A Gentleman's Bidding – Excerpt

London, April 1819

"I shall check to see if my mistress is receiving visitors this afternoon," the butler said as he closed the door to the lady on the doorstep.

To any passersby, nothing would seem outwardly unusual about a veiled widow calling at a fashionable house on London's high-end Marlborough Street. Those more intimate with the neighborhood, however, would know that this house was no simple lodging, but rather an elite brothel catering to the rich and prosperous gentlemen of society. They might also correctly infer that the woman on the doorstep was no mourning widow.

Miss Emily Price shifted uncomfortably, self-conscious despite the veil that hid her face. Before she could question her resolve, the butler returned. "Follow me, Miss Price. Madam Sophie will see you."

Steeling herself, Emily followed the man into the house. As she paused in the foyer to remove her veil, hat, and cloak, she was struck by the richness of her surroundings. Tasteful, elegant furniture met her eye everywhere she looked. A couple of maids in uniform and a footman paused in their work, shooting curious glances her way, but Emily ignored them and followed the butler toward the back of the house to meet the infamous Madam Sophie.

Butler was not exactly how Emily would describe the burly man escorting her. With his large frame and bald head, he reminded her more of a pugilist than a butler. She supposed it was fitting to have such an intimidating figure respond to callers in one of London's most famous brothels.

Without knocking, the man swung open the door of what appeared to be a study and all but pushed Emily inside, closing the door behind her. Like everything else she'd seen, the room was fashionably and expensively furnished. Emily didn't notice much else, however, as her attention quickly centered on Madam Sophie.

Over the past few days, Emily had conjured up several images of what the brothel madam would look like. Most of those were unflattering visions of a large-bosomed woman in vulgar clothing with numerous beauty patches on her face. However, the woman seated at the desk in front of her was anything but vulgar. Slim and dressed in a fashionable blue morning dress, with her blonde hair stylishly pulled into a chignon, Madam looked like a lady greeting guests in a drawing room rather than the notorious brothel owner she was. Age had not deterred from her natural beauty, and Emily did not find it hard to imagine that this woman was once the most sought-after courtesan in all of London.

Madam Sophie's piercing gray eyes seemed to strip Emily and see straight into her soul. The courtesan rose with practiced grace and an amused, if not cynical, smile to greet her young guest. "Miss Price," Madam drawled, inclining her head to her slightly. "How nice of you to call this afternoon."

Ignoring the mocking tone, Emily replied, "Thank you for seeing me. I know I called with no appointment, but time is of the essence, and I wished to discuss a business matter of the utmost urgency with you."

Madam looked speculatively at her. "A business matter, is it? Why, I'm all ears! Have a seat, my dear, and tell me what business brings you to my establishment." She motioned for Emily to take a seat in a chair across from her.

Once seated, Emily cleared her throat and began nervously, "I've heard that your establishment is exclusive, and only caters to society's most wealthy and respectable gentlemen."

"Wealthy, yes. Respectable, however…" Madam shrugged. "I cannot vouch for their character. I have rules in my salon. If a gentleman follows my rules and pays what is required, then he's always made welcome."

Emily gave a short nod then lifted her chin resolutely. "I'd like to enlist your services to find a wealthy benefactor."

* * * *

Madam Sophie smiled at the young woman before her. Emily was hardly the first nobly bred lady to show up at her doorstep destitute. Fallen ladies of society were what The Scarlet Salon was famous for after all.

"Miss Price, I have girls showing up at my door every day looking for employment. You are prettier and more refined than most, and you'd probably take well to the gentlemen here. But competition is fierce, and alas for you, I have enough girls working in the salon at the moment. I'm sorry, but I cannot assist you in this matter."

"I have no intention of working as one of your regular girls, Madam. I wish to hire your services, as well as the use of this establishment."

Intrigued, Sophie asked, "My services! For what exactly?"

"I wish to hold an auction."

"An auction?"

"Yes, I'd like to hold an auction for my virginity."