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Hours later, a fire breaks out, putting her life and the girls that live with her in danger. Who would wish to set fire to the brothel? Going home to the cottage with her husband hardly seems a viable option. Vincent invites her to court, but can she handle what is in store for her? Not used to taking orders, Helene will have to learn to submit to Vincent, in order to protect her.
Everyone has a secret they'd rather not confess. Very few know mine, and I doubt those that would learn the truth would hardly be able to believe it anyhow. Born of royal blood, doesn't make me a queen, let alone a noble. The king strayed during his marriage and left my mother with no inheritance or title. Unlike my half-brother that rules the kingdom and our country, I'm in charge of the establishment, a brothel.
"Helene." Charlotte's voice is like a hummingbird beside my ear, sweet and light, floating steadily to keep up. "I worry Vincent will find me here." She's one of my youngest ladies, with a perfect creamy complexion and long hair the color of dark coffee. Charlotte is petite, a good head shorter than I am and gives off the virgin vibe quite well to our patrons.
"I doubt a man held in such high regard will frequent the brothel." The queen surely kept Charlotte's secret to spare Vincent the pain. I suspect there was more going on with keeping such trivial matters quiet. I try and quell Charlotte's nerves as best I can. In many ways, she is still very much a child, innocent and naive at twenty-two. Truth is all sorts of men come to our establishment, always in search of one thing: sex. "If you're concerned, take Marie and travel into the countryside. Get away for a few days. If he shows up, I'll deal with him." It's probably best to send them together. A lady traveling alone might find herself in peril.
"You would do that for me?"
"Of course," I say, smiling warmly to ease her mind. Vincent is like any man hot-blooded man in search of one thing, and I'm certain I have the cure for it at the brothel.
Charlotte twirls her brunette locks in her finger. Her eyes tell me she's eager to leave but her body doesn't move from where it's stationed, her feet planted firmly on the stone floor. It must take an enormous amount of strength not to move.
"Go pack your belongings." I playfully pat her bottom, and she jolts up the stairs to find Marie to travel with her. The girl is always searching out approval.
As disappointed as I am to lose two girls, I know it won't be forever. Marie has a taste for lust and will bring Charlotte back to me when the time is right. If Vincent is to visit in search of Charlotte, then it will surely be right away. Though why would he even think to look in a brothel is beyond me.
Marie and Charlotte leave as soon as they're packed. They're out the door, hardly with a goodbye past their lips, not that I mind. My day is spent making sure the guests are happy and well entertained. It goes by rather quickly, which is a relief to me.
I hear my name and spin around on my heels. It's rare for anyone but the girls to call me by name. Everyone else here refers to me as 'madam'.
"May I help you?" I ask, glancing the gentleman over as I light the oil lanterns. The sun is beginning to set, which usually means our business will pick up.
He raises up his empty goblet, shoving it in my face to see there's not a drop left. We're not a tavern, but we do serve wine to ease the tensions and open the wallets of the men a little more generously.
"The wine is awful." His words slur, and his eyes are like slits. He's already intoxicated, and I know my girl's will want nothing to do with him. I've seen him twice in the brothel, and both times I've had to threaten him with a knife for payment. He's our afternoon disaster, the man that has no job, no prospects, and drinks himself sick. The tavern must throw him out, and so he wanders through our doors, looking for a good time.
"That's because you drank it all. If you're not going to pay for the entertainment, then I'm going to have to ask you to leave." I try and keep my temper down, gently grabbing him by the elbow, escorting him off the premises. I do my best not to make a scene. It doesn't make the other men visiting the brothel comfortable to see a man thrown out on his ass.
"But I didn't get my fix with the tarts!" he shouts, turning his head back to see the ladies of the establishment.
"Not today and not tomorrow," I say with as much insistence as I can. The man doesn't know how to take a hint to not come back. "You're not welcome here. This isn't a tavern. The wine isn't free, nor are my ladies. Next time you enter the brothel, you'll pay double upfront."
