Black by Gaslight by Nene Adams ©1998
Contains graphic violence, adult situations
and language, and the depiction of a romantic relationship between two
mature, adult women.
LONDON, 1888, THE WHITECHAPEL DISTRICT
Rhiannon Moore shivered as clammy tendrils of fog insinuated themselves beneath the thin shawl she wore, drawing gooseflesh from her shoulders. It was nearing one a.m., and Whitechapel and the entire city of London were wrapped in a velvet blanket of fog - what natives called a "'London particular."
Can't see a foot in front of me, Rhiannon thought. Hope another gentleman comes along... haven't had but two, and those carriage trade, just a bit of quick flute playing. Soon it'll be time to go home and I haven't made enough to pay Mrs. O'Malley the rent or buy myself some supper.
Rhiannon's boots clicked on the cobblestones as she walked to and fro, holding her shawl tightly with both hands against the evening's chill. Her footsteps echoed eerily, and beneath her breath she hummed the popular music hall tune, 'Sweet Rose of My Heart'' even as her mind continually circled around the vision of a steaming plate of mutton stew, a knuckle of beef or even a pot of the 'mystery' spoon-up served by the old Italian woman on Gordian Street - a mystery because nobody knew what she put into it, and speculation had run from cart horses to alley cats.
She chuckled softly. Jimmy the Nick had been running a popular betting pool, giving low odds on sewer rats. Guess Jimmy should know, she thought, he's lived next to the old lady for nearly five years.
Her belly rumbled loudly and Rhiannon made a face. She'd had nothing to eat since the previous morning - a stale roll, a slice of moldy cheese and a cup of bitter tea given to her at the Flower of England charity and workhouse. Locals called it the Stinkwink because of the overwhelming stench of carbolic that permeated everything, including the poor but filling food; and the sheer number of prostitutes who used the building as a rendezvous point for ''gentleman callers.''
Rhiannon had become a streetwalker, one of the ''ladies of the evening'' following the suicide of her father, Harristeen Moore, a tutor to upper middle class families, two years ago. Left destitute, with a glut of governesses on the market and no hope of a ''decent'' job, starvation had once seemed preferable to such a fall from grace. But against hunger and poverty, even the shame of whoring was nothing compared to sheer survival.
Well, Rhiannon thought, tucking her shawl around herself more tightly, this is still better than working in a factory. She'd seen some of the factory girls; pale, rail thin and often sporting the scars of injuries gotten from the machines they labored on. One poor woman had lost her arm to a loom; she'd ended up begging on street corners for coppers and eventually drank herself to death on cheap rotgut gin.
Despite her downfall, Rhiannon was still uncommonly pretty. The pale gaslight caused a halo to form around the red-gold hair she wore in two braids, wound like a coronet around her head. Her eyes were the pale blue of fine Tibetan turquoise and framed by startlingly dark lashes. The other streetwalkers referred to Rhiannon as Sugarbaby, because she possessed a sweet, heart-shaped face that radiated innocence, as well as a small, deliciously plump body that might have been crafted just for the ''profession.''
Footsteps... Rhiannon jerked herself out of her reverie and turned
her head around in time to see a shadowy figure loom out of the fog.
The gentleman wore a top hat and heavy woolen overcoat; his face was thickly furred, sporting a mustache, beard and heavy, mutton-chop sideburns. Rhiannon could only guess at what he might look like underneath all that hair; his eyes were nothing more than suggestive glitters in the gaslight. He stopped and waited, saying nothing.
Rhiannon slowly pulled off her shawl, revealing a dark blue velvet dress, very worn, with a neckline cut so low that rosy crescents of nipple peeped over the lace that outlined the decollete. She arched her back and swayed towards the gentleman, a smile stretching her lips. She could feel his eyes on her body. Good, she thought, this one might be an easy sell. At least I've got no competition tonight.
''Evening, m'lord,'' Rhiannon purred seductively, making sure he got a good look at her best attributes. In the gaslight, the complexion of her breasts had the sheen of heavy cream, and since she was tightly laced, they bulged up over her bodice enticingly. She heard his breathing increase and smiled wider.
''Well, m'lord,'' she said, standing a few feet away and swaying her hips slightly, ''come looking for a little something to keep you warm tonight? See anything you like?'' Inwardly, she hoped he'd want something quick and simple. The faster he gets done, the sooner I can go home to a nice fire and a glass of mulled cider, she thought, and something better to eat than stale bread.
His voice was harsh, raspy. ''How much?''
Rhiannon smiled again. She'd learned the hard way to get the business
of payment over before allowing a gentleman his pleasure. When she'd first
started out, she'd been cheated by her first customer, who'd just laughed
when she'd demanded payment and left her cursing, sore and hungry.
I've come a long way since then, she thought with a mental wince,
She pulled her mind back to the job at hand. ''Depends, m'lord,'' Rhiannon said, leaning forward a little so that her heavy breasts quivered and seemed about to burst free of their confinement. ''If you want a bit of mouth music, then it's a quid. I'll hold up the wall for two. And nothing exotic, if you please. Those girls work in Spitalfields.''
The gentleman flipped a coin to her. It sparkled as it flew end over end, landing with a fat thump in her outstretched hand.
