Somewhere near Regent Street. London 1819.
If she could not have a man, she would have shoes. Silver shoes with pearl encrusted buckles, delicate kidskin slippers with beribboned points, blue shoes, cream shoes, high throated pumps with clasps and buckles. While Malice Mallender hated to think she had grown a shade cynical about such things, shoes were a concept she knew many women would love and understand.
Upstairs, cracks ran like spider webs across the bedroom window and the landing roof leaked like a sieve. Spend a halfpenny on repairing the roof? On things that would make this place nice? She’d sooner swallow a crocodile. Whole. The humiliations she suffered could hardly be assuaged by possessing gleaming panes of glass the rain could run down unchecked, or a new Turkish rug to replace the one Agnes burnt with the fire tongs yesterday.
Shoes came from another world entirely. It was this or starve. There was a shortage of crocodiles in Regent’s Park.
Malice might as well throw off any bleak self-reflection about those things. A hundred guineas to ruin a marriage was nothing. A hundred guineas was a snip when she thought of the unsatisfactory state of her own life, never mind all the shoes for sale in Madam Faro’s shop window.
So there was no need to ask why the elegantly dressed woman with her tumble of red hair, seated opposite, candlelight playing about her features, had chosen to come to this discreet, carefully furnished salon, the only room in the house that was decent.
Lady Grace, the spidery scrawl on the visiting card, read. The scallop-edged vellum one that lay on her desk blotter. Lady Grace Newell.
From the looks of Lady Grace, the high heeled points with the dusting of diamantes were going to belong to Malice sooner than she could say the word divorce. The silver kidskin boots too and the kidskin boots were beautiful. So she might as well stop procrastinating and do everything in her power to ensure this went smoothly.
After all, it was not unknown for clients to bolt at this stage. She insisted on dealing with the female half of the partnership only and, as many of those were red-faced virgins, who had spent the greater part of an afternoon walking up and down the street trying to pluck up the courage to enter her salon, Malice risked them losing it all together.
Baiting the hook was never easy. Would she be wearing such awful undergarments and this drab brown dress with no ornamentation whatsoever bar a solitary black lace ruffle, if it was? Although Lady Grace exhibited not the least trace of nerves as she held to her parasol handle. Shame neither. Tall as a church candlestick, she’d swept in here as if the entire business was second nature to her. Or perhaps that was simply the impression she gave to mask her nerves?
Malice fixed what she hoped was her most serene smile to her lips. Once upon a time she might have thought words such as little and business an insult when the law was such an ass and she provided a vital service. Now sadly, she simply took the money.
“Yes. Indeed, I do. Please be assured the service is as discreet as the person who must have given you my name.”
“You don’t know how glad I am about that.” Lady Grace’s dimples deepened. She leaned across the desk in a rustle of lilac scented silk. “Because it’s like this… I have a man needing ruining.”
Relief slicked Malice’s palms. For a horrible moment there as the woman leaned forward, she’d wondered if Lady Grace had come to offer her services. But, no.
Lady Grace and her rake were very much in love. Rakes and ladies always were. Either that, or desperate. A hundred guineas? Shockingly cheap at twice the price. Was it any wonder as Lady Grace babbled on, Malice dipped the quill into the inkwell and drew a daisy on the blotter?
“But of course.”
“The problem is his wife.”
Obviously it went without saying that the problem was his wife–whoever she was.
Once Malice would have stopped, have thought badly of herself. That was before, before she hadn’t seen Cyril for dust. Before she had tried to help fallen women. Before she’d been reduced to touting embroidered tea cosies around Spitalfields Market at tuppence a time, earning enough to keep herself in candles for an entire afternoon. Now she doodled a few wives’ names to accompany the flower. Then she doodled a pair of shoes. High heeled ones.
Strictly Business dealt with such menaces as wives. This quiet room, with its drawn shades, the wardrobes stuffed with shoes, this sturdy oak desk, even the spindle chair she sat in, were testament to that fact. Her services weren’t just as discreet as the lavender scented candles burning in the Wedgewood candlesticks on the mantelshelf, they were necessary when the law was such an ass as to bind together couples who didn’t want to be bound, who had no further use for one another.
“A hundred guineas you say?” Lady Grace snapped her beaded reticule open. While she may have narrowed her sparkling green eyes, her excitement was so palpable, Malice could have reached out and touched it.
She gave a grunt of satisfaction. “A hundred guineas. In advance.”
“Well… it seems a lot, but…”
“Trouble yourself not, Lady Newell. Here at Strictly we believe in the power of true love. We believe in making such problems go away.”
One hundred and twenty five pounds. Was she seeing this properly? Had she really thought only two pairs of shoes? The woman needing ruin must be a termagant. Nothing Malice had not done before. Nothing she could not do now.
Still, to seem too eager would not speak well of her business-like detachment. It would say that this was something she did for money and not for true love. For all she ran things like a well-oiled machine, she slackened her grip on the quill, pretending to consider it.
“I take it he’s tried asking?”
“Asking?” Lady Grace drew auburn brows together. “A hundred times a week. Twice on bended knee. He has tried everything and she refuses point blank to entertain him. You have no idea of the spite of this creature.”
“I can imagine.”
“For the last…oh let me think, three years… she’s been a wife in name only. I hardly need tell you that at twenty seven, the age I am now, time is not on my side. In another few years I shall be thirty. How perfectly awful will that be for an unmarried woman of my standing?”
Exactly what Malice wanted to hear. Enough to knock any little qualm of conscience on the head when she wanted these shoes so badly. When she herself had tried in her own miserable, inexperienced way to be more than that and been horribly refuted, why be troubled by the thought of a woman who wanted her rights while refusing to bow to her husband’s? So now they came to the sticky part of the transaction, the actual infidelity, although it never ceased to amaze her just how many were desperate to grasp that notion of future happiness, if not wreak revenge on a tiresome spouse. Would the women who sought her services do that, unless they were desperate? Would they walk through her door to back out? Annulment bastardised children and meant no-one ever spoke to the guilty parties again, but Canon law allowed for separation, if a husband was unfaithful. That was why she’d no compunction now about reaching for the leather folder that lay on the far side of her desk. About taking a sheet of paper from it either.
All that was needed was a name, then she would discreetly arrange the rest.
“Well, never fear. It is certainly my experience that most wives, when shown Strictly’s written testimonies, can’t agree to be divorced fast enough.”
Lady Grace’s peal of laughter echoed around the mulberry walls. “Thank goodness for that. For a moment there I thought you were going to tell me they still want to keep them.”
“Seldom. Once a discreet time has passed you will both be free to marry. He needn’t pay a penny towards his former wife’s keep either.”
“That is such a relief. I must say the service you provide is exceptional.”
“Oh, I won’t be providing it.”
Lord, no. What did Lady Grace think? That she slept with hundreds of men? She employed women to do that.
“Now we’ve discussed the nature of the transaction, I only need a few details. This man, the one you want us to ruin…what is his name?”
Lady Grace leaned closer as if the salon and all its contents had ears and it would damage them to hear. “Lord Hepworth. Lord Cyril Hepworth. Do you know of him at all? He is quite a dandy. But very dashing. And we are so in love.”
Know of him?
Malice’s gaze widened before she could stop it. For a second she felt as if rug, desk and chair had been yanked from beneath her and she sat in mid-air with nowhere to go except the floor.
Know of him?
Lady Grace had just asked her to ruin herself.