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But
then the stout little cook drew herself up short, and a glowering scowl
darkened her face as her eyes fell on the bright-red imprint of a hand on
Ashleigh's left cheek. Her sharp blue eyes darted quickly over to Monica and
then back to Ashleigh, and the scowl deepened. Setting the muffin pan down on a
nearby worktable with a sharp
thunk,
Dorcas set both hands on her ample
hips, narrowed her eyes and spoke menacingly to the tall blonde. "So...
ye've been after the wee one again!"

Monica's
first reaction to the restrained fury in the old woman's voice was surprise.
"How did—"

"Are
ye stupid as well as vicious?" questioned the cook between clenched jaws.
"'Tis there upon the child's cheek—the mark o' yer cruel hand fer all the
world t'see!" Dorcas stepped toward Ashleigh and put a comforting arm
about the young woman's shoulders. "There, there, now, lass. Ye'll be all
right now, with Dorcas t' take care o' things. Just come over here t' the table
and have a breakfast muffin and a cup o' tea whilst I fix a poultice fer that
poor, wee face," she said soothingly.

Ashleigh
was torn between allowing herself to be comforted and staving off any
forthcoming abuse from Monica, who was standing near the cupboard glaring at
her with ill-concealed hatred. "It—it's all right, Dorcas, really, it is.
I—I merely slipped near the hearth and—my head struck the side of the mantel.
Clumsy of me, I'll admit, but no real harm done. Monica here was just coming by
and was about to help me fetch a headache powder. I'm afraid my head does ache
a bit from—from the fall, you know."

Dorcas
fixed a disbelieving gaze on her young charge, then looked askance at Monica
who was suddenly busy with the apothecary jars in the cupboard. She didn't
believe Ashleigh's story for a second, but she well realized the reasons for
it. What to do? She loved the wee one as much as if she had been her own, and
had since she'd first set eyes on her that cold winter's night more than twelve
years ago when her sister, poor Maud, rest her soul, had brought the lass to
her—a skinny, bewildered little thing, frightened out of her wits at being
burned out of her home and left an orphan, with none but her beloved nursemaid
Maud to see after her, to care if she lived or died.

A
gentleman's daughter she'd been, raised in the lap of luxury from the moment she'd
been born... only all that was suddenly gone for her the night the fire claimed
the lives of her doting parents and all they owned.

And
that was the thing Dorcas had never really been able to understand. Why had no
protection been set up for the child? It was as if all traces of the Sinclair
family had vanished from the face of the earth.

And
then there had been Maud's semicoherent ramblings before she passed on, a
victim of the deadly inhalation of smoke from that terrible fire. She'd
cautioned Dorcas
not
to try to investigate, pleaded with her to let well
enough alone, lest there be—what was it she had said?—"more skulduggery
afoot"; yes, that was it. And what was Dorcas, a simple cook in the employ
of one of the most lavish and notorious brothels in London, to make of that?

But
after Maud's death, when the child had been taken in and given a place as a
kitchen helper by Madame, Dorcas had enlisted the aid of her seaman friend
Roger in looking into that matter. Roger found the family's solicitor, and the
word came back that the Sinclair family had been living on the margin.
Ashleigh's parents had been fond and loving, but not very wise with money.
There had been debts, some of which stemmed from stretching their wealth beyond
their means. Ashleigh and her brother had once had the best in clothes,
servants, tutors, horses and the like.

This
older brother, Maud herself had once explained to Dorcas years earlier, had
been trained at sea, then sent to make the family a fortune in trade (on a ship
they had again overextended themselves to purchase) to the West Indies whence
he never returned. Lost at sea, he was, when his ship went down, and he was
never heard from again. The Sinclair lands were sold off to satisfy creditors
after the fire, and no one, the solicitor included, took any interest in the
fate of the Sinclair daughter. Roger had offered to make further inquiries, but
then poor Maud had breathed her last, and new demands had claimed Dorcas's
attention.

So
here little Ashleigh had remained, lovely little sprite of a thing that she
was, toiling away in the kitchens of a notorious house of wicked doings, when
she'd been born to a life of leisure and was clearly a lady, from the top of
her luxuriant black tresses to the tips of her dainty pink toes. And nary a
whimper of complaint out of her, either.