Rhiannon stared at it in wonder. A golden guinea flashed up at her. Good Lord!, she thought, pale blue eyes wide. She looked back up at the gentleman who waited. ''P-p-please, m'lord,'' she stuttered, ''for this you can have the whole night!''
He made an impatient gesture. ''Girl, I haven't got all night.'' His voice, though rough, had the cultured accent of an Oxford graduate. ''That alley will do.''
Hastily, Rhiannon thrust the coin into a pocket sewn into her bodice, then grabbed her skirts with both hands. ''Thank you, m'lord,'' she said, bobbing her head, ''thank you very much. If you'll come this way...'' Hastily, she led him to the mouth of a filth-strewn alley and slipped inside.
Minutes later, pressed against the wall, skirts hiked up to her hips, Rhiannon winced every time he thrust into her. This bugger's hung like a donkey, she thought. Hope I'm not ruined for life when he gets through!
Outwardly, she twined her arms around his neck and moaned lasciviously, urging him on with words and phrases that had made her blush hotly the first time she'd heard them from Black Janet, her friend and mentor.
Black Janet had been a streetwalker since the tender age of twelve. Now in her forties, she resembled a woman twice her age. Harsh use, cheap gin, and crudely aborted pregnancies had taken their toll. The night black hair that had once been her pride was gone; a cheap, hideous horsehair wig covered her nearly bare skull. But, despite her hard life, Black Janet had a decent heart, and she'd taken the terrified Rhiannon under her wing when the young girl had been brutalized by her first ''client.''
Black Janet had taught the naive Rhiannon a great deal: the ways to urge a man to climax more quickly by using words and body movements; how to (hopefully) prevent pregnancy by the use of a small sponge steeped in vinegar; how to use that same sponge when she was having ''the curse'' and needed to work; and all the tricks of the trade the older woman had learned in a lifetime on the streets.
Rhiannon pumped her hips and increased her moans, mentally wondering how long he was going to take. She was cold, hungry and all she could really concentrate on was food. The gentleman's movements became more urgent... then, abruptly, he stilled.
Rhiannon resisted asking him if there was anything wrong. She could feel his manhood softening, slipping out of her. She knew he hadn't climaxed; she only hoped that he wasn't the kind to take out his frustration and disappointment on the woman in the case.
She allowed her skirts to fall back down around her ankles as he stepped away from her and turned his back. The plain cotton drawers she wore were split front to back, another ''trick'' she'd learned from Black Janet. Surreptitiously, she gathered the folds of her skirt in both hands and casually stepped away from the wall, ready to run for her life if he turned violent. By now, Rhiannon knew the twisted, cobblestoned labyrinth of streets that was Whitechapel as well as any native; she knew she could lose him in the fog and confusion if she had to.
Rhiannon began stepping silently away, still facing him. Maybe if I'm very quiet, he won't notice I've gone, she thought. She stopped dead, her heart pounding, when his voice snapped out of the fog.
''Where do you think you're going, bitch?''
Rhiannon was terrified. His back was to her but she could see his gloved hands were clenched into tight fists. ''N-n-nowhere,'' she stuttered, and kept backing away.
''Hmph. Nowhere is as fine a destination as any. What day is this, d'ye suppose?'' the gentleman asked in a casual tone, as if he were inquiring about the weather to a society acquaintance.
''August seventh, sir,'' she replied. She wondered where all this was going, and at the same time, gathered herself to make a run for it.
The gentleman turned around, breathing heavily. She made an involuntary squeak when she saw the knife gleaming in his hand.
It was a surgical instrument with a broad, leaf-shaped blade that looked razor sharp. He clutched it tightly, expertly, allowing light to flash all along its length.
''Good,'' he said hoarsely. ''Jack says it's time for you to die. C'mere, you bloody bitch!'' His voice rose into a squeal of blood maddened rage.
Rhiannon turned and ran, her footsteps hammering on the cobblestones.
Behind her came the roaring sound of the madman's breathing.
Lady Evangeline St. Claire was bored. She swayed to the rhythm of the wheels rolling down cobblestoned streets, her sequined evening gown glittering faintly as streetlamps cast pale reflections of gaslight into the carriage's interior.
A tall, dark haired beauty with her mothers flawless, sea-green eyes, Lady Evangeline had wealth, position and title due to the unfortunate demise of her husband, Sir Alfred St. Claire. That death had freed her from the restrictions imposed upon her by first, her parents; and second, society itself. She did as she pleased - but paid for it dearly.
Her name was a mocking scandal among London's society members. Sir Alfred had suffered a fatal heart attack on their wedding night... and little does anyone know that gout-suffering old lecher collapsed before the marriage could be consummated, Lady Evangeline thought, or else there'd be even more hell to pay.
As it was, her ambition to be a ''consulting detective,'' much along the lines of her friend, Sherlock Holmes, did little to enhance her reputation, except when her peers wanted to avail themselves of her discrete services. Even Holmes' companion, Dr. Watson, considered her something of an ''adventuress,'' and eyed her askance whenever she paid a call to 221B Baker Street.
Yes, Lady Evangeline thought, it is definitely adventure I am after. I hate teas, soirees, balls and the entire society set. That pack of hypocritical, mealy-mouthed, catty curs can go straight to the Devil!
