Lady with Swarbat by Raja Ravi Varma
It had been some years since Kali Matai, The Black Goddess, met Mrs Rose Darling, known as The Rose of Frampton, and it was a meeting neither wished to remember, both having been at the mercy of protectors with no morals and less conscience. During that earlier meeting, Kali had taken it upon herself to protect the sweet, young girl from the worst of the abuses at the gentlemen’s party. Kali, after all, knew better than any woman in London how to feel nothing.
When they came upon each other at Mrs Marlowe’s Book Emporium, however, not only their prior encounter bound them, but also a mutual understanding of the way the world treats women of easy virtue—as though they have no virtues at all. Now, in an effort to help the girl again, Kali has invited her to tea to discuss a topic of great import. Or so Mrs Darling’s note had said.
“I can offer you tea, Mrs Darling,” Kali said, “Or something more… fortifying. Palm wine or feni or sherry. I only keep brandy in my protectors’ homes.”
“May I try feni?” Becky says. She likes trying new things, and fortifying is exactly what she needs. “And if you would not mind, Miss Matai, My true name is not Mrs. Darling. I am not Rose. And I am not a… That was a name given me by a… by someone who wished to increase my… price. My real name is Winstanley, Miss Becky Winstanley.”
Kali pours out the coconut liqueur into crystal glasses and passes one across the table. “Ah, very much like Miss Matai and La Déesse Noire, then. I would be grateful if we might use our real names. I am Kali Shaheen, though I beg you not make it known outside these rooms.”
“Kali Shaheen. Miss Shaheen. It is a lovely name.”
Young woman in a white hat by Jean Baptiste Greuze
“One I have not heard in a good many years, Miss Winstanley.” Kali began, “Your note spoke of some trouble you wish to share?” Some way in which I can help?”
Becky takes a cautious sip, and then another, more appreciative, one. “It is not so much that I need help. More that I would appreciate someone to listen; someone who, perhaps, might… understand how complicated it is.”
Kali chuckles. “If it is about a man, my dear, there is nothing simpler.”
Becky smiles in return, and then turns wistful. “The man is simple enough, Kali, that is true. If his appetites are satisfied and his ego is stroked, he is happy. I am the complicated one.”
“Ah,” Kali sighs, taking another delicate sip of her feni. “Yes, women are certainly complicated, are we not? Have you some concern about Lord Aldridge?”
Her primary concern, Kali thinks, should be seeing the man does not leave her with the French pox. Rare, indeed, are gentlemen with such copious appetites, and no lightskirt in London holds any illusions about the Merry Marquis—with the possible exception of the one before her.
Kali has never dallied with him, though not from lack of trying on his part or amused interest on hers. She merely chooses to remain true to her protectors, for reasons she cannot disclose. If ever she might wish an affair merely for the enjoyment of it, however, Lord Aldridge would be near the top of the list.
“When you and I first met,” Becky begins softly, “you rightly deduced the protector I had then was not kind. You will understand, I think, what it means when I say that he was among the best of all the men by whom I have been kept.”
Kali nods. Every mistress understands all too well.
“Lord Aldridge saved me—in every sense—and more important, saved my little daughter.” Kali’s smile becomes just a bit brittle at the mention of the little girl. “Not just from more of the same, but from worse. I will always be grateful to him.”
Even a heartless rogue like Aldridge, Kali reflects, might find himself an accidental hero on occasion.
“He is always polite. He always ensures my pleasure. He is kind to my little girl. He is generous with his gifts and with his praise. He is kind, Miss Shaheen. It has been a heady experience for a girl like me.”
Smiling with a certain softness about her eyes and mouth, glad this sweet girl has had some small measure of kindness, even if at the hands of a man like Aldridge, Kali urges, “Go on.”
“It has been nine months since we signed a contract. For six months, he barely let me leave his side. You will think me foolish, but I imagined… I knew he would not marry me. Indeed, so I told his… certain members of his family. But I thought we were in love. Foolish.”
Kali raises a brow and the softness in her eyes vanishes. “Quite.” Her hand trembles just slightly as she finishes her drink and pours another, also offering it to her guest. When Becky holds out her glass, Kali pours a short ration, unsure whether the girl is accustomed to strong spirits.
Setting down the bottle, she straightens in her chair, as rigid as if she were part of her corset, not just wearing it. But for sipping the feni, her jaw is clenched tight, and her fingernails dig deeply into the palm of her hand. Still, outwardly, she is calm as an iced-over pond.
