"That is outrageous!" I roared.
"Never-the-less, those are my terms," my father said with an iron edge to his voice.
"That is blackmail, pure and simple."
"That it is. Still it is the condition to your inheriting from me. I have the right as neither the title, nor the land, nor has one ha'penny been entitled away. I am free to bestow them upon whomever I choose. Your cousin Samuel would make a fine Duke. He is cool headed and already married to a charming girl. Why should I not choose him?"
"Perhaps because I am your son?" I pleaded.
"Yes, you are, and that is why I am giving you a month to meet my condition. Find yourself a wife, Jacob. Marry her and secure a future with children for me. Then and only then will I write the will you desire. Being told that my time may be short has forced me to this. I cannot in good conscience leave the title and lands to someone who is not prepared to be responsible and level headed. Too many people rely on me for their livelihood for me to simply give you the title without ensuring their safety."
"Just how does my marrying some desperate female protect your tenants?"
"She does not need to be desperate. She simply needs to be willing to wed you within the next month. I would venture that as you are spoken of as the most eligible bachelor in all of London that there are any number of women willing to be your bride." He seemed rather proud about that fact, but not in the way I was.
For me it meant that I had my choice of mistresses and that I never lacked for female company. For him it meant I should have an easier time shackling my leg for his amusement.
"But Papa…" I began. I sounded like a whining child and that would not do. "I do not wish to wed yet."
"I do not wish to die either. Not everything in life is as we would have it be. You have my word, if you wed within the next month I shall pass everything to you. If not, Sam will get it all."
I knew my father well enough to know when arguing was fruitless. He had made his decision and I would suffer the consequences. I bowed an exit and went off to the club to drown my sorrows in the company of like-minded friends.
When I entered the card room it was abuzz with lively conversation. I saw several of my friends and walked over to them.
"Are you certain? I mean how can one be sure?" Embry asked.
"She was raised in the nunnery. Not a soul has had her yet. The auction begins at ten," Quil explained.
It was clear they spoke of a woman of the night, but I had only heard of these auctions in passing. I had no experience in them.
"I'll be there," Paul bragged, "for curiosity's sake if nothing else."
"She is a beauty, I can attest to that," Quil said.
"I wonder at the price she will raise," Embry said.
"Who is this budding virgin?" I inquired.
"Oh, Jacob," said Quil in greeting. "I wonder at your not knowing, after all, the chit almost always seeks you out when you visit Mrs. Cope's establishment."
"There are many of Mrs. Cope's girls who have shared my bed of an evening. None of which could claim purity," I laughed.
"It is young Renesmee," Quil confessed much to my displeasure.
"Renesmee?" I thought for a moment and suddenly I knew exactly who he meant. "You mean Nessie?!"
"Aye, I do."
Without thought I charged the man and bid him deny it. It took the other two to disentangle me and in the end Embry led me away from him attempting to dissuade my ire.
"What ails you, Jacob?" Embry inquired.
"Ness is a mere child. She has no business being turned out."
"She is of age, Jacob, whether you know it or not. If you are so concerned perhaps you should attend the auction and see to it she is not won by someone who would do her harm."
I thought on that. Little Ness had been about the house for as long as I had given Mrs. Cope my custom. Some twelve years. I had come across her one evening after extricating myself from the arms of Lauren Mallory, one of the most accomplished members of Mrs. Cope's house. I had gotten hungry and had gone to the kitchen to pinch a piece of fruit. Having accomplished that end I wandered out to the arboretum. I sat by the pond and ate in silence until I heard a soft "umph" from above. There hanging from a low branch was a young girl with coppery braids, hanging upside-down very precariously.
"Do you require some assistance, Miss?" I asked her.
She thought for a moment before answering. "If you please," she said very politely.
I came beneath her and eased her slight weight from the branch. In a moment she was safely in my arms and then securely placed upon her dainty feet. Once I was certain she had her feet beneath her I released her and bowed elegantly.
"Oh, thank you ever-so-much, sir. I am exceedingly grateful to you."
"It was my pleasure, Miss?"
"Oh, I am called Renesmee," she said curtseying slightly.
"I am Lord Black, Lady Renesmee. It is a great pleasure to make your acquaintance."
She giggled lightly and I noticed the pleasing sound she made. She was quite young. I would have wagered she was no more than eight. "What is your role in this house, my lady?" I asked continuing the use of title for the girl.
"Oh," she bit her lower lip, "Mrs. Cope says currently I am a drain on resources."
I laughed out loud. The child was a delight. "Why is that?"
"Mrs. says that I was dropped off here by my mum, though I don't remember her. She says that one day I will be worth my weight in coin, but until then I am to learn from the girls and to make myself useful as she sees fit."
"And how do you do that?"
"I do some sewing, and I dress the girl's hair. I help in the kitchen, too."
"Then I should think you more than earn your keep."
She shrugged. Then she scampered off when she heard a bell toll. It was our first meeting, but hardly our last. I found her delightful and came to seek out her company when I had concluded my business above stairs.
We started having visits in the arboretum of an evening. She would wait for me by the pond and we would talk and laugh. She was bright and articulate. I found her curious and intelligent so I often brought her books. She would read them and then we would discuss them.
It was early on that I deemed her name far too grand for such a small person. I discovered that she was only six, ten years my junior. I continued to tease her by calling her "my lady" and she ate it up, but after a month or so I began to call her "Nessie." She loved the name, and soon the entire house was utilizing it.
