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An Innocent at the Gentlemen’s Club

Written by Christine Merrill

Chapter Two

In his time at Vitium et Virtus, Ben Snyder had grown inured to the temptation of beautiful women.

Inured.

He glanced around to be sure that he was unobserved. Then he pulled a small notebook from his coat pocket and scrawled the word onto a blank page, so that he might be sure he had used it correctly.

Since coming here, he’d had many chances to strengthen his resistance. On any given night, he was surrounded by beautiful women posing naked on tables, nearly naked dancers on the stage, courtesans roaming the halls and all manner of excessive behaviour from the masked guests in the ballroom, the game room and the bedrooms upstairs.

But it was not his job to comment or participate. It was his job to maintain order. The club that had begun as the college lark of four well-heeled gentlemen had grown to be the most notorious and decadent nightspot in London. For a time, its libertine excess had come close to total anarchy. It had taken the mysterious disappearance of one of the owners to convince the other three that something needed to be done to regain control.

When they had come to Ben with an offer of employment, he had been little better than an illiterate brawler, making a living off the prizes he took by pummeling his opponents into unconsciousness. They wanted hired muscle to ensure that the place ran in an orderly fashion when they could not watch over it.

But though his arm had been strong, his manners had been far too rough to associate with the ladies and gentlemen who came here to shed their inhibitions. Mr Gregory had impressed on him the need for a good tailor, and given him a sharp razor. He had been taught to read, and write in a hand that was not elegant but was at least legible. In speaking, he had learned the difference between an ‘f’ and a ‘th’, and that it was always better to use words than fists. Now he kept the little notebook in his pocket, collecting new words as he had once hoarded pennies.

But not a single bit of his growing vocabulary was French. He must hope the new girls understood enough English that they could communicate. Personally, he saw no reason to bring women across the Channel.

Mr Gregory had insisted on the need for novelty. But a whore with a French accent was still a whore. And why bother to go all that way to find a new singer? Her talents would have to be prodigious to equal what could be found in London.

Then the bell rang, summoning him to the entrance hall.

And he saw her.

Suddenly, all his careful training was for naught. He stood, slack-jawed in the presence of a goddess. Though she seemed tiny to him, compared to the girls around her. The simple walking dress she wore accented a magnificent bosom and round hips. And beneath the broad brim of her flowered bonnet was a cloud of reddish-brown curls. The face that they framed was kissable perfection with large grey eyes, a tiny nose and full pink lips that formed an ‘Oh’ of alarm as she saw him.

Then there was a sudden fluttering of her long lashes, her body swayed and the grey irises rolled back as she pitched backwards.

Ben lunged to catch her, cradling her limp body before it could touch the floor. She fit in his arms as if she’d been designed by God to live there. Her face, relaxed in a swoon, looked as it would in the first light of dawn, resting on the pillows of his bed.

Then he remembered that it was not his job to have any such thoughts about the women who worked here. He allowed himself a single moment of regret, then called for ratafia and reached into his pocket for the little bottle of unslaked lime and ammonia that was a strong enough restorative to rouse an unconscious boxer.

He passed it once under her nose and watched her start to wakefulness. ‘I am sorry. So foolish of me,’ she murmured. ‘I am not usually so weak.’ Mr Gregory had been right. Her voice was music itself.

‘Do not worry yourself,’ he said, and helped her to a chair, fighting the temptation to hold her longer than needed. He pressed a drink into her hand. ‘The stress of travel is to blame, I am sure.’

They both knew it was a lie. His appearance had frightened her into a faint. She thought him a brute. And by the wary way she was watching him, his efforts to help her had done nothing to relieve her suspicions.

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About the author

I live in rural Wisconsin, about ten minutes outside of pizza delivery...

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Christine Merrill

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