She'd ordered her driver to take her to Whitechapel. Although a den of sin, filth and crime, and infinitely more dangerous than her own neighborhood of fashionable Grosvenor Square (especially at one o'clock in the morning), Lady Evangeline had to meet with one of her sources, a blind beggar named Bill Peg. He always treated himself to a warm gin at the Mucky Duck after hours, and she was looking forward to their clandestine meeting. The situation with the Duchess of Inverwood was becoming desperate. His information might save that stupid young woman's marriage, she though idly.
Suddenly, a woman's scream rang out, startling her out of her trance.
Immediately, she rapped sharply on the carriage roof, shouting to the driver, ''Stop! Stop at once, I say!''
The startled driver reigned in the horses to a sweaty, eye-rolling standstill. The coachman, Henry, knew better than to question his strong-willed (and well paying) employer.
She scrambled out of the carriage and stood there, listening. The fog was unusually thick and scented with the now familiar stew that was Whitechapel: dung - horse and otherwise, boiled cabbage, and the sickeningly sweet stench of decay.
Lady Evangeline twisted her head to and fro, trying to pinpoint the scream's location. There was something about that voice, something achingly familiar...
The scream rang out again. It was filled with despair, pain and terror. The sound of it pierced Lady Evangeline's heart like an arrow.
Motioning Henry to stay put, she gathered her billowing skirts in both hands and ran. The elaborate coiffure that her maid, Solange, had labored over for two hours came down from its pins, and black curls bobbed in her eyes as she hurried.
Thank God I do not wear stays! she thought. I should never be able to run, or even breathe!
Plenty of exercise - which included a twice-weekly regimen with a former
bare-knuckles boxing champion and the baritsu lessons recommended by Sherlock
Holmes - had toned her body to its physical peak. Lady Evangeline refused
to wear the tight, constricting clothing suited to her station; instead,
all her dresses were designed for maximum comfort and ease of
Curse the opera! Lady Evangeline thought as her skirts nearly caused her to trip.
Lady Evangeline reached a deserted street and cast about, trying to remember where the screams had originated from. A faint whimper made her eyes narrow into slits.
Stealthily, she approached the mouth of an alley, crepe soled shoes making scarcely a whisper on the stones. Lady Evangeline peered around the corner - and what she saw made her gasp quietly, her mouth tightening into a thin, straight line.
Rhiannon lay prone, trapped, clammy stones grinding into her back. Straddling her body, the madman chuckled, knife upraised in one hand.
With a thrill of horror, the pretty streetwalker realized that he was chanting softly, ''Bitch! Bitch! Whore! I'll cut all the little girls to pieces...''
''Please,'' Rhiannon whispered, tears overflowing from her eyes, ''Why are you doing this? What do you want?''
He looked down at her and cocked his head to one side. To her surprise - and terror - he answered, ''You just wait, pretty girl, just you wait. All whores get what they deserve. That's right. Exactly what they deserve.''
Abruptly, the knife plunged down. Aided by some inner instinct, Rhiannon twisted her body beneath his, so that the blade did not reach her throat as intended; instead, it plunged deeply into her shoulder.
Pain seared through her and she screamed, frantically trying to get some purchase on the stones to push her tormentor away.
The knife raised again, dull with blood... her blood...
Rhiannon's eyes widened. Her mouth formed an O, bottom lip trembling. Oh, God, she thought, no!
Suddenly, another voice penetrated the alley, echoing off the stone walls. ''Unhand her at once, you bloody villian!''
Rhiannon tried to scream, but could only pant, her breath rushing in and out of her body so fast her head was swimming. A woman... was her last thought before shock, pain and excruciating fear sent her tumbling down into peaceful darkness.
Lady Evangeline was furious. Nevertheless, she did not underestimate the danger of the situation. At first glance, it had seemed like a case of common rape; now, she realized, the circumstances were quite different, indeed.
The man lumbered to his feet. Lady Evangeline's eyes widened when she saw the blood stained knife in his fist. Her gaze flickered to his victim; the rapidly widening stain of blood on the woman's blue gown looked black beneath the gaslight. She noted with relief that it was a shoulder wound; obviously deep but not likely to be immediately fatal.
Automatically, her body adopted the defensive stance taught to her by her tutors. Legs slightly spread, balanced firmly on the balls of her feet, one foot slightly in front of the other, hands ready at her sides.
He stood there, staring at her as if bewildered. Abruptly, anger took the place of his surprise. With an incoherent roar he sprang at her, knife held professionally low.
With a twitch of her hands, Lady Evangeline released the hidden cords that kept her skirt attached to its elaborate bodice. Yards of silk billowed to the ground, leaving her legs free from the hampering material. Lady Evangeline never wore separate petticoats; they were built into her dresses. Beneath the evening gown, she wore only a set of combinations - a camisole top and lace ruffled pantalets that covered her to the knees.
Time slowed down as her concentration firmed. As he sprang, her mind automatically calculated distance, trajectory and speed; she was able to anticipate her attacker's moves with ease.
Had there been any witnesses, they would have seen a half-dressed woman of unusually tall stature and beauty make a flurry of movements that seemed to be little more than ineffectual motions. In fact, Lady Evangeline caught the edge of the knife with the side of her hand, pushing it away from her, while at the same time launching a devastating series of face and body punches with her free hand.
He was dazed, rocked by the blows. But he came at her again, a trickle of blood staining his beard, lips twisted in a snarl.
