Lily Rafferty would never become accustomed to unfamiliar men embracing her in public. She stiffened involuntarily, but if he noticed her reluctance, it did not dampen her partner’s enthusiasm. Seizing her body, he pulled her away from the relative safety of the shadowed wall. His careless speed gave her an excuse to keep her eyes riveted to the pointed tips of her black satin slippers as they appeared and disappeared under the swishing accordion gores of her yoke skirt. It fit snug and sleek down to her knees before flaring out like a bell, and moving quickly was a dangerous proposition on the slick wooden floorboards. The last thing she wanted was to fall. Not here.
Elegant music soared above the crowded dancehall floor as the shop-soiled quartet on stage launched into a waltz. He flung her into position. Lily felt one of her little puff sleeves slip farther down her shoulder and gave it a quick tug. Her décolletage was quite low enough, thank you. For a moment he looked disappointed she hadn’t popped out of her bodice, then he started to dance. She found her steps and followed his lead.
His hand pressed against the back of her corset. Not for the first time, she wished her undergarments were fashioned from solid steel. She glanced at his other hand, at the stubby bare fingers. At least her hands were protected from his rude skin by her long white gloves.
She risked a look at his face. Flushed cheeks. Watery eyes. A high forehead from which heavily macassar-oiled hair lay slicked back. Her gaze traveled down, past his fierce moustache, to his neck. He wore a diamond tie pin. No need to look further. Decidedly a gentleman. Yet another toff come to enjoy the pursuits of the lower orders. As if being poor were an exhibit in Regent’s Park Zoological Garden.
He noticed her attention and smiled. “Like what you see, m’dear?” He leaned down. His face was close to hers now. Too close. He panted against her cheek, his breath hot and reeking of liquor. “I like what I see. And I’ve got streamers of tickets to give to a welcoming sort of wench.”
Stomach churning, she struggled to hide her distaste. If she wrinkled her nose he surely would not dance with her again, and she needed every ticket she could collect.
“Thank you, sir.” She fixed her lips in a smile.
“Nice, ripe partridge, you are.” He removed his arm from her back and suddenly his bare hand was roaming the low neckline of her gown, where the tight lacing of her corset had affected an impressive cleavage.
As she started to object, he abruptly switched from waltzing to walking. She stumbled. Before she could completely recover, he had maneuvered her past a screen of potted aspidistras and into one of the dance hall’s dark corners. Inwardly she groaned. The management of the Barbary Coast Dance Hall arranged these corners deliberately—and for one reason. Any man without a Malthus sheath to contain his effluxion could release his seed upon the floor in the semi-privacy of such a corner.
Her French heels slipped and she clutched her partner’s sleeve. While the night’s fluids had been tracked around much of the dance hall, the floor was still slicker at the scene of the unmentionable deeds. She tried to wipe all such details from her mind. Thinking about it made her feel unwell.
“Eager, are you?” He chuckled. “Excellent. Excellent.” With drink-clumsy fingers, he stroked the skin of her breasts.
The effrontery of his actions was compounded by his bare hands. Gentlemen were supposed to wear gloves. Such crude undress would not have got him past the door of any other place but here. Here, where men with money could throw away their manners.
Closing her eyes, she choked back the protests raging to escape her lips. Kitty had warned her there would be men who wished for services beyond dancing. Touching him would earn her extra tickets and, since the girls were paid for every ticket they turned in, it meant her wages for the evening might grow considerably.
But her stomach threatened to rid itself of her meager dinner at the prospect of seeing his unmentionables.
She hadn’t wanted to be a Cyprian—in fact, she’d been fired from her last job for refusing her employer’s advances. But times were so hard, especially for orphan girls without references, and a doss house charged tuppence just to sleep standing up. She needed money.
Kitty didn’t mind the unspeakable work. Less tiring than a dance but just as quick, she said. Plus you got better paid. Getting pulled into a corner was an unparalleled opportunity in Kitty’s opinion.
His sloppy kiss upon her neck jerked Lily’s thoughts back to the present. An unparalleled opportunity, I don’t think. She’d gain more coin but lose her self-respect.
“Sir….” Politely, she tried to extricate herself from his embrace. “Sir! Sir, the music will end soon….” She turned her face away, hoping if she concentrated fixedly upon the dance floor she could get back out to it.
He mumbled something, his lips pressed against the curve of her jawbone, and continued to fondle the tops of her breasts. Her skin crawled at his touch. Not that he was behaving any worse than the other dancehall customers. Small wonder a steady trickle of girls walked out without notice each week.
“Do you not wish to finish our dance?” She attempted to pull away again, but he jerked her close.
“No, I’d much rather you finish off this.” His hand fumbled with the opening to his trousers as his hips furtively thrust against her. Not on my lovely dress! She shuddered to think what his abrasion, let alone his eventual wetness, would do to the fabric…. And she still owed money on it.
“Truthfully, sir, I am not…I don’t…I would really rather not….”
Laughter trickled through his sneering mouth. “That’s what you’re meant to say, I know. But you strumpets are never in earnest with your protests and false modesty.”
“Oh, I can assure you I am in earnest.” She endeavored to pull away once more.
He grabbed hold of her by her neck. “No, you don’t. I can’t stop now.” His voice sounded strained, and she didn’t like the look in his eyes.
“If you please,” she whispered, attempting a smile so as not to betray her growing horror, “I’ll just take the one ticket, sir. For the dance.”
“You’ll take what I give you and like it.”
Panic clutched at her heart. She couldn’t escape. She did not wish to do this—and he didn’t care. Flailing her fists, she pummeled him about the head and shoulders. His hand tightened about her throat. Changing tactics, she tried to pry his fingers loose, to no avail.
His grip hurt. She felt her lungs struggling for air as if they were battering against her corset’s constraints. No air. She couldn’t breathe. Her heart pounded wildly. She had to get out of here. Get…run….
“No!” She had meant it to be a scream. Instead she produced a breathless whisper the music easily drowned. No one would have paid her cries the least bit of attention anyway. A woman’s willingness did not matter. Most customers assumed this was what she was paid to do.
She kept scuffling despite the increasing heaviness of her limbs, despite the pointlessness. He was going to spend himself right here, in public, on her, and there was nothing she could do to stop him. With a biting stab of terror, she realized he might even kill her. And she would die in a stained dress. That relatively inconsequential concern almost made her smile at herself as dark spots obstructed her vision. What a ridiculous last thought to have.
“Hartengate.” It was a male voice, a stranger’s, rich, raspy and aloof, slicing like flint across the scuffle to pierce the haze in her brain.
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