The man groans under his breath, shrugging me from his grasp. "Get off me you whore!"
"Is that all you've got?" I roll my eyes at the drunken idiot. He's not the first man to call me such an offensive name and not likely to be the last. Such terms used to upset me, years ago when I'd been the girl trying to sell myself to make a living. Times have changed, at least for me. I'm quick on my heels, turning around and walk back inside.
Glistening along the wooden floorboards is a ruby ring. My eyes widen, and I hightail it across the room in long strides to pick up the treasure I had buried on a chain against my breasts. I feel the chain slipping between my bosom and know without a doubt, that is the ring the deceased King Charles gave to my mother.
A gentleman bends down, lifting the jewel and examining it in the candlelight. "A gem this rare must have been quite an impressive gift from a noble."
"It's mine," I say, holding out my hand for him to return the treasure.
His eyes widen slightly as he reads the inside inscription. "Is that so?" He drops the ring into my palm, closing my hand around the gem. "Best you keep it hidden. I'd hate to think what might happen should King Alexander discover the ring in your possession."
I frown, uncertain what he means. He turns, bowing to Julienne and taking her hand, kissing the back of her milky flesh. "It's been an honor," he says, heading out of the door.
Over time I've come to know most of the patrons and all that frequent the establishment on a regular basis. That man, I'm not familiar with. "Who was he, Julienne?"
"I never caught his name," she says and laughs, resting a hand to her breast. "He's quite the charmer and an amazing kisser. Too bad he's married. I mean what other man would know that much about a ring?"
My stomach twists with uncertainty. "I'm not sure. If he comes here again, let me know. I'd like a word with him." Can I trust the man to keep the secret that I'm the half-sister to King Alexander? Surely if word got out, my life might find itself in danger. There are always enemies to the crown. I've kept the brothel out of politics and servicing the pleasure of such men. I refuse to be caught off-guard and threatened for a position that I don't even have at court. Men are few to be trusted and even less that are honorable I've learned.
"Yes. Of course." Julienne doesn't question me. She knows better than to cause trouble.
I walk up the wooden staircase, heading for my chambers. With the ring clenched tight in my fist, I open my door and shut it with my heel. As I approach my bed, I slowly open my hand, revealing the ruby jewel, placing it for safe keeping on my pillow.
I can't unclasp the chain, it's already broken and fallen in my gown, nestled tight to my breasts. I disrobe, the only option to remove the chain.
The brothel is momentarily quiet, providing me the opportunity for a moment to myself. A rare occurrence as of late. The metal chain falls to the floor, the links severed in half. I bend down, picking up the broken chain, placing it beside the ring.
There's a solid knock on my door. The ladies know not to enter without first announcing themselves and waiting for my approval.
"What?" I ask, not quite in the mood to entertain anyone.
"There's a gentleman downstairs to see you," a soft voice answers. It reminds me of Charlotte but I know she is with Marie, far from the brothel. Working the gown back on, securing the ties alone isn't an easy task. Once I'm finished, I open the door, staring at the new girl Lora, with her rosy cheeks and tangled red tresses. She very well could have been me fifteen years ago.
"Did he give you his name?" I ask.
I shove the ring and chain beneath my pillow, before heading down the stairwell. With disappointment I see who Lora stumbled upon. No wonder she came to find me in such haste. My husband, Rowland, knocks into the other patrons as is unsteady with his gait. He's drunk, no doubt in my mind. He sneers and points his finger the moment he locks eyes on me.
"You owe me rent!" His boots clomp aggressively over the wooden boards. He's trying to make a scene, and he's got one.
"I'm sorry, madam. I asked the gentleman his name, but he wouldn't give it."
"It's fine, Lora." This is in no way her fault his appearance. I won't blame her for alerting me of his presence. It's better she tells me than I discover him disturbing the guests and threatening or stealing from them.
I grab Rowland by the ear, dragging him through the room and out the door into the cold night air.
"Get off me you, bitch!"