Lady Evangeline decided she had no more time to waste; the wounded woman must be seen to as quickly as possible. With an intimidating scream (taught by her baritsu instructor), she whipped up her leg, toes pointed like a dagger, and caught her attacker on the temple.
He fell with a grunt, knife tinkling as it bounced on the stones.
Lady Evangeline paused a moment to catch her breath, then snatched the filth-soaked skirts from the street and hurried over to the other woman, who lay unconscious.
Using the ruined skirts to cushion her knees, Lady Evangeline knelt beside the wounded woman, easing the blood-soaked dress away from her shoulder to look at the wound. As she had suspected, it was deep, but not dangerous unless the bleeding were allowed to continue unchecked. She ripped a section of material from the other woman's petticoats and used it as a crude bandage.
As she worked, Lady Evangeline heard footsteps crunching down the street. It was the ''gentleman,'' who, having regained consciousness, was hurrying away. With a shrug, Lady Evangeline turned back to her patient. Perhaps now he'll think twice about attacking a helpless woman, she thought.
She easily hefted the fainting woman into her arms and headed back to the carriage, leaving her gown's skirts behind with a pang. It had been her favorite gown... and if Monsieur Andre ever heard what had happened to his painstakingly designed creation, he'd ban her from his salon forever.
Still, she thought, looking down at the sweet, heart-shaped face of the other woman, it was well worth the cost to save the girl's life.
With a frown, Lady Evangeline realized that, somehow, in some way... she felt as if she knew this woman. Quickly, she dismissed the idea; she had no time for prolonged inner consideration - the woman's wound must be seen to as quickly as possible.
But she couldn't help the slight suspicion that nagged and nibbled on
the outer corners of her mind.
When Rhiannon woke, it was daylight. She was comfortably snuggled in the warm depths of a feather bed, the sheets that slid across her limbs so deliciously were fine linen, and a thoughtful person had left a pitcher of cool water on the night stand beside her.
It wasn't until she unthinkingly reached for the glass that a sudden, tearing burn lanced through her shoulder. With a gasp, she looked down and realized that she was naked... and a large, white bandage, lightly stained with blood, was wrapped around her shoulder. How?, she thought dazedly, then her eyes flew open in shock as she remembered. Jack!
She looked around frantically, red-gold curls tumbling into her face. The events of last night came rushing back to her. It all seemed like some strange, horrible nightmare, she thought, but it was real!
After a moment, she remembered the last thing she'd heard - a woman's voice commanding the madman to let her go. Slowly, perceiving no immediate threat, the pretty streetwalker began to calm down and think.
Rhiannon's brows came together as she frowned. Where was she? How did she get here? And what had happened to the madman, ''Jack?''
Suddenly, the door swung open and a woman entered, arms piled with a profusion of colorful dresses.
''Good morning,'' she said cheerfully to the open-mouthed Rhiannon. ''I sincerely doubt you could wear anything of mine, my dear. I am ever so much taller, and not quite... er... as well endowed as you are in certain areas, if you'll forgive me for mentioning so indelicate a subject.''
The woman bustled around the room, still talking, laying the dresses carefully across a chair. Rhiannon, numb with shock, could only watch and listen.
The other woman was continuing, ''....am Lady Evangeline St. Claire, but do please call me Lina. You are at my home in Grosvenor Square, and I assure you that you are quite safe. Now,'' she crossed the room briskly to sit carefully on the side of the bed next to Rhiannon, ''let me have a look at that shoulder.''
As Lady Evangeline reached for Rhiannon's shoulder, the streetwalker shrank back. A lady of quality, tending to her? A common whore? Rhiannon flushed with shame; the agony of her situation, so long kept pushed down in the depths of her heart, came rushing back. She wanted to run, wanted to hide beneath the covers like a frightened child, wanted to look anywhere but into this beautiful woman's sea-green eyes and see pity, censure, and inevitable rejection.
Lady Evangeline stopped, then folded her hands carefully into her lap. A perceptive woman, she had an inkling of what this exceptionally pretty, if a little wan, young lady was feeling. ''My dear girl,'' she said gently, ''believe me when I tell you that I do not hold your profession against you in any way.'' Seeing Rhiannon shake her head violently, Lady Evangeline continued softly, ''What is your name?''
The reply was barely audible. ''Rhiannon. Rhiannon Moore, milady.''
''Well, Rhiannon Moore, you are, I believe, what is referred to as a streetwalker. A lady of the evening. A light-o'-love, a flipskirt, a roundheels - and, let us not forget, a whore. Correct?''
Rhiannon nodded miserably.
''Look at me.'' Lady Evangeline's gentle fingers on her face made Rhiannon tilt her head until she could look deeply into the other woman's eyes. ''There, that's better. Now, Rhiannon, I feel nothing save sorrow that someone as young as yourself should be forced into such a soul-devouring and heart-breaking profession. I think it is a shame and a sin - but not upon you. I blame society's ills for forcing you to sacrifice your better nature in order to feed yourself and be sheltered. It is they, Rhiannon - those men who use you and discard you as callously as a used handkerchief, those who abandoned a helpless woman to the cruelties of this world - it is they whom I blame. Never you.''
The combination of Lady Evangeline's soft tone, the sincerity in her wondrously green eyes, the terrifying events of the previous night, were too much for the still shocky Rhiannon. To her horror, she burst into tears...