After a year or two, Ness began to train in entertainments for the visiting gentlemen. Mrs. Cope the Madam of this high class brothel never kept anyone or anything that did not earn her coin. Nessie was in danger of being thrown to the streets when I discovered that the child could sing. I paid for a music master to come and train her and suggested Mrs. Cope utilize her to entertain the waiting gentlemen below stairs. Nessie was talented and charming. The gentlemen often paid her to sing their favorite songs or to play so that they could dance with the doves of the house.
She flourished in her new role. She had been fulfilling it since she was thirteen. I had visited Mrs. Cope's establishment from time to time over the years. I often called during the day to visit with Ness as the doves slept during the day and it meant I was not obligated to indulge in them while there.
I had taken to keeping a mistress of my own as I aged. They were safer than frequenting the doves, no matter the status of the house to which they belonged. They cost about the same, in lodgings and gifts, and they were at your disposal whenever you required them. It also made me feel less uncomfortable around Ness as she grew into understanding of exactly what occurred with the doves above stairs.
Despite her living in a high class brothel, Nessie retained the untarnished air of a child in my eyes. She was sweet and biddable, and had not the hard edges that I often found in the girls who made their living on their backs.
True it had been some time since I had last seen her. I had been abroad with my regiment for a year and a half. We had fought to bring down Boney and had only returned six months ago. Father's illness had occupied much of my time. He had had a stroke and although he was recovering the physician had not been optimistic about his future.
Still, it had not been that long that I had been gone. Ness was a child and I would be damned before I saw her turned out as a harlot simply because Mrs. Cope thought she would fetch a price.
I bid Embry accompany me to the brothel. I wanted him there to keep me from killing the woman should it come to that. The foyer had not changed an iota since last I had been there. It was all dark wood and red curtains. For the first time I found it stifling and garish. I asked to see Mrs. Cope and was ushered into her private salon.
"Well, my lord Black, it has been too long. Please take a seat and tell me what I can do for ye," the aging madam said pouring Embry and I each a glass of port.
Embry took a seat while I paced about the room. "Mrs. Cope, a disturbing rumor has come to my attention, and I came here at once to discover the truth of it."
"What rumor would that be, my lord?"
"There is word of an auction here this evening, Ma'am. It is said you have a virgin for sale," Embry began, to calm the situation.
"Indeed I do," the older woman bragged. "As sweet a strawberry tart as you will ever find, and guaranteed untouched. I am providing viewing for interested parties. Would you like me to call her?"
My hands fisted and Embry sent me a quelling look as he smiled and made polite noises at the madam. "I would enjoy having a look. I like to know what I am bidding for in advance."
Mrs. Cope pulled a chord that rang a bell somewhere in the house and we waited. It was not long before a respectful knock came at the door. "Come!" ordered the crone and in walked the most beautiful woman I had ever beheld.
It took me a moment to realize that the vision before me was my very own Ness. She was taller, not tall, but not as small as I remembered. Her long golden copper hair was piled upon her head and then spilled down her back in riotous curls. Her figure was lush and womanly, draped in a gauzy white gown that highlighted her porcelain complexion. She took my breath away. She was all the Nessie I remembered and much more. Her eyes were downcast; she did not look at either me or Embry.
"There's a good girl. Now turn round for the gentlemen. They want to view the merchandise," Mrs. Cope said.
Ness turned slowly round her eyes on the floor. I signaled Embry to remove Mrs. Cope and he obliged well. "My dear Mrs. Cope, I believe that you may be able to provide me with some distraction while I am here. Will you take me out to see the delights your house has to offer?"
"Well, now… I do not know that leaving my sweet alone with Lord Black is wise…"
"I shall be on my best behavior," I promised.
Embry flashed his wallet at the woman and she escorted him from the room leaving me alone with the newly minted woman before me. Her eyes were still glued to the floor and her body was rigid. I walked around her slowly knowing that she felt exposed.
"Is there something I can do for you, Sir?" she asked, her voice somewhat husky and incredibly appealing.
"Well… you could tell me how you have come to this, little bird?" I said utilizing the pet name I had always used for her.
In a flash her eyes were staring to my own. They were wide with confusion and was that relief? "Jacob?" she asked her voice rife with disbelief.
"It is I," I assured her. I opened my arms to her expecting her to launch herself at me as she always had, but she remained still. "What, no welcoming kiss for an old friend?"
"Friends generally keep in touch more often than once in nearly two years. I fear you mistake our acquaintance, my lord." Her tone was clipped, but I sensed the hurt behind her jibe.
"My apologies, I have been remiss. Still, I came as soon as I heard about this auction. I came to rescue you from this life."
Her brow furrowed. Then I saw anger light her eyes. "What makes you think I require rescuing?"
"You are about to become one of the doves above stairs. Of course you need rescuing. You cannot want this." I reasoned.
"I am not to be a dove of the house. I am looking for a protector, someone who can pay my debt to Mrs. Cope and free me from her clutches. I aim to leave this place tonight, and I plan never to return."
"You are willing to sell yourself for that privilege?"
"It is all that is mine to sell."
"How much does she claim you owe?"
"Mrs. Cope claims three thousand pounds for room, board, and education. The auction is to raise those funds and secure me exclusively for six months. Then I will be free and I swear this house will never see my face again." The tilt of her chin was defiant and proud, yet the quiver in her voice was that of a frightened child.
"I will pay her that and a thousand more." I swore.
"Why would you do that?"
"Because I have need of you Ness. Will you accept my offer?"
"I… You want me as your Mistress? I thought you objected to my choosing this life."
"I do object, that is why I want you. Will you agree to do as I say, if I promise to save you from this life?"
"How is taking me as your mistress saving me?"
"I am not taking you as mistress Ness, I am taking you as my wife."