WARNING: Not so double-entendres, so sexual implications galore. Introducing Charlotte…
London – 1838
Bran’s club was in a stately looking building with tall windows and a big black door to intimidate the riff-raff away. I ignored it and walked straight in, so it obviously didn’t work.
The red patterned carpet in the entrance hall was plush and bouncy and I had every intention of skipping across it on a day when it might cause maximum offence. As it was my very presence sent a frisson of disgust through all who saw me, from the gentlemen sitting reading newspapers in leather clad armchairs to the red-coated and powdered-wigged servants. This was the vestibule of masculinity, women were not allowed.
Despite this they let me into the visitor’s room; it was almost as big as the dormitory I grew up in and full of books, yet the chairs looked uncomfortable enough to discourage visitors from lingering to read the books. Wandering along the bookshelves I peered at the dry spines, though none of them appeared to have titles. I touched the spine of one to draw it out and the servant by the door cleared his throat.
‘You should get some cocaine for that,’ I said.
Before the servant could reply the door at the opposite end of the room opened and elderly gentleman entered. ‘Oh, leave the girl alone, Wilkins. Nobody else reads the books. Off with you, man.’
Wilkins’ gaze flicked between us, perhaps considering the etiquette for leaving a woman of my standing alone in a room with a man. It didn’t take him very long to decide that I likely spent very little time standing so the rules didn’t apply and left.
‘I like a woman with an enquiring mind and our little Paddy says yours is exceptional,’ the gentleman said.
I inhaled sharply to hold the laugh in my chest. I wasn’t sure what amused me more, that anyone dare call Bran ‘our little Paddy’ or how affectionately the gentleman said it.
‘I never did hold with this delicate women’s minds nonsense. My wife’s was a steel trap.’ His chuckle went haw-haw-haw, if he was any posher he’d choke on his silver spoon. ‘Just as well really, I never had much between the ears.’
A moment later he added, quietly, ‘I made up for it between the legs though. Haw-haw-haw.’
I squeezed the book between my hands and focused on pushing the laughter down into a mental box. Regaining control I turned to face him and curtsied.
‘Yes, yes, yes. Lovely bit of jam,’ he said under his breath then aloud, ‘Every time we mention women’s education Brandon suggests you as a prime candidate. From what he’s said we’ve had three physicians diagnose you with hysteria, a fourth suggested hysterical paroxysm might cure you. Only after he saw you mind.’ He winked. ‘They suggested that for my wife. Haw-haw-haw. What fun.’
‘Expert, are you, sir?’ I asked, crossing towards him as if I was going to sit in one of the armchairs, my face a mask of innocent interest.
He pulled out a pipe and started sucking it without lighting it as he tried to calculate whether I knew what he was talking about.
‘One would wish for expert treatment, sir,’ I added.
‘I could write a book on the subject.’
‘I’d be delight to read one if you did, sir.’ I dropped the book to the level of my waist and his eyes followed it then he plucked at his waistcoat. ‘I always enjoy a good read. Mr O’Connor has given me so many.’
‘Has he really?’ he asked.
‘Yes, sir, he has a marvellous library.’ I leant across an armchair towards him and whispered wide-eyed, ‘It’s so big, sir.’
His mouth hung open and for a second I thought he’d died standing.
Bran came in through the same door the gentleman had, ducked his head and said, ‘Your grace.’
A handkerchief appeared from the gentleman’s pocket and he dabbed his forehead. ‘Haw-haw-haw. If I were twenty years younger…’ he said. I suspected he might need more than twenty years shaving off. ‘Shan’t keep you.’ He bent towards me. ‘Wonderful talk, my girl. If any doctors ask about me I wasn’t here.’ Then he strolled out through the other door saying in his not-inside-his-head voice, ‘Saucy minx.’
‘Your grace?’ I asked and flipped the book open but it was dry academia, so I dropped it on the nearest small table.
