Teresa bit back a nervous laugh. The mistress did love her bulbous headed swans. “No, Mr. Murray. It’s to be a serpent.”
Teresa agreed. The serpent was a metaphor for temptation, everyone knew that. And Teresa knew what sort of parties Mistress Caro hosted at some of the most prominent addresses in London—the naughty sort. Teresa didn’t know what exactly the guests got up to, she only knew that it was secret and scandalous and it wasn’t her place to ask questions.
She was only there to carve the ice sculptures. “The other two will be swans,” she admitted, gesturing at the other two large blocks of ice awaiting her attention.
“You’d better get to work then.”
Teresa tightened her grip on the icepick and the mallet as a shiver of anticipation ran up her back. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Murray was not her employer. He was a member of Caro’s club. Nearly a year previous, the party had been held at Mr. Murray’s house and he’d caught sight of Teresa carving the ice and stopped to chat with her about it. He asked her many lively questions about her carving and she’d felt compelled to answer him, even though it went against Mistress Caro’s rules for Teresa to speak with any of the guests. It was his grand house and he was a powerful and wealthy man. So Teresa couldn’t very well ignore him, which was convenient because she didn’t want to ignore him.
When he had appeared early for the next party she’d pretended to herself that it was merely a coincidence. When he’d continued to appear, she allowed herself to feel flattered. Now she enjoyed his company more than she could say.
She got up on her stool, put the pick to the block, and slammed the hammer down on it. It was vigorous work carving out the rough shape of the sculpture. Her arms ached and her breasts strained against the top of her corset for a little while before bouncing free over the top. It wasn’t her fault, she told herself, and there was nothing to be done about it. Her blouse and the chemise beneath it preserved some of her modesty at least.
The chisel was next. She pared down even more of the ice with grim determined blows. Mr. Murray had been surprised by her strength the first time he watched her, but Teresa had explained that her work at a theatre, painting large backdrops and even turning the cranks and working the pulleys to get them up and down, made her stronger than she looked.
Shards and shavings of ice fluttered around her. Before long she was soaked from her curly blonde hair to her navel in freezing water. She swiped the back of her hand over her brow and stepped back with her knuckles pressed to her mouth. The hardest part was over.
“Did you finish the seashore in time?”
She felt a little thrill as she always did when he remembered the small details of their last conversation. She’d complained about the backdrop a month ago. Surely a man like him had much more important things to occupy his mind? “Yes, sir. The paint was a bit wet, but the audience was none the wiser.”
“I am still waiting for an invitation to attend one of your productions.”
“They’re not my productions.” She selected a smaller chisel and shaved down what would be the serpent’s coiled belly. “And you’ve done nothing to deserve such torture.”
“You might be surprised.”
Her heart skipped. By reputation Mr. Murray was a fearsome man of business. “This one is even worse than the last, sir. I know I always say that but… It’s actually so awful that it’s almost entertaining.”
He laughed. “Almost?”
“The heroine dies of a broken heart.”
“There’s no other cause this time. She just up and dies. Well, first she loses her virtue and then she’s abandoned and then she sings and then…” Teresa nudged the chisel along the belly, “…she dies.”
“She doesn’t throw herself off a cliff or…?”
“No.” Teresa continued to shape the coils.
“Perhaps you missed something. She might have a weak heart or some such? I’ve seen that before.”
“No.” Teresa shook her head. “She dies of a broken heart alone. That’s what the song is about.”
“I insist that you sing it to me.”
She laughed so hard she had to stop carving. “No.” Her face heated. “That really would be torture.”
“For you or for me?”
“Both of us.” Teresa didn’t sing. She also didn’t talk to wealthy gentlemen who regularly attended parties so scandalous that servants like Teresa were paid ten times the usual rate to keep them quiet. Not ordinarily anyway. Ordinarily, Teresa was so shy she never talked to any gentlemen at all if she could help it.
