inclined his head toward the corridor the other two courtesans had just disappeared down. “He’d found someone by the time the dessert course ended.

They excused themselves an hour ago.” “I hope they are getting on well. In fact, I hope this party results in new arrangements for all your available courtesans. Especially since that odious gossip columnist has made it so difficult for you to conduct your business.” Benedict fought back a string of curses at the mention of the woman who had nearly ruined the enterprise of the Gentleman Courtesans. Of course, no one knew the identity of the person writing London’s most infamous gossip rag, but she was assumed to be female. No man he knew would have the daring or the cunning to secretly churn out a daily paper filled with salacious gossip about the beau monde. Whoever the harridan was, she’d somehow caught wind of the secret agency Benedict had founded with a group of his friends. A few months ago, the column exposing the existence of male courtesans in London had thrown them all into a panic. If people knew about them, they couldn’t go on conducting their affairs without being found out.

What if one of their former clients had given this writer information, such as the names of the Gentleman Courtesans, or the secret office they operated out of? What would happen once word began to spread? How terribly would their reputations suffer? However, a sudden realization had put Benedict at ease, allowing him to convince the other men they had no reason to fear. It occurred to him that this so-called columnist couldn’t possibly know the entire truth. If she did, she would have exposed it all from the start. That she’d promised not to rest until she’d puzzled it out told Benedict she had nothing—at least, nothing that would be enough to implicate them. In fact, there hadn’t been a peep out of The London Gossip these past several weeks about the Gentleman Courtesans, further bolstering Benedict’s opinion that the woman did not know enough to be dangerous. And so, the agency persisted with only a few minor adjustments to their standard procedures. Their calling cards, which had been passed from woman to woman as a way to refer new clients, had all been collected and thrown into a lit hearth. That had been quite an undertaking, with Benedict and his apprentice rifling through their records for the names and addresses of former keepers and tracing where the cards had traded hands. After weeks of scouring London and beyond, his courtesans had returned with handfuls of the cards, which Benedict had promptly burned to ash. From now on, clients could only encounter the Gentleman Courtesans through parties such as these—events put together by people known to the agency, people they could trust.

As a friend, Millicent could be counted on to be discreet, and invite women who would be interested in what they had to offer. As well, those present had their own secrets to keep, and would never dream of exposing Benedict and the others unless they wanted their own hidden truths to be unveiled. “I am certain all will be well,” Benedict assured her. “You’ve given us what we needed to make new connections. We have things well in hand from here.” Millicent bowed her head, then gestured with her fan toward a woman standing alone on the fringes of the guests. “That reminds me, I have someone for you to meet. A woman who has expressed an interest in the services of your agency. She is a particular friend of mine … a protégé I trained myself in the art of submission. She is looking for a new arrangement, as her previous master has died.

The poor thing.” Benedict looked at the woman in question. Despite being in the home of one of the best hostesses in London, she wore stark black, her expression blank as she gazed at the revelry happening around her. Despite the color of the gown, it had been tailored to fit her in a flattering way, showing off a tall, voluptuous figure. Golden hair had been arranged in a soft chignon at the nape of her neck, a few loose strands framing sloping cheekbones, a pert nose, blue eyes and a pleasing moue of a mouth. “If your friend is a submissive, then I only have one courtesan who could properly meet her needs at the moment. The other is currently being trained and isn’t ready to take anyone in hand yet.” Millicent bit her lip. “Oh, but Aubrey is already occupied. What rotten luck.

I really think an arrangement with one of your courtesans would be just the thing for her. The woman has been widowed two years, yet still wears mourning attire and closets herself away. I insisted she attend this evening, but she doesn’t seem to be enjoying herself at all.” Benedict rubbed at his chin. “Aubrey is occupied tonight, but he isn’t promised to anyone just yet. Introduce me to your friend, and I will see to the rest.” A QUARTER OF AN HOUR LATER, Benedict sat in Millicent’s private drawing room awaiting the arrival of her friend. The widow would be instructed to meet him here, where he would interview her to ensure she was interested in what Aubrey had to offer. While he trusted his friend’s ability to secure an arrangement on his own, he also knew how important it was for Aubrey to always have a keeper. While his business had been snatched from the brink of ruin, the additional income was needed, for Aubrey was the guardian to his niece, who had now come of an age to wed.

Being a man of some means, it was Aubrey’s wish to see her married well, which required a dowry and trousseau—both of which were being financed by his secret profession. If the woman his friend entertained tonight didn’t make an offer, Benedict would be waiting in the wings with another. After all Aubrey had ever done for him, it was the least he could do. It seemed paltry recompense for the man who had saved his life and been a truer friend than any he’d ever had, but it would have to do. It was all Benedict had to give. And so, when Millicent returned, ushering in her solemn friend, Benedict stood and put on his most genial smile. “Benedict, may I present my dear friend, Lady Lucinda Bowery, Dowager Countess of Lanhope. Lucinda, this is Mr. Benedict Sterling. He’s the one I mentioned to you before.

” Lady Bowery stood tall enough to look him in the eyes—a rare occurrence considering he stood taller than most men of his acquaintance. He detected a bit of wariness in her gaze, as well as shrewdness. No simpering miss, this one. “Oh yes, the pimp.” Benedict grinned, no stranger to that title and not the least bit offended by it. “I’ve been called a pimp on occasion. A cock-bawd. A procurer. But, I like to think of myself a simple creator of opportunities, my lady.” “The opportunity for a man to get a woman into bed with him?” she asked with a derisive snort.

