Great Marlborough Street, London 1770
Before long, Mrs. Goadby’s guests arrived.
The new girls had been told to wait upstairs until we were summoned. We crowded together in the hallway while a lilting mixture of music, talk and laughter wafted up from the front parlor.
Harriet was called. Then Rose. Time slowed to a crawl as I waited for my turn, but finally Isabella came to fetch me.
As I prepared to make my entrance, I heard Mrs. Goadby gush, “I have reserved the best for last. This young acolyte of Aphrodite hales from Greenwich, the daughter of a shoemaker who abandoned the poor child to became a Methodist preacher.”
What nonsense was that? I scarcely had time to wonder before my foot caught on something and I stumbled into the room. I tried to catch myself, but with so many eyes upon me I could not seem to put a foot right. Staggering forward, I pictured myself collapsed on the floor in a humiliating heap while Mrs. Goadby’s guests roared with laughter at my clumsiness.
Then a man’s hand caught mine. Another wrapped around my waist, lending me the support I needed to regain my balance.
“Is it time for dancing already?” my rescuer cried. “Do permit Mrs. Goadby to finish introducing you, first, fair one.”
The others laughed, but warmly in admiration of the gentleman’s quick action and gallantry. “Leave it to Lyttelton to grab the prettiest girl for himself.”
Lightheaded and breathless, I surrendered myself to the gentleman and sank onto the sofa beside him. “Thank you for coming to my rescue, sir. I am in your debt.”
I looked up into grey eyes that sparkled with adventure. “Take care about saying such things, sweet one. You might tempt me to prosecute my claim.”
“Few ladies would object to serving such a sentence.”
A surge of suggestive laughter made me repent my glibness. “Foul play, Lyttelton! You’ve made a conquest before the rest of us have been properly introduced to –. I say, Mrs. Goadby, do reveal the name of your divine young friend.”
“With pleasure.” Mrs. Goadby’s voice betrayed no hint of vexation at my graceless entrance. “This charming addition to my house is Mrs. Armistead. My dear, may I present Captain Ayscough, Mr. Andrews, Captain O'Byrne, Mr. Barrington and Sir Francis Molyneux. You have already met Lord Lyttelton.”
The other gentlemen’s names jumbled together in my head. I was too much occupied with his lordship to care. His hand ranged up my side from the base of my bodice to beneath my arm.
When a servant appeared with wine, Lord Lyttelton declined. “My hands are too agreeably engaged at present to divert them.”
I could not truthfully say I wanted him to. His touch sent a flutter of heat through my flesh.
“Would you care to share my wine, sir?” It was the least I could do to repay him for coming to my aid.
“Generous as well as beautiful.” One side of his mouth arched in smile of crooked charm. “I must commend Mrs. Goadby on her newest acquisition.”
“Do you visit here often, my lord?”
“Not very often. I frequent King’s Place – so convenient to the clubs. I nearly begged off tonight, but my friends would not hear of it. Now I am obliged to them.” He lowered his mouth to the glass, which I tipped up for him to drink.
I hoped I could tempt his lordship to bid for me. He was not Ned and we were barely acquainted, but he was attractive and attentive. I could do far worse.
The company drank and talked together for a while. Then one of the gentlemen called for dancing. Harriet joined the others to make a set of six, but Rose and I sat out. We had only begun to take dancing lessons that week.
When Lord Lyttelton urged me to try, I shook my head. “I am sorry to disappoint you. I will practice so that when you come back again I shall be able to accept your invitation.”
“An excellent inducement to return.” Once again his lordship lifted my hand. Rather than kissing it in the usual manner, he turned my arm and grazed his lips over the sensitive flesh of my inner wrist. I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing. “I hope you will learn quickly.”
“I will try, my lord. I have so much to learn.” Dancing, music, the art of lively conversation – would I ever master it all?
“I should be delighted to instruct you in one or two important subjects.” His gaze flitted to my bosom, the tops of which bulged slightly above the low-cut neck of my gown. “I believe you would find me a most patient tutor.”
After several dances, one of the gentlemen announced, “I have worked up a sharp appetite. How soon do we dine?”
“As soon as you wish, sir,” said Mrs. Goadby. “We hope this will be a night to satisfy all appetites.”
The wine had eased my nerves enough that I was able to laugh with the others. Music continued to play as our party moved to the dining room. The room looked like a scene from one of my elaborate fantasies – all gleaming glassware and polished silver, snow-white napery and vivid clusters of flowers. Steam rose from the covered serving dishes, each carrying a succulent smell. This was as far removed from Fat Joe’s chophouse as I could imagine.
We heaped our plates with creamed oysters, pigeon pie, and chine of beef. I took care not to gorge myself. This night was too important to risk making myself ill. The gentlemen all ate and drank with lusty appetites. Now and then, one would rise and propose a toast to the ladies, Mrs. Goadby, beauty, youth, adventure or macaroni pie.
A second course followed, as lavish as the first, with veal and olives, potato pudding, duck ragout and several other rich dishes. Between courses, the gentlemen took turns excusing themselves for whispered conversations with Mrs. Goadby.
“They’re bidding on you and the others,” whispered Nell. “Pretty brisk, too, by the look of it.”
Flushed with food, wine and the admiration of Lord Lyttelton, I lifted my glass. “Here’s to the high bidder!”
His lordship reached for his wine. “What are you drinking to? I will join in the toast.”
“What if I was drinking to you, my lord?” I did my best to mimic Nell’s merry impudence.
“Do you reckon me too modest to raise a glass in my own honor?” He lifted his high then drained it in one deep draft. “I am a man of many virtues, but modesty is not among them!”
In a whiff of spicy sweetness, the dessert course arrived – little ratafia cakes, peach fritters and syllabubs.
“Just a nibble.” Lord Lyttelton held a cake to my lips. “To repay you for sharing your wine with me before dinner.”
I took a small bite, relishing the bitter-sweet nutty flavor. When the cake began to crumble, threatening to shower my gown with crumbs, I was forced to gobble it up, my lips and tongue grazing his fingers. He chuckled at my eagerness.
At last, when the conversation began to ebb, Mrs. Goadby rose from her chair. “Ladies, let us retire and leave the gentlemen to enjoy their port.”
As I rose to leave, Lord Lyttelton drew me down to whisper. “Leave your stockings gartered until I come. I am vastly fond of helping ladies remove their stockings.”
“Off to your quarters,” Mrs. Goadby murmured when I emerged from the dining room. “And change clothes for private company.”
Perhaps if I’d had less wine those words might have alarmed me. Instead I felt afloat in a warm, carefree haze. “Is it Lord Lyttleton I am to entertain, tonight, ma’am?”
From the way Mrs. Goadby’s mouth tightened, I knew I had asked the wrong question. “You will entertain whoever I send you, Armistead. What is more, you will entertain one as well as another, without partiality.”
The grim force of her displeasure shook me from my tipsy daze. “Aye, ma’am.”
I raced up the stairs to find my rooms warm and softly lit, the bedding turned down. With fumbling fingers, I shed my clothes to don the loose nightshift of Irish muslin and pink brocade dressing gown that had been laid out for me.
As I was tying my dressing gown sash, I heard my sitting room door swing open. I raced out to greet the man who had bid highest for my virginity.
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