Mr. Murray was just so easy to talk to. He always had interesting things to talk about because he was interested in so many things. And people. And most important, he was interested in Teresa, which made her feel interesting. It was a nice feeling, once she got used to it.
Mr. Murray pulled up a chair so he could sit comfortably while he watched Teresa work. “But it cannot be the gravedigger,” he said sometime later. He frowned up at her with folded arms. “He’s barely appeared in the story.”
“He was there all through the beginning.” They shared a mutual weakness for Penny Dreadfuls, the bloodier the better. “And they keep coming back to where the bodies could be hidden? And what about when they talked about him again, this week…”
“When they said…” Teresa couldn’t remember exactly. “Something about the funeral and something about how they hadn’t seen their mutual friend the night before?”
“Oh, but they might have meant anybody.”
“It was clearly implied.” She frowned as she added more scales to the body of the snake.
“Hmm. I shall have to read it again.”
“It’s all there, right from the start. Otherwise it’s not fair.”
“I daresay you’re right.”
“There.” She added a finishing touch to the last scale. “Done.”
This was her favourite part.
Mr. Murray took her cold hands, raw and red from the ice, and warmed them one at a time between his own.
She went and stood before him. Her hand trembled just a bit as she offered it to him, but it was quickly swallowed up and steadied by his two much larger ones.
His touch was brisk and impersonal, almost pointedly so. Her cold skin went from numb to acutely sensitive as he deliberately chafed it. It hurt and it felt good in an uncomfortably pleasant way. She enjoyed it very much—not the least because she got to stand close to him and look at him looking back at her, which her work did not allow for otherwise.
Mr. Murray was not a handsome man. There was nothing of the dandy or the aristocrat in his rough features. His brows were dark and prominent, his nose was slightly crooked and his jaw was rather fierce. Often when Teresa was at home all alone she thought about sketching his likeness in bold charcoal lines.
She never did. It would be a liberty and a shameful indulgence to presume upon that sort of intimacy with a gentleman so far above her.
Socially, he was far above her, but he wasn’t particularly tall. His authority and conviction made him seem larger than other men though. And he was very broad, like a pugilist. She liked his dark wavy hair, but his eyes were by far his best feature. They were a lovely clear brown and when she looked into them, like now, she felt warmed all the way through.
He began to rub harder.
She closed her eyes. This was the most difficult part, a sort of horrid trial that she loved and hated at the same time. With her eyes squeezed shut, her tender skin felt even more sensitive as his large strong hands rubbed her small one without mercy. And she wondered, as she always did, if he was looking at her breasts?
She thought he must look, since her eyes were closed and no harm could come of it. The outlines of her breasts were prominent under her wet blouse and the points of her cold little nipples thrust forward in such a way that she would not blame him for staring, not at all.
She always waited until he let go of her hand before she opened her eyes and offered him the other one. That way he would be able to adjust his gaze and they would both be able to carry on as if he hadn’t noticed her wet blouse at all.
When he released her other hand, Teresa opened her eyes. “Thank you, sir.”
He rose without acknowledging her thanks and carried the small table with her tools to the next block of ice. “Now this one.” He dragged his chair over to face it.
“Yes, sir.” She took her stool and followed him. It was presuming of him to order her about, but she rather liked it. It didn’t allow for any awkwardness to descend between them.
They continued in the same pattern twice more; engaging conversation, a brief respite and trial, and then it was time for Teresa to go.
She began drying her tools and putting them away.
“I shan’t be here next month.”
“I have another engagement.”
“Oh.” She was glad her back was to him and she didn’t have to hide the depths of her silly disappointment. Two whole months until the next time she’d see him? Even one month was too long.
“I thought I would come and see your paintings instead.”
She froze. They had discussed her paintings. Many times. But…
“When may I come to see them?”
Her hands tightened on the drying rag. “I am home from the theatre after nine o’clock most nights.”
“Do you live alone?”