And immediately found herself enveloped in warm, strong arms, cradled on a broad shoulder, her face pressed against a neck that smelled of lilac powder and roses. Soft hands stroked her hair, her back, while a soothing voice crooned nonsense words into her ear.
Rhiannon wept for her lost innocence, wept for her father's death, wept for all the things she had done to survive. And finally, hiccuping and gasping, eyes swollen, head aching, but feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted off her chest, Rhiannon's wild tears subsided. With a start, she realized that she was naked, the sheet had slipped away from her upper body. Blushing with embarrassment, she tore herself from the other woman's embrace and pulled the sheet up to her chin.
Lady Evangeline silently handed her a daintily embroidered handkerchief. Rhiannon wiped her eyes and blew her nose as delicately as circumstances would allow.
''Feeling better?'' Lady Evangeline asked with a small smile. When Rhiannon nodded, she continued, ''Well, then. Here is what we are going to do. I am going to take a look at your shoulder; I had a doctor summoned last night to stitch up the wound - which, I am sorry to say is going to leave a scar - but I would still feel better changing the bandages and making sure there is no sign of infection. Then Cook will bring you a tray and I advise you to eat. You lost quite a bit of blood last night, and it needs to be replaced.''
''Then,'' the peer said with an expansive gesture, ''you will take a nice, hot bath, and pick out something pretty to wear. My maid, Solange, is about your size and I prevailed upon her for a selection of suitable dresses. After all that, we will decide upon your future. Agreed?''
Again, Rhiannon could only nod dumbly. This woman, this - what did she say to call her? - That's it, Lina. This Lina certainly seems capable and clearly expects me to obey her orders.
A small spark of rebellion flared in the streetwalker's soul. Who was this woman so blithely ordering her about?
Something of this must have shown on Rhiannon's face, for Lady Evangeline said quickly, ''Of course, my dear, you may leave at any time you desire. You are not a prisoner. I can even have my carriage drive you. But you really need to rest and recover from your ordeal. And I would consider it a personal favor if you would be a guest in my home for as long as you wish.''
Rhiannon studied the woman in front of her. Lady Evangeline was tall, and hair as jet-black as ink had been pinned into a simple knot on the top of her head. She was dressed in a plain ivory silk shirtwaist pinned at the neck with a pretty Italian cameo, and her forest green skirt made her eyes seem as dark as emeralds. Sensing Rhiannon's scrutiny, Lady Evangeline remained silent, allowing the other woman to see what she would.
She seems an intelligent lass, Lady Evangeline thought. After last night... well, I can only hope she will decide to stay.
After a horror-stricken Henry had driven the peer and her injured charge home, rattling through the streets as if pursued by the hounds of Hell; after her hysterical housekeeper had been dispatched in the company of Bob the footman to fetch a doctor; after Rhiannon had been cleaned, stitched up and bandaged and the filthy remains of her dress stripped away and sent to the rag pile to be burned; after Lady Evangeline had, at last, been free to set her mind on other things... she had remembered something.
Lady Evangeline had, on a number of occasions, accompanied her friend Holmes on his investigations. Their excursions had taken them to many seedy parts of London... and the peer now knew where and under what circumstances she had seen Rhiannon before.
The pretty strawberry-blonde had been plying her trade as a prostitute; Lady Evangeline and Holmes had interrupted a ''transaction'' while attempting to follow the trail of a notorious criminal through Whitechapel. Rhiannon had, the peer remembered, been scarlet with embarrassment... and her gentleman client had been red as well, though more out of choler and ill-tempered spleen.
He had begun to beat Rhiannon as soon as Lady Evangeline and Holmes were out of sight, but the woman's screams and sobs had carried - just as they had done last night, echoing eerily off the cobblestone and brick alleyways. Holmes had not been inclined to interfere; the peer had disagreed and had taught the so-called ''gentleman'' a lesson he'd never forget. Rhiannon had been pitifully grateful; the lady still remembered the hot wetness of the pretty girl's tear-stained face pressed against her hand.
And the soft, warm bosoms pressed tightly against her legs as Rhiannon
clung to her and wept.
With a start, Lady Evangeline tore her mind away from the provocative subject when she realized that Rhiannon was speaking shyly. ''... don't know how to thank you for last night. I'm sorry if I've been a lot of trouble; if you don't mind, milady, I'd like to stay for as long as you'll let me.'' Rhiannon stared at her rescuer, obviously awaiting a response.
Lady Evangeline cleared her throat. She knew Rhiannon would not recognize her; she had been dressed in men's costume that long-ago evening. For now, she'd keep that information to herself. The peer didn't exactly think her own behavior that night was exemplary; while she'd thought about returning to Whitechapel and searching for the strawberry-blonde prostitute, ultimately she'd forgotten in the excitement of the chase.
After thinking things through, Lady Evengeline had realized that Rhiannon had been a victim of her own cursed class consciousness, that instinctive sense of superiority bred into the bones of the English peerage. She could have saved Rhiannon from more than an angry customer on that long-ago night, but hadn't. Ultimately, she'd forgotten about the young woman because she was a prostitute and therefore, beneath her.
Thank God that rot no longer infests my thinking, the peer thought. But she still felt vaguely guilty and uncomfortable about telling Rhiannon the truth.