I release my hold, quick to wrap my arms around myself, shivering. "Stay away from here." I'm not afraid of him, nor have I ever been. Even when I was sixteen and we were married in haste, I didn't know an ounce of fear.
"You owe me the money from the brothel. What's yours is mine." He smiles a toothless grin, the few teeth left in his mouth rotting. His breath is putrid, and my nostrils burn as I take a step back. When was the last time he bathed?
"An arrangement I had no say in, nor do I agree with," I say. Maybe by law we're married but we see each other once per month, when Rowland shows up begging for money because he's lost it gambling or spent it on alcohol. I live at the brothel, he lives in his cottage across town, drowning himself in ale at every chance he gets. His temper gets heated at a moment's whim, not to mention the mood swings. I'm happier on my own, tending to the men that want services and my ladies that need work.
"Doesn't matter. I own you." He steps closer, and I slam my heel into the toe of his boot. His shoes are thin, old, and pliable doing little good to protect himself.
"What's that?" I ask, prepared to knee his groin if necessary.
"Fuck," he says under his breath, muttering a few other choice words.
"That's not how you speak to a lady," a gentleman says, approaching from the darkness. The oil lamp hanging outside the brothel offers a glimpse of the man as he steps into view with his dark thick hair, steel eyes, and long eyelashes. He's wearing a uniform, a sword sheathed to his side, it's obvious he's a man of King Alexander's guard by the colors and insignia on his arm. With his hand nestled to the handle of his sword, prepared to remove it if necessary, he steps closer to Rowland. "Apologize."
Rowland snorts under his breath, his nostrils flaring as he turns and stalks away.
I'll settle with that instead of an apology, at least my husband is gone, for now.
"What an arrogant bastard," the gentleman says.
I raise an eyebrow, surprised by his words and his tone. "That arrogant bastard is my husband." Not that I'm proud of it, but I feel it necessary to say.
He frowns, his brow furrowing. "I'm sorry."
I don't know whether he's apologizing for his language or the fact I'm married to the man. Does it matter?
"Yes, me too." I shuffle my feet and glance behind me at the brothel. "Do you want a drink before you hit the road?" I can only assume he's traveling back to the castle. I'm not privy to politics or what the men do to defend the crown.
He's quiet for a moment and I have no reason to fathom a guess why.
"You deserve a better man, of that I'm certain. My mind got the better of me, and for that I'm sorry. It's not right for a lady to buy drinks. How about I buy us both some ale?" he asks.
"Wine's the drink of choice here and it's free," I say, opening the door. "If you pay for the entertainment."
His expression is stoic as I open the door, revealing the brothel. Had he not seen the sign outside? I don't fault the gentleman, he had been preoccupied trying to get rid of Rowland.
I snag an empty table and gesture for my girl to bring two goblets of wine.
"I'm not sure I should stay," he says, clearing his voice, glancing down at me.
"You need not worry. The owner won't throw you out." I don't dare tell him I run this establishment. I'll probably turn him to a corpse and have to bury the poor fellow.
He hesitates before taking a seat across from me. "As long as you know I'm an honorable man. I'd never come here otherwise."
I snort under my breath. Does he think I'm not honorable? I don't press the issue, he did try and help me get rid of Rowland. Though I'm capable of kicking him out on my own, I do appreciate the gesture and the support.
"What's your name?" I ask. "I'm Helene," I say, offering him my hand.
"Vincent." He takes my hand, giving it a firm shake. "Do I dare ask if you work at this establishment?"
"The brothel?" I laugh, at ease with Vincent. He doesn't scare me. After dealing with Rowland, Vincent is quite charming even if he isn't intending to be. "It pays the rent."
Sarah brings two goblets of wine. I down mine, allowing the blonde to pour me a second cup.
"What are you doing this far from the castle?" I ask. Could this be the same Vincent looking for Charlotte?
"Searching for a woman that was supposed to be my wife."
