Serena studied the early morning light caressing the patterned silk adorning the breakfast room of her little house in St. John’s Wood. She rarely saw such soft, comforting illumination, as her late nights often kept her late abed.
She reluctantly turned her attention to the man sharing her table, her supposed new protector. His table manners were every bit as repulsive as she had imagined, and disgusting to observe in the flesh.
“Compliments to the cook,” he grunted, following up this inane statement with a prolonged belch. “I’ve no doubt you’re impatient to get started, but a man does deserve a meal after the morning I’ve had.”
Serena pasted on her best smile. “As you’re gracing my table, I assumed the event was settled in your favor, my lord.”
Lord Glennair, belted earl and blackened scoundrel, grinned slyly. He stopped shoveling coddled eggs into his foul maw long enough to say, “The duel went in my favor, true. But it took no effort on my part. The idiot fainted dead away. All over sweat, Sir Robert was, terrified at meeting me on the field of honor.” He took another forkful of egg and added with his mouth full, “Not that you’ve much honor to defend.”
Serena kept her eyes from narrowing at his insult, but could not keep the muscle in her cheek from twitching. “Did the surgeon revive him, my lord?”
Glennair shrugged and tore at the ham on his plate. “I’ve no idea. I left while the man was attending him. I assumed a faint was as good as a forfeit and hurried on my way here.”
Serena suppressed a smile. Events were unfolding precisely as she had planned. “More tea?” she prompted, pot in hand.
He grunted an affirmative, so Serena daintily filled his cup.
“None for you?” He pointed his fork at her own cup.
“I prefer coffee, my lord.” She was lying, although her cup did contain coffee this morning.
“Filthy stuff, that. Far too popular in the colonies,” Glennair said with a grimace. He eyed Serena with vague hostility. “A proper cup of tea should be good enough for you.”
Serena merely smiled. She wouldn’t touch the tea this morning, and if he tried to pour it down her throat, she would take the silver knife sitting unused by her plate of dry toast and shove it directly in milord’s throat. She contemplated whether such action might be more satisfying than the fate already in store for him, but glanced at the carpet and decided she would rather have less mess.
“How long have you been at this business? About ten years?” Glennair interrupted her thoughts. He had moved back to the eggs, following every few bites with a gulp of tea.
Serena refilled his lordship’s cup again. “About that.”
“Well, you must’ve started young. I’ve no complaints, as long as you’re tight enough to satisfy. But you’ve not welped, as far as anyone knows, so that’s not likely to be a problem.”
She did her best not to sneer. “I do like to give satisfaction, my lord.”
“Just so,” he leered. “And I expect to be well satisfied before I leave here this morning.”
“One of us will be,” Serena murmured.
“I didn’t quite catch that,” Glennair said. Serena noted with relish that his forehead was beginning to sweat.
“No matter, my lord,” she said soothingly. “I’m sure all will go exactly as it ought this morning.”
Glennair settled back in his chair, blinking. He seemed to have lost his train of thought.
“Did you send the contract to my man of business?” Serena asked as she poured herself more coffee.
“What? No, no. Not yet.” He waved an unsteady hand in dismissal. “I never send the contract until I’ve had a taste of the goods.” He shook his head and smacked his lips together.
“Yet you know that I never let a man into my bed without a signed contract, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave, Lord Glennair.”
He ran his tongue over his lips, and said muzzily, “Look here, girl. You don’t dictate terms with me. You’re little better than a whore.”
“I’m far better than a whore, my lord.” She tilted her head in thought. “Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’m something other than a whore. Something far more criminal, I’m afraid.”
“What?” Glennair attempted to rise from his chair in outrage but found his legs too wobbly to support him. He glared at Serena, but there was more than a hint of fear in his eyes. “What did you do to me?”
“I’ve killed you, my lord,” Serena said cheerfully. “Do you want to know why?” she added with a seductive smirk.
“I’ll see you hang for this,” his lordship wheezed. He scrabbled against the edge of the table, seeking support, but his hands would not cooperate.