Dorcas
allowed herself a small swelling of pride for what she believed to be her own
part in this; she had instantly taken to the wee child, happily tucking her
under her wing in an outpouring of maternal affection that seemed to have been
stored inside her until then for the children she'd never had.

Now,
as her observant blue eyes took in the lovely profile of her charge while
Ashleigh stood near the cupboard measuring out a dram of headache powder into a
cup, a worried frown crossed the old woman's brow. And it was the overwhelming
sight of Ashleigh's growing beauty that caused this, for it reminded Dorcas of
Sunday's encounter with Drake and what the lout had hinted of Madame's interest
in the girl.

Something
had to be done, and done soon, or the lass would find herself an unwilling and
helpless addition to the business up
there!

Just
then, there was a noise at the door to the hallway, and with a rustling of
skirts, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with flaming-red hair appeared.

"'Tis
a might early t' be gatherin' fer tea, isn't it?" questioned the woman,
the distinct crispness of an Irish brogue lacing her speech.

"Megan!"
chirped Ashleigh with a quick look of surprise and then a grin. "What are
you
doing up and about at this hour?"

"'Twould
be servin' the truth better if ye were t' ask me if I've been t' sleep
yet," replied the redhead with a slow, mildly wicked smile that was belied
by a merry twinkle in her large green eyes.

"Oh-h,"
replied Ashleigh with a blush. Try as she might, even for all her years of
living and working in this house, she was still not blasé about the nature of
the "entertainment" it offered. Part of this accrued from the heavy
wall of protection built about her by Dorcas and her well-trained, loyal band
of kitchen help, part of it by her own natural reticence. Although she had
learned the function of the place well enough after coming here a dozen years
ago, most of Ashleigh's knowledge was gained secondhand, in carefully couched phrases
from Dorcas, or Tillie, the pantrygirl. And for Ashleigh this was sufficient;
she was still an innocent in every sense of the word, and she was content to be
so.

Oh,
it wasn't that she lacked a lively curiosity about life and the world. She had
this in abundance, but wise old Dorcas had seen to channeling this in the
healthiest way; thrice a week, hired by Dorcas out of her own carefully stored
savings, a tutor had come from the other side of town and given Ashleigh an
ongoing challenge to her quick intelligence. Ever since she'd turned seven,
Monsieur Laforte, a French émigré from the Reign of Terror, had engaged her in
lively repartee, both in English and French, feeding and filling her hunger for
knowledge. Laforte had formerly been a tutor to the House of Bourbon itself,
and his qualifications were the best. But of this Ashleigh had cared little;
what had delighted her had been the little man's enthusiasm for his work. In
recent years Ashleigh suspected there was also an appeal to his Frenchman's sense
of the ironic that he should have been called to instill the teachings of
everyone from Plato to Shakespeare in a house such as this.

"Daydreamin'
again, little one?" questioned Megan, her humor-rich voice rousing
Ashleigh from her reverie.

"What—?
Oh, yes, I suppose I was," answered Ashleigh with yet another blush.
"I'm sorry, Megan."

"Think
nary another thought on it, me lass. 'Tis best ye be closin' yer mind t' the
doin's o' the likes o'
our
ilk, t' be sure!" Megan peered down at
the blonde who stood between them, for although Monica was tall, the top of her
head reached barely to the perfectly chiseled nose of the six-feet-tall
Irishwoman. "Isn't that the truth, Monica,
darlin'?"

The
sarcastic intonation was not lost on Monica, who seethed with barely pent-up
hatred for her chief rival at the brothel. She looked up at Megan now, taking
in the proud Celtic beauty of her competitor: the perfect oval face with its
high cheekbones and finely sculptured features, the knowing green eyes, heavily
lashed and upward slanted at the corners, the fine, straight nose and wide,
sensual mouth that smiled to reveal pearly white, even teeth—and that
hair!

Monica
clenched her jaw and ground her teeth as she surveyed that mass of fiery glory,
clutching her hands into fists as well, as she forestalled an urge to wrap her
fingers around those cascading curls and tear them out of Megan's head by the
roots.