''Think nothing of it, my dear. It is my pleasure to help ladies in distress,'' Lady Evangeline said with an inner wince. ''And you may stay as long as you like. That murdering madman will think twice before attacking another helpless female, I warrant.''
A rap at the door signaled the entrance of Cook, an enormous, cheerful woman who, despite her bulk, moved with extraordinary grace and precision.
'''Ere we are, luv,'' she said with a huge smile, ''sit up then, little miss. Oi've got yer tray all ready, Oi 'as. Noice beef soup made wiv' the bone, a bacon butty, some blanc-mange from last noit, an' a bit o' that sharpish cheese milady loikes, an' yer all set.'' She settled the tray over Rhiannon's legs. ''Go on, then, luv, tuck in, tuck in.''
Rhiannon couldn't help but smile. Then the delicious odors wafting from the tray made her stomach rumble. Cook laughed; Lady Evangeline smiled and rose. ''Well, I shall leave you to your breakfast, Rhiannon. If I were you, I would eat every morsel. Cook is a terrible tyrant; if you offend her, she will burn your toast every morning for a week.''
Cook looked offended. ''Oi won't stand 'ere an' be h-insulted, yer laidyship. If you'll hex-cuse me, Oi'll go back to me kitchen an' see to yer breakfast. An' you'll eat h-every bite, too... burnt toast an' all!''
All three women laughed as Cook left the room, as majestic as a galleon under full sail.
Lady Evangeline said, ''If you need anything, Rhiannon, please ring. You should not try to get out of bed. I shall have Jackson change your bandage; he has a good professional touch. If you need to use the... er, necessary, then I trust you will ring for assistance?''
Rhiannon nodded, her mouth full. With a final smile, Lady Evangeline, too, left, leaving the streetwalker to her breakfast - and her thoughts, which were becoming increasingly troubled.
Rhiannon pondered. Why did Lady Evangeline seem so familiar? Why did she feel as if she could trust this woman with her life? And why was she feeling such a powerful attraction for a virtual stranger?
Rhiannon shrugged and continued to eat the best meal she had had in a long time. Philosophical considerations held a poor second to food; for right now, it was enough that she had a hot meal, a comfortable bed and, perhaps more importantly of all - a friend.
Rhiannon stood in front of the closed door, fussing with the folds of her dress, smoothing her hair.
The dress she had chosen was of soft Egyptian cotton, midnight blue with tiny white bows and ribbons looped around the hem, and billowing poet's sleeves that tied at the wrist with more bows. Her hair had been done up in its customary coronet; now, the red-gold braids were entwined with white and dark blue ribbons, and a cluster of white carnations had been thrust behind one ear, courtesy of the formidable French maid, Solange.
Jackson, the lady's housekeeper and butler, had proved to be an ordinary looking gentleman of medium height and build, with gray eyes, gray hair and a face so commonplace that no one would ever look at him twice. These attributes, he had informed the wide eyed Rhiannon, coupled with natural agility, had once made him an excellent burglar.
It was Jackson who had supervised Rhiannon's bath, actually drawing the water, adding scents and aiding her into the claw-footed tub. Rhiannon had been acutely embarrassed but Jackon had tended to her with the impersonal disinterest of a professional nurse. Then Solange had come to see to her hair and lace her into the chosen dress.
Rhiannon had never been catered to before; having people wait on her hand and foot was an entirely new experience. I could grow to like this, she thought with a mental purr. Her shoulder still throbbed but the pain was bearable. Jackson had changed the bandage, tsking and tut-tutting every time the young woman flinched.
Now, a well-scrubbed and well-fed Rhiannon stood before the door of Lady Evangeline's study and fiddled with the bows at her wrists. Maybe I should have picked the brown dress, she thought, then realized that she was making excuses to avoid the other woman.
Now, girl, she said to herself sternly, the lady's been very good to you, treated you well despite the difference in your stations. Don't let ingratitude be another of your sins!
Squaring her shoulders, Rhiannon rapped on the door, waiting until she
heard a muffled, ''Come in,'' before she briskly slid the pocket door
back and stepped inside.
The room was dimly lit with the gaslight turned down; heavy damask curtains at every window kept the sun from entering. All the furniture was uniformly dark and heavily carved, every bit of it upholstered in crimson velvet trimmed with gold.
A massive desk dominated one side of the room; a monstrosity of heavy mahogany and ivory inlay, its claw-and-ball feet made considerable dents in the Aubusson carpet that added pale shades of cream and amber to lighten the oppressive atmosphere. A granite fireplace added warmth; vases filled with fresh flowers added scent. Every wall was filled floor to ceiling with bookcases, and every bookcase was crammed with imposing volumes.
Rhiannon sucked in her breath. The room has a definitely masculine feel to it, she thought, but there is a touch of the lady about as well. Everything's so beautiful... A voice startled her out of her trance.
''I trust the bath went well?''
Lady Evangeline sat up, rubbing her temples. She had come into her study, after changing into more comfortable clothes, and had fallen asleep, much to her dismay. Naps always gave her a beastly headache.
She rose and allowed herself a moment to take in the vision before her.
Rhiannon is inordinately beautiful, Lady Evangeline thought. The dress does wonders for her figure. And that hair! What a shame she keeps it bound up so tightly; it is truly glorious when the length cascades in curls across her white shoulders... with a mental shake, Lady Evangeline interrupted that dangerous train of thought.
