A brothel—that’s what he needed. A woman. Release. It had been over ten years since Marcus Neill had known a woman. He rarely dwelled on that fact, except in moments like these, when the loneliness and the pent-up urges became too much. Yet, a significant portion of his adult life had been spent in celibacy.
Why? He couldn’t say exactly. Perhaps the war and his injuries were part of the reason, but he’d been free for far too long to blame his troubles on the past. If Brody, his tormented younger brother, could overcome his demons and find the love of a good woman, surely Marcus could swallow his shame long enough to bed a stranger.
He asked his driver to drop him off at the kerb. No doubt the chap knew where he was headed, but Marcus would rather not have his…activities…so blatantly reported back to Father. He’d never hear the end of it, if the old man learned his favored son had sought out the company of whores.
That was something Brody would have done.
Marcus Neill was held to a far higher standard.
He angled his bad leg through the open door of the Daimler and, with the help of his driver, dragged himself out of the motorcar. After adjusting himself in the lamplight, Marcus headed in the direction of the brothel. He’d never been before, but the place wasn’t hard to find. He followed the queue of staggering men around the street corner, and down a back alley, toward the sound of tinny, fast-paced jazz and loud, drunken laughter.
In the alleyway, the cobblestones were slick with vomit and urine. Marcus carefully navigated the uneven street, ignoring the clusters of rowdy chaps, and prostitutes having a smoke in the shadows. He needed to watch his step, or else he’d fall on his arse in the gutter. What use was going to all the trouble, if he never made it through the brothel door?
The queue moved up, and Marcus stepped inside. Squinting in the dimness, he took in the garish surroundings—walls tacked with velvet damask, gold sconces throwing dingy, yellow light, and dozens of overstuffed, velvet upholstered divans littered with scantily clad women. There was also a bar in the far corner, where dozens of men posted up, drink in hand. No doubt waiting for their turn.
Marcus cringed. The men here far outnumbered the women. It was barely midnight, yet he wondered how many customers each girl had already serviced. Simple maths—quickly calculated—told him there were roughly six chaps for every whore. And that was just then. In that room. God only knew how many more men would pass through these doors before the night was over.
He shouldered through the crowd toward the bar, and ordered a whiskey. While he rested his bad leg, Marcus nervously thumbed the tin of sheaths in his coat pocket. Brody had jokingly tossed them at him—with a pregnant wife, his younger brother had no need for condoms—yet Marcus was thankful for his brother’s foresight. He wouldn’t have thought to buy prophylactics himself. He’d never needed them before. Now, he was terribly glad to have them.
The barman brought his whiskey.
Marcus downed it quickly. “Another.”
He paced himself on the second drink, enjoying the slow burn of the warm liquid in his gut. Drink would soothe his nerves. Drink would quiet his conscience. He was going to need plenty of it to make it through the night.
After half an hour or so—and three whiskeys later—the madam approached him. She was an older woman, with kohl-rimmed eyes and hennaed hair. A whore past her prime. He took another gulp from his glass. Well past her prime.
“Are ye here to drink or to fuck?” she asked him.
“I…uh…” he shook his head to clear his thoughts. “Both, I suppose.”
“Good lad. What’s yer pleasure?” She thrust her ample bosom forward and grinned.
His whiskey nearly came up. “Just an ordinary girl, please. Nothing fancy. I just want an ordinary girl.”
“Ye’re in luck, then. We happen to have plenty of those lying about!” After a good, hard laugh at her own lame joke, the madam got down to business. She laid out all the prices, the specialities, and what manner of heinous proclivities his money could buy. In the end, Marcus purchased the use of one ordinary girl, in an ordinary room, to do the ordinary thing.
Best to start slow, and work his way up to the more…daring stuff.
He finished his drink while he waited for his whore. No man ought to be this nervous—he felt like a green husband on his wedding night. He’d had girls before the war, and even one in France, but hadn’t had one since. He hadn’t really wanted one, and that made him nervous. What sort of man would prefer to take himself in his own hand, rather than make use of the dozens of willing ladies he’d met over the years? He was good-looking, all things considered. He was in the prime of his life—only thirty-two. If that wasn’t enough, he was also the heir to a mining fortune.