A pause. “I will need your address.”
She gave it to him.
“I’ll come on Monday then.”
“Monday?” So soon? Her heart skipped and smile sprang to her lips. “Alright, sir. I will look forward to it.”
Later that night, Mistress Caro leaned her hip on the arm of Ed Murray’s chair. “It’s official. You have more money than sense.”
“Then my goal in life has been achieved,” Ed replied smoothly without taking his eyes off the highly entertaining scene he’d set in motion.
Five of Caro’s girls were grappling in a heap for his amusement. Their lithe limbs shone in the lamplight as their bare bodies writhed and slid against each other.
“What sort of oil?” the mistress asked.
“Coconut, from the West Indies.”
“It smells divine.” Caro savoured the fragrance with a sensuous sigh. Then she leaned in to him with a hand on his shoulder. “Just one question, Ed. Why are they screaming?”
“I added some powdered red pepper to it.”
The pepper burned most acutely on the more sensitive areas of the body. The girls had discovered this shortly after Ed poured it over them and they were ruthless in their attempts to incapacitate each other by spreading the oil on the nipples, cunts, and assholes of their rivals. The resulting brawl was lewdly chaotic and brutal and bloody well hilarious. A crowd had quickly gathered. People were placing bets.
“Master, please!” Lizzie clawed her way free. “It burns so much! Please let us wash it off…”
Ed bit back a smile. He could see what she couldn’t—Charlotte creeping up behind her.
Lizzie was dragged back into the fray. Her piteous cries were lost to the general din.
It was her own fault for shouting. She might have gained a longer reprieve by creeping quietly away, but then all of Caro’s girls were masterful at that sort of self-sabotage. Sometimes he almost believed they didn’t know they were doing it.
“Whoever takes all the tags is the winner,” he explained to Caro.
Her head tilted to the side as she admired the view. “I think we’re all winning this evening…”
Ed thought so too.
Caro’s whores were famous for their beauty, charm, and prolific depravity. The girls among them wore collars to distinguish them from the mistresses who carried collars and bestowed them for a price. Club members like Ed reserved the favours of the girls by clipping a little brass tag on their collars. The tags expired hourly. And they weren’t cheap.
Ed wasn’t the only one present who was as ruthless in business as he was in pleasure. He tore his eyes away from the gorgeous naked girls wrestling each other at his command and stole a glance at the woman sitting next to him.
Mistress Caro was a stunning beauty, with flowing auburn hair and ice blue eyes, but that wasn’t what made her the most successful madam in London. What made her the most successful madam in London was her willingness to peer into the darkest recesses of people’s souls, lay bare their most shameful secrets—and then charge them by the hour to bring them to life.
He raised a brow at her. “Do you approve?”
She didn’t take her eyes from the action. “Oh, yes.”
They both leaned forward as Charlotte nearly lost her tag to Panna… then leaned back when the attempt was foiled.
“Their hands are so slippery,” Caro said with a smile in her voice.
“I know.” The girls were quickly becoming exhausted, but their determination didn’t waver; if anything they grew more desperate.
“What’s the prize?”
He looked askance at her. “Does this look like a village fete?”
Caro’s urbane facade didn’t waver either, but her eyes danced with amusement. “What’s the penalty then, for losing?”
He smiled. The softer girls, who’d normally lose such a contest swiftly, were fighting the hardest out of sheer terror. “I only told them they’d be sorry if they won, but they’d be even sorrier if they lost.”
She gave in and laughed. “You really are a bastard, Ed.”
He’d never once denied it.
Eventually, Charlotte stumbled forward and fell at his feet. “I won.”
All around people cheered and booed and settled their bets.
She only had eyes for him. Her pretty face was suffused with pain. “Please, may I wash, Master? Please?”
Caro laughed again as she pushed away from his chair. “I feel obliged to remind you that if you do not let any of them wash you will be charged a full additional hour, for all of these girls.”