There was a note of red to Bran’s cheeks and I wondered how much he’d heard. ‘He’s an earl.’
‘Apparently you’ve been discussing curing my hysteria with pelvic massage.’
‘What’re you doing here, Charlotte?’ Bran said, in one of his ever impressive subject changes.
I grinned, stepped close and rested my hands against his chest. ‘I missed you.’
He glanced at the door to check no-one was coming then he looked down at me, searching for something he seemed unable to find.
Finally he looked up at the ceiling and sighed. ‘And why would you miss me?’
‘I wonder.’ I stepped away. ‘Of course, if you’d rather sit about drinking whiskey and doing mysterious manly things than… spend time with me I would understand.’
He scowled at his shoes. All that worry had worn lines into his face making him look old; the effect was magnified by his constantly stooped shoulders and bowed head, he even tried to make his hands seem smaller, curling his fingers up until they appeared to recede up his sleeves.
‘I’d better go,’ I said and started backing away. ‘They might be worried my womb will go a-wandering and kill them in their liquor induced slumber.’
Bran gave me a look.
I stopped, smiling slightly, and leaned my back against the closed door. ‘You might be surprised what I’d do if someone paid me enough.’
‘Such as?’ he asked, then winced when he realised the implication.
I tilted forward a touch, my fashionable corset didn’t allow for much movement, and whispered, ‘What do you want me to do?’
This, I had begun to suspect, was a new concept to him. In the months since we’d met I’d never known him ask for anything because he wanted it. I ended up living at his house because he felt guilty leaving me in the tenements. It was me that climbed into his bed when that guilt of his made getting him to open his trousers a riddle worthy of a sphinx so I swapped subtly for a hammer. The man’s guilt so entrenched he could’ve kept an entire department at The Vatican employed until the end of days.
Bran stepped up close to me, took my split and callused hands lightly, then looked down at my ragged nails. God may have chosen to bless me with a lady’s face but life had not given me a lady’s hands. He rubbed his thumb over the wooden rosary beads wrapped around my wrist.
‘I…’ he said, completely focused on my hands so as to not meet my eyes. ‘I…’
I rose up on my toes and touched my lips to his cheek. ‘Anything, chuckaboo.’
‘I want to go for a walk with you on my arm, take you to the theatre or the opera,’ he said softly. ‘Not simply to bed.’ He dropped my hands. ‘I’d paid you. You wouldn’t have to -’
I quietened him with a kiss. ‘Sweet, but foolish, my delicious noodle. I believe the terms of the contract were that you only pay to share a bed, this requires amending the terms.’ I smoothed his lapels. ‘Let me think…’
At a hundred guineas per night, averaging twice a week, for three months I’d already made well over two thousand guineas. There were heiresses that didn’t have that in a year. Under our present arrangement I could make seven hundred guineas a week but as good as that kind of money was I had to look to my long term prospects, I didn’t want to make a fortune then lose my source of income. There were plenty of people in the workhouse who’d lost fortunes and I had no intention of going back there.
If I wanted to stay employed I had to give Bran what he craved, to be wanted. I’d been working on that with small gestures; goodbye kisses at the door, casual caresses without appearing to think about it, slipping my hand into his as a matter of course.
But seven hundred a week…
No, the money I was making was already more than enough, I might be immoral but I wasn’t greedy. That said, I couldn’t cut the price too low or he’d think he was inflicting himself on me with in sufficient recompense but I couldn’t put the price too high then he’d be assured he was unwanted.
Finally I said, ‘We’ll stay with two hundred guineas a week and you can take me wherever you want, whenever you want.’
He opened his mouth.
I put my fingers to his lips. ‘Ah, there’s a condition or I up the price.’ I lowered my hand. ‘I would have to appear to be your wife, including a ring, for respectability.’
He cupped my face and kissed me.
I drew away slightly. ‘You’ll have to cut back on the whiskey too, sometimes it’s like licking a cask.’
He smiled and kissed me again.
I had him.