“You won’t be seeing much of anything, my lord. Save perhaps the fires of hell.” Serena finally bit into her toast. She munched it thoughtfully as she watched Lord Glennair slide slightly further down in his chair. “You haven’t much time left. Ten minutes, perhaps?”
Glennair let out a groan, and Serena nodded. “Most courtesans have similar tales of woe. Many were servants who surrendered their virtue — willingly or unwillingly, it matters not — to some man of the house and were dismissed without reference. One must work or starve, so many turn to the sole means of support available to young, uneducated women. Some of these unfortunate girls end up trading favors for coins in the alleyways, but the prettiest ones end up working the houses — at least until some man offers an exclusive arrangement. All of that when they only meant to dust a parlor!”
Serena paused to take a sip of coffee and observe that Glennair, although dazed and fading, remained conscious. “My tale is nothing like the ordinary, my lord. I was born into the gentry, although not into any prestigious or wealthy family. My father was a gentleman; my elder brother inherited the lot. He announced one evening that he had arranged my elder sister’s marriage to a cruel neighbor. She said she would rather die than be sold to such a man, and held true to her word. I’d never seen so much blood in my life. A few years later, my brother, having learned his lesson, told me we were going to visit neighbors but delivered me instead to a church where I was married to a man I’d never seen before in my life.”
Lord Glennair made a horrible gurgling sound.
Serena was so lost in her memories that she barely heard. “I will refrain from boring you with the details of my marriage, but suffice to say that I bashed my husband’s head in one night while he was sleeping. I stole as much of the silver as I could easily carry and made my way to London, where I recuperated. It took some time to learn not to flinch when someone touched me.” Serena tapped her coffee cup. “When there was no more silver left to pawn, I set about finding a gentleman I could tolerate.”
Glennair’s eyes were starting to glaze over, and his breath rattled in his chest.
“It’s not really a happy story, is it?” Serena took a bite of toast and carefully chewed. “My last gentleman was my final protector. I never intended to take on another, but I played a pretty game, pitting you against Sir Robert for my favors, inciting you to duel. I told you both that whoever won would have me, but I’m afraid I lied. I met Sir Robert last night and gave him a good luck charm — an engraved flask. As he had never dueled before, I took the risk that he would find himself thirsty before the event. I assume, from what you said earlier, that he couldn’t resist taking a nip or two for courage. I expect he’s already awaiting you in hell, my lord.”
Serena dabbed at the corners of her mouth daintily. “We courtesans talk amongst ourselves. It’s rather laughable that you and Sir Robert thought your crimes unknown to us. You were both notorious for broken promises and blackened eyes. When I heard about what you’d done to poor Elsie Greenchurch–” Serena broke off with a shudder. “I decided to end you both, my lord, as a going away present for my fellow soiled doves. No more broken ribs or unpaid contracts — or bastards dropped at the orphanage. I’ll never regret this day’s work.”
Lord Glennair huffed out one last tortured breath and became utterly still. Serena rose and pulled the tasseled bell cord beside the mantel. Her majordomo promptly entered and awaited instruction without so much as a glance toward the cooling corpse sitting at the table.
“I’ve a bit of refuse here,” Serena said, motioning to his lordship. “I suggest you drop it in the river.”
“Very good, madame,” the servant said with a bow. He and a burly footman efficiently removed the corpse, and when the majordomo returned, both his person and his composure were completely unruffled.
“Is all in readiness for our journey?” Serena asked, her attention focused once again on the morning light against the wall covering. It was stronger now, less a glow and more of a bright luminescence.
“Mrs. Hopkins has a task or two to finish, madame, but we will be ready to accompany you when the tide turns.”
“Excellent,” Serena said, smiling with a newfound lightheartedness. “I think we will find the new world very agreeable.”
Her servant bowed deeply, a smile tugging at the edges of his mouth. “I must oversee the trunks, madame.”
“Of course.” Serena watched him go and resumed her place at the breakfast table. She placed the rim of her coffee cup against her lips and murmured, “Pistols for two, breakfast for one.”
She laughed aloud. “And what a delightful breakfast it was.”
Photo credit: Heather Cowper.