“Sir, I do believe most men could accomplish that on their own and for free.” “That isn’t what the Gentleman Courtesans offers at all, my lady. Truly, what we do goes far beyond the carnal. Our every aim is to please the women who employ our services, and each contract is tailored to fit the needs of the individual woman. Companionship, romance, and yes, bedroom play … all offered by a man chosen to suit you. And I must say, I’ve been told I am quite good at selecting the ideal courtesan based on the woman in question.” “Is that so?” she challenged, while Millicent looked on in silence, eyebrows raised in amused interest. “Quite so, my lady. In fact, if you will tell me a bit about yourself, I am certain I could have your ideal match in mind in a matter of seconds.” He almost never approached new clients with such bluster, but Benedict’s confidence was reinforced by the information Millicent had given him and the fact that he’d already decided on Aubrey.

“If you are as good as you claim, you shouldn’t need my assistance. Tell me, Mr. Sterling … what sort of courtesan do you suppose would be best? Providing I am actually interested, which remains to be seen.” Taking a step closer to her, then another, Benedict peered into her eyes. From this close, he could see the dark circles beneath them from lack of sleep and the lines of grief pulling her lips into a frown. The death of her master had to have been a terrible blow, one she had not yet recovered from. Sympathy pricked him as he realized he could see a bit of himself in her—the loneliness, the grief, the realization that he was all alone in the world and likely always would be. He’d always been good at reading people and determining what drove them. This woman was no different. “You need someone strong,” he began without breaking her gaze.

“Someone who will challenge you and push you to the limits of your usual boundaries. A man who will dominate you so thoroughly, you’ll forget your pain and losses for the time you are with him. Someone with experience, who knows the proper techniques involved in bringing a woman like you pleasure. Am I far off the mark, my lady?” She stared at him with a slack jaw, her breath quickening as his words seemed to affect her physically. Her large bosom rose and fell, her pulse fluttering in the hollow of her collarbone. Benedict grinned. He’d intrigued her, and they both knew it. “I have found such men difficult to come by since the death of the earl, who was both my husband and my master. He was all those things. I will not mince words with you, Mr.

Sterling. I have no use for those other facets you mentioned—the romance, the companionship. Were I to enter into any such agreement, it would be with the mutual understanding that I am simply a woman with an itch that needs scratching.” Benedict’s lips twitched in amusement. He liked this woman. “As it happens, I have just the man for you.” “Who?” she asked, giving him a once-over with her shrewd eyes. “You?” He huffed a laugh, not at all surprised by her assumption or her forwardness. She wasn’t the first to think he intended to match himself with a new client, and she wouldn’t be the last. “Unfortunately, I am already attached and satisfied with my current arrangement.

” “Pity,” she murmured. “Besides,” he added with a nod in Millicent’s direction. “Millie knows the man in question and can attest that he’s an experienced master. You’ll be in the best of hands.” “It is true dear,” Millicent chimed in. “Aubrey was trained by the Marquis of Ashton himself. Ashton was a dear friend of your husband’s, was he not? Then you know the man is one of the best and most experienced masters in England. He trained me as well as many other dominants. Aubrey will be a good match for you, I think.” Little did Millicent know, they’d be better suited than she realized.

Benedict and Aubrey were close, making him privy to the details of the other man’s personal life. Linendraper by day, courtesan by night, and guardian to a young lady … Aubrey had no time for attachment either, and had cemented his status as a confirmed bachelor years ago. He was no more interested in romantic entanglements than Lady Bowery. “I trust your judgment, Millie,” she said, before turning back to Benedict. “Well? Is he here? I would like to meet him.” Benedict smiled, a wicked thought occurring to him. It was something he’d never attempt with another client, but this woman had already proved she was no shrinking violet. She was a widow who had experienced the sort of pleasures Aubrey specialized in. She seemed interested enough now, but this would certainly convince her to sign a contract. “I’m afraid he is … currently occupied.

Though, Millicent has informed me that he’s been placed in a very special room of the house, one with a peephole for watching. And I know Aubrey; he doesn’t mind an audience. It wouldn’t be an official meeting, but you would have the chance to observe his technique and decide whether you would like to contract his services.” Her eyes blazed with heat at the idea, curiosity softening her previously tight face. She glanced to Millicent, who gave her a nod, then gestured toward a nearby corridor. “Right this way, darling. I’ll see you into the neighboring room and show you the peephole.” “Thank you, Mr. Sterling,” Lady Bowery said before allowing herself to be led away. “Should I find him satisfactory, I shall come find you to discuss the contract.

” He bowed to the lady and watched them leave with a smug sense of satisfaction settling over him. He fully expected her to hunt him down to secure an arrangement before Aubrey’s current bedmate decided she wanted him. By the end of the night, he hoped to have his three unattached courtesans settled into new arrangements. With all nine courtesans happily working, an apprentice in training to learn the administrative duties currently falling on Benedict, and three prospects wanting to join their ranks, business was better than ever, despite the vindictive efforts of a certain gossip columnist. “Take that, London Gossip … you meddlesome bitch.”

.

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