Marcus Neill had every opportunity to sate his every desire. To explore every pleasurable opportunity this soul-sucking, hedonistic, postwar world had to offer. Yet his hands shook so badly at the thought of dropping his trousers, that he nearly spilled his drink.
He turned at the soft, breathy voice. Standing to his left was a pretty girl in silk lingerie. She didn’t look like any whore he’d seen. She looked virginal. She looked…exactly as he would have wanted.
The madam had chosen well.
Marcus cleared his throat. “Good evening.”
She smiled. “Handsome and a gentleman. Don’t see many of those.” The girl took his hand and walked him through the room. His palms were sweating. Surely, she must have known he was nervous. He hoped he wouldn’t make a fool of himself.
She led him up a narrow, twisting flight of stairs. Sometimes, Marcus had trouble managing stairs. These were crowded and creaking. He dropped the girl’s hand, and slowed his pace. By the time he reached the top, he was nearly out of breath.
Upstairs, the lights were dimmed. Marcus and the whore crossed a dark corridor lined with doors on each side. Behind them, he heard moans. Drumming headboards. The slapping of wet skin on skin. He nearly turned back when the girl grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him through the last open doorway.
The windowless room was close and dank. There was a narrow metal bed in the center, a washstand with a ewer and basin, and a lone chair in the corner. As the girl sat on the edge of the mattress, the bare bulb overhead began to flicker. The scents, and the sounds, and the strobing of the electricity made Marcus want to retch. Surely, this was not the place for him.
“I think I’ve made a mistake,” he said, stepping backward. “Excuse me.”
She eyed him curiously. “Don’t you like women?”
He balked. “I like women. I’ve just…never…”
The girl smiled. “Why don’t you have a seat? I’ve a feeling I’ll need to take me time with you.”
As Marcus sank into the armchair, carefully stretching out his bad leg to find a comfortable spot, his virgin-looking whore spread her legs and began to fondle herself. It was a pretty sight—if one could ignore the handprints and bruises marring her soft, white flesh. He shifted in his seat, and sat forward. Marcus’ sleeve stuck to something viscous on the chair. God, what had he got himself into?
He was going to need another drink.
Growing bored of fondling herself, the girl slid off the bed and crawled between his knees. Marcus stayed rooted to the chair. He wanted this. He wanted her. But he did not want her to touch his leg.
No, he could not hide his injury for long, but he wasn’t ready to expose himself just yet. Of course, girls like her probably serviced cripples all the time. There were hundreds of thousands of war-wounded men just like him. But this was Marcus’ first time baring his leg to a woman—to anyone, really. He didn’t even subject his family to such a sight—and he was more than a little nervous.
The whore placed her hand on his damaged thigh, and then pulled back in surprise. “Oh…”
He swallowed. “I hope you don’t mind.”
She gathered her composure, smiled at him, and said, “Not at all.”
Well, that put him somewhat at ease. As the girl looked up at him with kind, drowsy eyes, Marcus even began to feel the first stirrings of arousal coursing through his veins. She was a pretty little thing, so soft and small. He could pretend she was his sweetheart.
He settled in his seat as she began to unfasten the buttons of his trousers. The girl made quick work of him. In an instant, she placed her small hand inside his fly, and wrapped her slender fingers around his shaft. She pulled it out, and began to stroke him lazily. He wasn’t even half-hard.
After a few minutes without even so much as a lift from his loins, the girl began to jerk him with purpose. She was impatient, he could tell. Marcus didn’t blame her. He was impatient, too.
“I don’t have this problem at home,” he confessed.
She smiled and shrugged. “S’all right. Some men do sometimes.”
Her grip was firm now. The girl squeezed him and pumped him almost to the point of pain. They both willed him to grow hard, yet he never did. Finally, the girl lowered her head into his lap, stuffing the soft length of him into her warm mouth.
Marcus rolled his eyes back, sinking into the cushioned depths of the chair. Christ! It felt so damned good. She stroked him all over with her hands, and lips, and tongue. His heart began to race, pumping blood where it desperately needed to go. His ears rang and hips rolled. Surely, now he would get hard…and he started to, except he could not seem to separate his conscience from the equation.
Every time pleasure flashed within him, Marcus felt a lick of guilt. Every buck and moan brought shame. He so badly wanted to come—yet wanting it made him hate himself all the more.