Rhiannon paused, taking in Lady Evangeline's figure with a slight start. The peer was dressed in a pair of worn houndstooth trousers, a man's white linen shirt casually tucked in the waist, sleeves rolled up to expose muscular forearms. Her feet were bare and a pair of round-rimmed spectacles winked from their position in her ink-black hair.
''The bath was fine, milady,'' Rhiannon gushed, ''Just fine. Thank you for the dress; it's finer than anything I've worn in a long time.''
Lady Evangeline smiled. ''Quite all right, my dear,'' she said, green eyes twinkling, ''Glad to have been of assistance. Now,'' she said, crossing over to Rhiannon and taking her arm, ''sit down and I shall answer all your burning questions, just as I promised.''
Rhiannon allowed the other woman to steer her gently but firmly to the fireplace, where she was just as gently seated and an afghan tucked around her knees.
Lady Evangeline herself slouched in a chair across from the other woman, admiring the flickers of firelight that reflected from Rhiannon's glorious hair. The streetwalker was silent, hands clasped together in her lap. Finally, Lady Evangeline spoke, ''I suppose you are wondering how you came to be here after last night's events?''
Rhiannon nodded. A thousand questions stuttered on her tongue, but she felt it would be better for Lady Evangeline to explain first, then any questions she might have would be more intelligent ones. Thank God poor father was a tutor, Rhiannon thought gratefully. One of the first things he taught me was how to learn.
Lady Evangeline told the story simply, beginning with the uneventful carriage ride in Whitechapel (though omitting the reason why) and ending with Rhiannon safely tucked in bed, her wound tended to by a hastily summoned doctor.
''...although,'' the peer concluded, ''I could have stitched the wound myself, I felt more confident in a professional surgeon seeing to it. I fear I am out of practice; however, do not take that as license to become wounded again so that I might regain my dexterity! I do not need to practice that badly!'' She laughed, and after a moment, Rhiannon laughed with her.
''I see,'' Rhiannon said simply, though her mind was whirling. The lady had fought a knife wielding madman? By herself? Rhiannon could scarcely credit it, yet...
She studied the other woman from beneath her lashes. Lady Lina certainly has the height for it, and if her arms are any indication, she must have the strength. Obviously, this is a very unusual woman.
Lady Evangeline must have read her thoughts, for she wrinkled her nose and said, ''I do not find my fellow's hollow pursuits gratifying. I have chosen my own way of dealing with the world and I am satisfied with what I have made of myself. I am no hothouse flower, Rhiannon. I am a woman, strong and intelligent, quite capable of defending my own honor - and that of someone else.''
Now, Rhiannon's question bubbled to the surface before she could stop it. ''Why?'' she asked forcefully.
Lady Evangeline's brow furrowed. ''I beg your pardon?'' she replied, obviously confused.
Rhiannon spread her hands wide. ''Why? Why stop at all? Why help a... a... well, a common whore who, for all you knew, was merely being disciplined by the man who owned her?''
Lady Evangeline swiftly stood up and knelt down by the other woman's side, taking her cold little hands into her own warm strong ones. This argument must be answered; the guilt she felt demanded it.
''My own sense of honor requires me to help wherever and whenever I can,'' the peer said fervently. ''I could have no more left you to the ministrations of that madman than I would have left my own flesh and blood. Oh, Rhiannon,'' she said, looking deeply into the other woman's pale blue eyes, ''how little you must think of yourself, to believe you deserved no rescue! My poor dear... what has the world done to you?''
What have I done to you? she continued silently. I could have saved you long ago.
A perfect, silver tear traced its way down Rhiannon's cheek. ''Please, Lady Lina, allow me to tell you my own story. Then perhaps you may judge me - kindly, cruelly, or not at all.''
As Rhiannon spoke of her respectable upbringing, her mother's death and father's suicide, her subsequent destitution, the weeks of barely surviving, her final decision to barter what society chose to regard as a woman's priceless pearl - her virginity - in order to eat, Lady Evangeline felt close to tears herself.
This poor gentle soul, she thought compassionately, has borne upon her slender shoulders a weight that would cripple a full grown man. Well, she decided, that will soon change. I will do what I should have done when I first encountered Rhiannon. Some of her suffering is my own fault; certainly the wound she now bears could have been avoided had I not abandoned her when we'd first met. Poor chit! She certainly deserves better than she had gotten from life thus far.
Rhiannon's voice trailed off and she stifled a sob behind one hand, pulling it free from Lady Evangeline's grasp. ''If you wish, I'll leave,'' she said softly, scrubbing her wet face. ''I can only imagine what you must think of me.''
Lady Evangeline pulled a linen handkerchief from her trouser pocket and daubed at the tears on the other woman's face. ''My dear,'' she said, ''if you recall, I told you this morning that I do not blame you for anything you have done in the past. You are essentially a good person...''
Rhiannon interrupted. ''I am not!'' she said fiercely, ''I sold myself on the streets! A decent, good woman would have starved first!''
Lady Evangeline's lips tightened and her green eyes flashed. ''Rhiannon Moore, I will not listen to such rot! You are a woman who was forced by circumstances beyond her control to survive, no matter the cost! Frankly, I admire such tenaciousness; there is precious little of it in the world already.''
Rhiannon stared at the other woman. ''You mean...?'' She was unable to continue.