Perhaps sending him back to the castle would be the safest option but it wasn't what I had in mind. "Did she run off?" I joke, laughing softly.
"Yes, she did." Not a hint of a smile plays on his lips. He looks dejected.
He barely had time to know her, let alone fall in love with the young lady. Why had he seemed so sullen over the ordeal? The smile falls from my lips. I hadn't meant to bruise his ego or hurt him in any way. He seems like a nice enough gentleman.
"Then maybe it's best you find another young woman to woo."
"Perhaps I already have."
I clear my throat, taken aback by his suggestion. He’s kidding, right? Or perhaps there’s another lady he’s taken to. I’ve spent less than five minutes with him, it would be presumptuous to assume he’s speaking of me. "And what’s she like?" I ask, offering a warm and inviting smile. It’s one thing I’m good at, you have to be good at easing the tension out of your guests.
"She has the grayest blue eyes and freckled creamy skin I’ve ever laid eyes on."
A flush spreads across my chest and my cheeks. He can’t be speaking of me, though I do have an abundance of freckles. I’ve always hated the marks. It would be nice for a man to care as much for me as the way Vincent speaks of his beloved. "Well, she sounds lovely."
"That’s because she is," he says, standing up, pulling me onto my feet. "A lady as beautiful as yourself shouldn’t be visiting or working at a whore house." His voice is kept low, probably as not to insult the other patrons of the establishment.
I groan under my breath. The charming act of being a guard for the king has vanished with his mouth opening. "You should probably go." I walk him to the door, leaving the empty mugs on the table. I’m quick to get the door, wanting him out not caring about chivalry.
"Can I see you again?"
Is he crazy? Does he think this to be some sort of a game? "What about that woman you were searching for?"
A faint smile tugs at the corner of his lips. "Seems I was misguided. Perhaps she'd been a stepping stone for me to find you. There's something about you that I find alluring."
The way he speaks with such conviction, knowing what he wants, it's arousing. I don't dare admit his scent is enough to force my heart to beat wildly, let alone the desire in his eyes. I've seen it before with men, usually before they thrust me up against the door and grind into me on the mattress. There's something different about Vincent. I'm not sure whether I love it or hate it. I have a strange feeling he will invade my dreams tonight.
"Tell me I'm wrong if you don't feel it as well, Helene." His voice drips like honey the way he says my name.
"You’re clearly mistaken." Even if I do feel something for Vincent, what good will it do? Charlotte will return and then what? Will Vincent decide I was a replacement? It’s a very bad idea. The pit of my stomach sinks at the mere thought of his discovery that I sent her away. Though it had been at her insistence to hide and protect her.
He didn’t seem so bad. Charming in some aspects and arrogant in others. Charlotte is a quiet girl, soft spoken and not one to make a scene. Surely she wouldn't be right for him.
The weather is fickle. The breeze picks up and a drop of rain pelts my forehead. I’m quick to wipe the offending drop away as I step back onto the porch step. There’s a slight lip to the building, sheltering me from the rain falling from the sky. A single drop turns to two and then many more as a light but steady rain assaults the pavement.
"Maybe I am," he says as his hair darkens under the rainstorm.
Thunder echoes in the distance and I hope my girls that I sent out earlier in the afternoon are long gone and out of harm's way, safe and dry.
I offer a smile, it’s all I can give him. I’m married. He’s interested in Charlotte. This dance of flirting and courting will only result in trouble. I have my hands full as it is with Rowland. I don’t need two difficult men to juggle.
I watch in the darkness, under the faint light of candle as Vincent mounts his horse and rides into the night storm. Lightening crackles across the sky, the air fizzling and thunder booming like the crack of a whip against raw flesh, slicing down and piercing blood. I hurry back inside the brothel, out of the cold rain and storm, grateful for the reprieve. At least I don’t have to walk home in the storm.
"Is everything okay, madam?" Lora asks.
Her smile is faint, her eyes warm and inviting.
"Of course." There’s no reason to worry the young girl. I’ve had worse nights.