In time, the girl’s arms and jaw began to ache. She raised herself up, and shot him an exasperated look. He was softer now than when she’d started. Wordlessly, the whore tucked him back in his trousers.
Something ought to be said…
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“You seem like a nice fellow. Come back another night, and we can try again.”
He thanked her as she shuffled him out of the room. He’d wasted her time, and his. Marcus doubted he’d ever show his face in this establishment again. He doubted he could show his face in this part of town ever again. His family was well known in Shrewsbury. If word got out that Marcus Neill was impotent—he wasn’t!—he would never, ever live it down. His own father would probably die from the shame of it.
Downstairs, Marcus retreated to the safety of the bar. He still had a few minutes before his driver returned for him, so he ordered another whiskey. Then another, and then another.
When he’d crawl into bed later, Marcus intended to take himself in hand, and beat his body to release. He wouldn’t be gentle. He wouldn’t take his time. If anything, he’d prove to himself—to God, to the universe—that he was still a man.
He pulled out his pocketbook and threw down enough coin to cover his bill. Then, he staggered out into the alleyway, sucking air as he walked. It wasn’t until he breathed fresh, sweet oxygen that he realized just how rank that brothel had been. It was no place for a gentleman. No place for a man like him.
He’d been a fool to go there, to try to slake his lust with a common whore.
He was better than that. She was the problem, not him. Next time, he’d try one of his sister’s friends. Or one of his friends’ sisters. It didn’t matter, so long as they were game.
Marcus staggered into the shadows. He suddenly needed to piss. Swaying, he angled himself into a corner, and opened his fly. He was too drunk to notice the footsteps approaching. Before he’d even had the chance to button up, there was a sharp crack between his shoulder blades. He stumbled forward, his face pressed against the rough bricks of a building.
One man held him, while two others beat him. When they began to grope at his trousers, Marcus thought they meant to rape him. Blind with panic, he slammed his head backward, connecting with the nose of one of his attackers. He felt the man’s face crumple. The moment the chap’s arms slackened, Marcus spun around to face them. He raised his arms to strike, to block, to parry. He held his own for a while, but—drunk—he was no match for three men. They quickly overpowered him, and forced him to the ground. One kicked him. Another spat on him.
He tried to call for help, but choked on gutter water and blood.
Christ. He was going to die here, beaten and possibly raped. His body would be found in the morning. Questions would be asked. Headlines would be printed. His mother, father, and the rest of the Neills would suffer for his shame, his selfish need for pleasure.
He hadn’t even wanted a prostitute. Not really. All along, he’d prayed for a good girl. Someone to love, and who would love him in return. Now, he was going to die, alone and afraid, without ever having that chance.
Marcus clawed the cobblestones, trying to drag himself away. The men followed, hurling curses. Taunting him. No doubt they’d seen him inside the brothel. They’d noticed his fine clothes, and the healthy wad of banknotes folded in his pocketbook. One of them knew exactly where to reach for the leather wallet. Another unbuckled his wristwatch.
When they’d taken everything of value, the third man grabbed his ankles and dragged his sagging body out of sight. Marcus could not fight them anymore. When the last chap produced a long, stiletto knife, he merely rolled over and waited for the bite of steel.
Dimly, he remembered hearing shouts, voices. Then, the faces of his attackers fled with the sounds of their boot heels. He blinked up to find a woman, all soft-eyed and inquisitive, staring down at him.
A woman—just what he needed.
Helen crawled out of bed to open the window. She’d had another wretched nightmare, and could hardly catch her breath from the panic. She needed air. She needed a cool breeze on her flushed face to shake the images from her mind.
These clawing, clutching, gasping episodes came more frequently now. Tonight’s had been the worst one yet. She’d seen him again, her husband. He had come to her, called out to her. Reached out to her.
Once, she’d have given anything to see his face again. Yet the sight of him, fresh from the grave after so many years, had sent Helen scrambling for the window.
She was beginning to hate these hauntings. Thank God, the noise from the brothel would keep her awake.
It was Saturday night—well, Sunday morning, really—and more than half these men would attend church services in just a few hours, playing the role of dutiful husband, father, and Christian servant. Their hypocrisy was almost too much to bear. She felt sorry for their poor, put-upon wives, but also for the countless nameless, faceless prostitutes these men poured their filth and disease into.