''I mean,'' Lady Evangeline said, ''that I do not hold anything you have done in your past against you. I judge you by what you are now, at this moment. And Rhiannon,'' she continued with a smile, ''what I have seen thus far is very good indeed.''
For a moment, sea-green eyes were locked onto pale blue, both women caught up in a solid, precious moment of perfect understanding. At last, Rhiannon dropped her eyes and Lady Evangeline cleared her throat. ''Rhiannon,'' she said, ''I would like to offer you a position, here, in this house. With me.''
''My dear, I told you before that we would discuss your future. Judging from your reaction to your current circumstances, I would imagine that a continued life on the streets is not your preferred employment?'' Seeing Rhiannon shake her head, Lady Evangeline continued, ''So I wish to employ you myself. As a secretary.''
''But I don't...''
''You were a tutor's daughter. You were decently educated; I do not know
the entire state of your studies but no doubt they will suffice. I require
someone with intelligence, patience and persistence to aid me in my researches.
I believe you will do admirably.'' Lady Evangeline paused for a moment,
then continued a little delicately, ''And I also require someone who
Rhiannon raised an eyebrow. ''Shocking?'' she asked in an arch manner.
Lady Evangeline chuckled; it was good that the girl's spirits were finally raising. ''Yes, shocking. My lifestyle is quite different from my peers. My dinner guests are more likely to be loan sharks, pugilists and thieves, rather than lords and ladies. Not that there is much difference, to my mind.''
Both women laughed. Lady Evangeline continued, ''I do work of a delicate and sensitive nature occasionally. Tell me, Rhiannon, have you ever heard of Sherlock Holmes?'''
''Oh, yes! Dr. Doyle's stories in The Strand! They are wonderful, aren't they?''
''Well, Conan Doyle is Dr. John Watson's literary agent. Somewhat like Mr. Holmes, I inquire into matters that are outside the pale of England's laws. The cases I work upon, however, have little bearing on National Security, and rarely involve government agents or foreign powers. For example, at the moment I am tracing a packet of compromising letters for a woman who is being blackmailed by a former lover. That is what I was doing last night in Whitechapel; I was on my way to a meeting with one of my informants, who supposedly knew the location of the letter's bearer.''
Rhiannon's eyes widened. ''You... you're a detective?''
Lady Evangeline laughed. ''No, my dear,'' she said, rising and moving to her own chair, where she sat and crossed her legs gracefully. ''I prefer to think of myself as an 'inquiry agent.' All that aside, I truly feel that you are worthy of trust, Rhiannon. And I would very much like it if you were to stay.''
Rhiannon thought a moment. To return to her squalid rooms, where she nightly did battle with the rats for possession of a threadbare bed? To walk the streets, trading her body for coin? Living day after day with shame scorching her soul?
Without another moment's hesitation, Rhiannon said, ''I'll do it. Lady Lina, I swear I shall never give you cause to regret all that you have done for me.'' I would die for you, she thought gratefully.
''Excellent. For now, your only duties shall be to rest and regain your strength. In a few days, we shall have to make a trip to the clothiers and the milliners; your wardrobe - and I intend no censure - is hardly suitable for a respectable lady's secretary.''
When Rhiannon began to protest, Lady Evangeline raised one hand. ''My dear, you shall find that it is fruitless to argue with me when my mind is made up. I have determined to purchase you a wardrobe, and the matter is settled. If you are worried about cost, I assure you that my own finances will bear up admirably; surely it will be no strain to see you outfitted to my satisfaction.''
Rhiannon could only acquiesce gracefully. ''Thank you, milady, for everything.''
Lady Evangeline smiled. She did enjoy having her way. ''You rest there, my dear. I have a little work to do; afterwards, I can explain your new duties more fully.''
Lady Evangeline rose and crossed to her desk, where she was soon engrossed in a copy of The London Times. Rhiannnon's acceptance of her employment had eased her burning conscience somewhat. She need never know.
Rhiannon yawned drowsily and was about to fall asleep when she was startled awake by Lady Evangeline's wordless shout of rage.
Rhiannon's eyes flew open and she began to tremble. Lady Evangeline cursed savagely, crumpling up the newspaper in one fist and hurling it across the room. Rising, she began to pace, stomping heavily, muttering under her breath.
The strawberry-blonde was terrified. She had never seen Lady Evangeline's temper; against her better judgment, she began to wonder if perhaps working for the lady might not be a mistake after all.
Abruptly, Lady Evangeline paused, as if sensing Rhiannon's fear for the first time. She took a deep breath and crossed the room to the other woman, who shrank back into the couch. Lady Evangeline stopped immediately; then squatted down on the floor, bringing her stormy green eyes level with Rhiannon's pale blue.
''I am sorry, my dear,'' the beautiful lady said tightly, her cheeks flushed, ''I did not mean to frighten you. Believe me, Rhiannon, I mean you absolutely no harm. True, my temper can sometimes be violent, but that violence has never and will never be directed at someone whom I consider a friend.''
Rhiannon heard the sincerity in Lady Evangeline's words and began to relax. ''What is it?'' she asked.
Lady Evangeline sighed and ran a hand over her face. ''I hate to tell you this, Rhiannon, but... there was a murder in Whitechapel last night. And I believe it was Jack who killed her.''
Both women stared at one another as the fire crackled on the hearth.