Charlotte’s face lit with hope.
“Then I shall make sure they earn the entire hour.” He watched the mistress roll her eyes and move on before turning back to Charlotte. “Go and give your friends their tags back.”
“Yes, Master.” She obeyed with a defeated huff.
“Yield and hold,” he commanded the losers.
The girls sat back on their heels, spread their knees, and placed their hands on their heads. Their shapely breasts bobbed and heaved with the strain of holding still while the pepper continued to burn all their pretty feminine parts.
What a beautiful sight. He took a moment to appreciate each of their unique responses to the pain as he cherished the knowledge that they would suffer for as long as it pleased him to watch them suffer. The exertion of the fight, the shame of losing, and now their uncertainty as they waited to learn their fate, were all taking their toll to differing extents.
“The losers will be whipped.”
Their eyes were all respectfully lowered, but more than one let out a defeated moan or a whimper. Panna’s lips began to tremble.
“On your knees, Charlotte. You may wash when you’re done sucking my cock.” She deserved some reward for her efforts.
“Thank you, Master.” She dropped to her knees at once.
He shot her a look as he undid his own trousers to free his already hard and throbbing cock. “No hands.”
A glimmer of mischief flashed in her sapphire eyes. “No, Master, I wouldn’t dream of it.”
Half his mouth lifted in a smile as he fisted his hand in her fine blonde hair and shoved her mouth down over his cock.
She sucked it with desperate intent and the full force of her considerable skill.
“No. Slowly, Charlotte.”
He could feel the arousal and submission shudder through her as she slowed. He loosened his grip on her hair as he gave his attention to the others.
Panna looked ready to break. He’d been threatening to whip her for a few weeks now. The mere suggestion was enough to bring tears to her lovely eyes. So far he’d found one reason or another not to whip her… but perhaps her moment had come? She’d fought so hard that her arms must be very sore from the effort of holding them on top of her head. “You may all wash, after your whipping.”
Panna’s mouth trembled again at the reminder and then firmed up with determination.
“The first girl to drop her arms will be the last one whipped.”
They all seemed to redouble their determination to hold the pose.
Less than a minute passed before Panna began to cry.
Lizzie’s eyes slid to the side. She dropped her arms with a huff.
He smiled at her. Excellent.
She flushed and bit her lip. Lizzie didn’t mind the whip, but she was clearly not enjoying the pepper.
“The next girl to drop her arms will be whipped the longest.”
“But…” Lizzie glanced at Panna and then pressed her mouth down on another angry huff.
He might have laughed. What did she expect?
Panna was gripping her hair now, but her arms were really shaking. An occasional piteous little sniff escaped her.
The two girls to her left exchanged a glance.
Gretchen dropped her arms.
“The next girl to drop her arms will be whipped the most severely.”
Beside Panna, only Joan was left. She squeezed her eyes shut with a whimper. She looked genuinely torn. Would dropping her hands help Panna? Or would she be abandoning her friend to an even worse fate?
He watched them both endure the torment of suspense for little longer before continuing. “The last one to drop her arms will only get a spanking.”
Joan dropped her arms with a defeated groan.
Panna curled forward with a sob of relief. “Thank you, Master,” she managed to say between sniffs.
She ought to be thanking her friends. “I’m touched. You are all such good girls.” He very much looked forward to giving them each exactly what they’d earned. “You may use your mouths to clean each other off while you wait.”
They immediately fell to licking and sucking and soothing each other as best they could, even though he very much doubted it would actually help. It wasn’t long before their little cries and whimpers edged toward climax.
All the while Charlotte sucked his cock with rapt devotion. It was at such moments that Ed wondered what more a man could possibly ask for from life.
He sighed, content, until his gaze accidentally drifted to the ice serpent, poised to strike, some distance across the room. His grip on Charlotte’s hair tightened and he shoved her face down harder on his cock as he quickly averted his eyes.