When they’d finished slaking their lust, these chaps were free to pull up their trousers and trot off on their merry way. They gave no thought to the women they left behind, either here or at home. It was up to people like Helen to give a voice to the voiceless. To champion those deemed unworthy of saving. She risked her life night after night so that girls in the alleyway below would know she was there, too—in the trenches, so to speak. Right alongside them.
She did not come to the slums and the brothels to preach through her nose to the downtrodden. Claiming to be a friend and ally, yet far removed from any actual undesirables. She might be a lady, widowed and respectable, but she was no hypocrite.
As Helen rose to bolt the window, a scuffle below caught her attention. She was accustomed to seeing girls and their clients rutting in the gutter, but this was something far more sinister. Three rough characters were beating a poor man senseless.
Unfortunately, there was nothing she could do. Going downstairs would only bring trouble. She’d likely end up beaten and raped herself. Oh, she had friends among the working girls—and working boys, too—but there would be no one strong enough to save her from three savage brutes.
Helen watched helplessly. The victim put up a good fight, yet his attackers quickly overpowered him. Well, if the police needed her help in identifying them, she could at least offer that much. She could not go down there in her nightclothes. With her hair in curling papers. On a Saturday night. To fight off three grown men. All to save one stranger.
No, no, and no.
It was unthinkable.
She chewed her fingernails as she watched the attack. While two men kicked and cursed him, a third man began to drag the poor victim into the shadows. Helen knew what happened in those shadows—even if one was lucky enough to crawl out of them, one never truly returned to the light.
She grabbed her torch and overcoat. Shrugging into the heavy, woolen armor, Helen raced down the stairs from her flat, hoping to take the attackers by surprise. She burst through the door at street-level, and charged toward the shadows. Most likely, she looked like a madwoman. Good. The more attention she drew to herself, the better. She needed eyes. She needed witnesses.
Shouting, she switched on her electric torch and pointed it directly into the eyes of the biggest brute. He held a knife, poised and ready. The torchlight made the blade shine, and then, before she could scream a warning, the attacker buried the knife into the poor victim’s thigh.
Now, she screamed bloody murder. She’d just seen a man stabbed!
The three brutes fled. Their victim lay in the gutter, groaning. Helen knelt down. Blood and fetid water seeped into her cotton nightdress. She didn’t care. She took the poor man’s head in her hands, cradling him.
She hadn’t been fast enough. She hadn’t been brave enough. If only she’d done the right thing at the right moment, this man would’ve survived. Surely, he was going to bleed to death here in her arms, and it was all her fault.
Brushing his hair back from his face, Helen whispered soothing words. She kept her voice calm. The man began to shiver and shake. He slipped in and out of consciousness. She had to get him out of this cold gutter and into a clean, warm bed. She would need to dress his wounds, and ring for a proper doctor.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered, rocking him against her breast. “I won’t let you die.”
Helen covered his ears with her bloodstained hands, calling for anyone within earshot to help. A few good Samaritans came, hoisting his limp body from her lap.
“In here.” She directed them to her building, and up the stairs to her flat. She didn’t often invite people to her room, but now her humble home was filled with strangers—strange men, no less. “On the bed, please.”
They eased the stab victim onto her frilly, lace-edged sheets. She’d embroidered her monogram on them herself, when she first married Richard. They were old and worn now, but once, those sheets had graced her marriage bed. For a time, they’d been almost sacred to her. After tonight, they’d be ruined.
Helen ushered the good Samaritans out the door, and then bolted it behind them. She’d never been alone with a man who wasn’t her husband, but she didn’t think this fellow posed much threat. She could hear his teeth clattering from across the room. She had to get him undressed, washed, and warmed if he had any hope for survival.
After gathering towels and putting a kettle to boil, Helen climbed onto the bed beside him. She stared in horror at the knife sticking out of his thigh. If her war training had taught her anything, it was that he ought to be bleeding rather profusely. Yet, no blood seeped from around the blade. Only his head and lip bled, from where he’d been kicked.
She studied the wound closely. Now that he was in the light, she realized his trousers were wet and clinging to his legs. Only, his injured leg wasn’t quite a leg—it was a prosthetic.
By some miracle, the attacker had stabbed directly into the upper part of this man’s false leg. Helen reached forward to jerk the knife free. Just as she suspected—wood and leather, and, thank God, not a drop of blood.