"I'd
say it is about time your little friend did learn some specifics about the
likes of us and our—ah—profession!" she said with a sly smile in
Ashleigh's direction. "It would better prepare her for what Madame has in
mind." Her eyes darted carefully over Ashleigh's slender form, and there
was cruelty in her voice as she added, "She's fully grown now, and, I
daresay, eats more these days than she did as the waif she was. I'd say it was
high time she began to really
earn
her keep!" With a quick motion,
she snatched the cup of prepared headache remedy from Ashleigh's grasp and
downed it in several gulps; and after thrusting the empty cup back into
Ashleigh's hands, she whirled about and strutted haughtily out of the room.

"What
a strange thing to say!" Ashleigh exclaimed, looking first at Megan, then
at Dorcas and finally back at Megan again. "Megan...?"

"Ah,
'tis only more o' her wicked blatherin', Ashleigh, darlin'. Pay her no mind—no
mind at all!" Megan threw a meaningful look at Dorcas over Ashleigh's
head. "Ah, didn't I hear ye sayin' ye had an errand t' be sendin' the lass
after, Dorcas?"

Nodding,
Dorcas jumped in quickly. "Ah, yes, lass, 'tis some bones and scraps ye're
t' fetch from Mister Tidley, the butcher." She glanced at the kitchen
clock on the mantel. "He's been savin' them fer that beastie o' yers. 'Tis
a good time t' run t' his shop and fetch them. Run along, now! There's a good
lass!" And with the asperity of a mother hen shooing her chicks out of the
path of danger, she urged Ashleigh out the back door.

When
Ashleigh had gone, Dorcas gave Megan a brief, knowing glance and then spoke,
her voice barely above a whisper. "I knew it wasn't a social visit that
brought ye down here this early, Megan. What's afoot?"

The
redhead's green eyes darted swiftly about the large kitchen. As it was early
yet, none of the other help were about, but it paid not to be careless. Although
Dorcas's staff were a good lot, and mostly loyal, it was also true that Madame
was known to pay well to be kept abreast of what was going on under her roof,
as well as about town and beyond, and Megan didn't care to have their
conversation bandied about where her employer could catch wind of it. At last
satisfying herself that no extra pairs of ears were about to pick up her words,
Megan spoke, her own voice subdued to a near whisper. "Ah, Dorcas, 'tis
just as we feared after yer encounter with Drake. Me gentleman last night was a
young toff who patronizes these quarters rather regularly, a harmless enough
lad, youngest son o' the earl o' Dunvale... kept me up the entire night with
the need t' be stroked and petted, he did; nothin' more, if ye can fancy
that...."

"Megan!"
Dorcas fixed her with a frown of disapproval.

"Ah,
yes... well... sorry, Dorcas." Megan sent the cook a contrite smile.
"Well, t' get on with it, the toff told me before he left that Madame
promised him, the next time he's in town, that he might have a
virgin
she's
got comin' aboard—a raven-haired beauty with a pair o' deep blue eyes the size
o' saucers and a natural beauty mark high on her cheek!"

"Ah,
Megan,
no!"
Dorcas exclaimed, her ruddy complexion suddenly gone
ashen.

"Aye,
'tis what he said," Megan nodded somberly. "The worst has happened—or
soon will—unless we speed the poor lass away from here."

"Away?
But how? Where would she go? And how would she get on, once she got
there?" Dorcas's aged face reflected earnest worry in every line.

"Calm
yourself, Dorcas. I think I have an idea...."

* * * * *

 

"Allow
me to ascertain whether I understand you precisely," said the woman they
all called Madame. She sat facing Megan and Dorcas in a small, handsome
antechamber adjoining her boudoir, a room unofficially designated as her
office. Decorated in varying shades of soft green and rose with cream accents,
it was tasteful and discreet, as were all the rooms of the well-proportioned
town house Madame had purchased twenty-five years ago in the best part of town,
with what she called "conscience money" from her last lover when he
had sought to rid himself of his notorious mistress.

BOOK: Sattler, Veronica
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