The Christmas Affair Excerpt
Amy Mellish might never be warm. She would freeze and no one would ever know her name. She would be just another homeless, unknown body they found during the spring thaw if she did not keep putting one foot ahead of the other.
She blew on her hands, encased in her late mother’s best-but-worn gloves, and surveyed the bustling street ahead. Bond Street less than a week before Christmas was a busy time, though so cold this year. Few looked at her directly. No one moved out of her way.
It certainly was not the best time to lure a man to take their pleasure with her so she might afford a corner of a room in a drafty boardinghouse.
“A pox on the happily married,” she muttered bitterly as a laughing couple almost barreled over her.
Amy had been overlooked all her life. As a child she had not had friends or family aside from her mother, and as an adult of two and twenty years, that was not likely to change. She was utterly alone, and as a result of her lack of proper protection in the form of chaperones, she was not innocent.
She was one of the impure, a fallen woman who relied on the wickedness of her customers to survive the harsh world of London’s streets. It was not the life her mother had wanted for her, but it was the life she must live no matter how hard it seemed.
Unfortunately, she was not that successful in attracting interest in the middle of winter and had taken to the streets of London’s busiest district in desperation for coin and customers.
She pushed on through the happy crowd, fretting over her desperate situation. She could do what one of the light-skirts on the last street corner had just done—made a show of unbuttoning her threadbare coat and flashed her breasts to a passing gentleman. The portly fellow had ogled her but had not flicked out a coin. He had smiled and then moved on with his own business. The woman had taken the loss of custom with good spirits and hurried to cover herself again. Amy considered her very brave. Undressing, even partially, while the snow fell and the winds howled was not pleasant. While she silently applauded the woman’s tenacity and fortitude under trying circumstances, Amy was not willing to surrender any more of her body heat to the uncertainty of fickle male whim.
She had to be practical and thrifty with her favors.
“Watch where you’re going!”
Amy jerked up her chin and met the hard stare of a well-heeled heavy-set gent of middle years. On his arm was an expensively dressed woman who positively sneered at Amy’s presence on their path. Amy shuffled aside, feet sinking into a deep patch of snow that reached above the top of her ankle-high boots. The couple took their time passing, and Amy was shivering in earnest once more when she could proceed.
She stamped her feet after they were gone and shook the snow from the hem of her heavy garments.
“People are always in too much of a hurry,” a contemptuous male voice remarked nearby.
She turned around for the source of the voice and found a fellow standing just inside an alley in the shadows, smoking from a weathered pipe. He seemed of middle age or perhaps older, but it was hard to tell with his cap pulled low over his eyes.
Amy smothered her disappointment. She preferred a younger customer. They were a little more giving of their coin and often cleaner, but she would make do with whatever she got. “Some are indeed.”
He moved to the edge of the shadows but did not step out into the street to meet her. His eyes beneath the cap were fierce and his expression sour. “Most don’t see the beauty they cast aside. Not me though. I’ve got my eyes wide open. I see you.”
“How kind,” Amy said calmly enough, but her skin prickled with a warning.
From time to time, Amy had met men whose interest in her brought unpleasant sensations. She did not feel at all safe near this fellow. Despite his neat outward appearance, there was something about his demeanor that warned her to keep a distance. He could be dangerous.
His clothes were good quality, but it was what lay beneath that made a difference. Even the best-dressed men could hurt a whore. She had heard enough, witnessed enough firsthand, to heed her own instincts. She nodded to him, intending to move along.
He jerked his head toward the alley behind him. “Why don’t you come over here and we can warm each other for a bit?”
She pretended to be shocked. “Sir!”
His expression grew menacing in an instant. “Think you’re too good for the likes of me? I know what you are.”
Amy needed coin desperately, but not so desperately as to risk misadventure with someone as changeable as him. “I am a lady, sir, and what you suggest is indecent. Leave me be or I shall call the watch.”
She spun around, but not before she heard the sound of a soft moan come from the dark alley behind the fellow. Amy hurried on, crossing the street to the bakery side and slipping in behind a chattering group. She took a moment to catch her breath, stealing the warmth from the ovens deep into her lungs for as long as she dared. And then when an older woman swept past carrying a heaped basket, she followed her out onto the street again.
A quick glance around confirmed the dangerous fellow had not followed her to the bakery.
The woman with the basket turned to her. “Can I help you, dearie?” She had the face of kindness, but her eyes were shrewd as she took in Amy’s threadbare coat.
“No, but thank you.”
The older woman hesitated. “You’re very pale.”
“The cold,” Amy murmured, but then that moan she had overheard from the alley came to mind. “A conversation with a stranger a short time ago has overset my nerves. It’s nothing, I’m sure.”
“Oh, what did he say?” The woman adjusted her basket, waiting for a juicy bit of gossip.
“Nothing untoward, thankfully, but as I was walking away, I swear I heard a moan come from the alley behind him.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “Not again.”
The woman spun back for the bakery, shouting a man’s name, and disappeared with her basket of baked goods.
Amy sighed, lamenting the fact that the memory of the smell of freshly baked bread was going to torture her all day and likely all night.
Unfortunately, Amy had no choice but to push on in search of a customer. A shy smile, a flutter of lashes, were all she had to bring a gentleman into her arms in the right circumstances. In the biting cold of the afternoon, however, she was not having much luck, and she needed funds to escape the aching cold of winter that was sure to envelop the city tonight.
Another couple passed her, laughing as they went. “A pox on all happy couples,” she said aloud and then prayed she had not been overheard.
She had best keep her thoughts to herself, or she would never appeal to anyone. Aside from the dangerous fellow, she usually had good luck in the shopping district, though her usual haunts had attracted a rougher crowd of late. Amy had no wish to be passed around a group of men for the fee of a single client. As long as she was not overly brazen about what she was there for, she had found she was left largely to her own devices in the proper neighborhoods.
And it was usually so much cleaner, safer, nicer all round in this part of town. She lifted her thoughts to the path ahead and arranged her face into a pleasing expression.
There were certain shops, however, that she did not like to linger near for long, and they were just ahead. The pastry shop always made her empty stomach complain, and the fine merchandise displayed in the Cabot’s Haberdashery windows made her yearn for the past and the coin she did not possess.
The dream of one day having funds to buy whatever she liked gave her something to hope for though. If her circumstances changed and she had funds at the ready to spoil herself with, she might yet be a regular customer at either establishment.
However, she would not be able to frequent either if one of the proprietors—both very proper gents and handsome—discovered how she earned her living.