Becky’s tone is bleak. “I forgot what you told me when we met before. I forgot he is my buyer, not my lover. Not my friend. I knew it, but I forgot.” At Kali’s frown, she hastens to explain, “He did not encourage me, Miss Shaheen. It was my own doing. He did not speak of love. He did not talk of permanence. But he was kind. And I have known so little kindness.”
Kali uncurls her rigid fingers from the arm of her chair and grasps Becky’s hand. “It is an easy thing to forget when they so believe they wish to be our friends.” She sets her glass aside, taking Becky’s chilly fingers between the palms of her hands. “Do you expect he will set you aside?”
At Becky’s stricken look, Kali asks gently, “Have you savings to keep you? He has given you the deed to the house, has he not?”
Watching the crash of a fallen woman was never an easy thing, especially for those who might just as easily follow her rapid descent.
“The house and my income are mine to keep if I finish the two years, or if he chooses to end the contract early. I lose them only if I leave.” She examines her empty glass, as if looking for words within it. “Lord Aldridge’s cousin, Lord Chirbury, suggested the clause.”
“He is a wise man, then, and you are fortunate to have received his counsel.” Lord Chirbury clearly knew his cousin almost as well as the entirety of the demimonde did. “Do you not have a solicitor? A woman alone must have her own solicitor, Miss Winstanley.”
“A solicitor? A solicitor could not help me with my problem, Miss Shaheen.”
“You are not considering… Surely not.” Kali’s brows drew together. “Think, Miss Winstanley. Do not feel.”
“Considering what?” Becky’s brows drew together.
If the girl truly hadn’t thought of leaving the man with whom she had so unwisely fallen in love, Kali could not forgive herself if she were the one to suggest it. “Never you mind, sweetling.” She patted Becky’s hand. “Tell me what it is I can do to help.”
“Aldridge owns my body,” Becky says, baldly. “Or perhaps it would be truer to say he holds the lease. I need it returned to me in good condition at the end of the contract. Not for my sake. For my daughter.”
“I cannot believe,” Kali says slowly, “with what I know of Lord Aldridge, that you are concerned about maltreatment.”
Becky shakes her head.
“So, rather, you worry about… disease?” She sat back. “Or is it only your heart for which you fear?”
“Aldridge returned my heart to me when he began swiving other women and discussing it with me. It is bruised, I cannot deny, but he is a man of prodigious appetite who enjoys variety. Yet he returns to me several times each week. And…” Becky colors, “he seems to need very little sleep.” Choking on the words, she finally spits out, “Truth be told, Miss Shaheen, I fear the pox.”
(To read the rest of their conversation, come back tomorrow.)
Meet Kali and read her story in La Déesse Noire: The Black Goddess, to be released June 10, available for pre-order now.
Sired by a British peer, born of a paramour to Indian royalty, Kali Matai has been destined from birth to enthrall England’s most powerful noblemen—though she hadn’t counted on becoming their pawn. Finding herself under the control of ruthless men, who will not be moved by her legendary allure, she has no choice but to use her beauty toward their malicious and clandestine ends.
When those she holds most dear are placed in peril by backroom political dealings, she enlists some of the most formidable lords in England to thwart her enemies. But even with the help of the prominent gentlemen she has captivated, securing Kali’s freedom, her family, and the man she loves, will require her protectors stop at nothing to fulfill her desires.
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Meet Becky and Lord Aldridge in A Baron for Becky, to be released August 5, available for pre-order now.
Becky is the envy of the courtesans of the demi-monde – the indulged mistress of the wealthy and charismatic Marquis of Aldridge. But she dreams of a normal life; one in which her daughter can have a future that does not depend on beauty, sex, and the whims of a man.
Finding herself with child, she hesitates to tell Aldridge. Will he cast her off, send her away, or keep her and condemn another child to this uncertain shadow world?
The devil-may-care face Hugh shows to the world hides a desperate sorrow; a sorrow he tries to drown with drink and riotous living. His years at war haunt him, but even more, he doesn’t want to think about the illness that robbed him of the ability to father a son. When he dies, his barony will die with him. His title will fall into abeyance, and his estate will be scooped up by the Crown.
When Aldridge surprises them both with a daring proposition, they do not expect love to be part of the bargain.
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