A stranger was about to bid on her body, for the right to take what belonged to a husband.
But Eliza had no husband, nor did she want one. What she wanted was money—a lot of it.
Most people didn’t understand desperation. Not true desperation, the kind that sat in one’s belly, rotten and relentless, dragging a person down into a pit of despair. Over the last year, as her sister grew sicker, Eliza had come to know desperation well. Too well, in fact. She was drowning in it, completely out of decent options.
Which left her with only indecent options.
The Chapel auctions were legendary in certain segments of London, whispered about on the streets, with women bragging of the money to be had and the chance to find a wealthy protector. After thinking on it for two months, Eliza finally submitted her name, agreeing to auction herself off.
Please, let him be kind.
“Cor, you look bloody nervous.” A woman sat next to Eliza. “Is this your first time, honey? It won’t be as bad as that.”
Eliza swallowed and wrapped her arms around herself. They’d given all the women a simple white shift to wear, the fabric nearly transparent. “Yes, it’s my first auction.” My first everything.
The woman’s brows rose slightly at hearing Eliza’s accent, which still held hints of Mayfair. “What’s a fancy dove like you doing here?”
“Same as everyone else. I need the money.”
The woman struck out her hand. “I’m Helen.”
They shook hands. “Eliza.”
“Nice to meet you, Eliza. This is my third time. You’ll be fine. Just do as he asks for seven nights and then you’ll go home with a fat purse full of coin.”
A cold prickle of fear snaked down Eliza’s spine. For seven nights she would be at the mercy of a stranger, one who had unlimited rights to her person.
This was your choice. You knew what you were agreeing to.
If there was any other option, she would take it. But she had a younger sister to consider, one who would die without treatment. And that required money.
“Never heard of a cruel buyer,” Helen was saying. “The owner’s particular about who he lets attend. It’s why the women are so eager to get a spot each month.” She patted Eliza’s knee. “Stay bricky and you’ll be fine.”
Fine. Such a tame word for having her whole world turned upside down.
She drew in a deep breath. Stop. You’re stronger than this. She would survive it, as she had everything else.
She’d survived the death of her parents, as well as the death of her brother, Robert.
She’d survived being cast out with only a few possessions by the new earl, their second cousin and Robert’s successor.
She and her sister had survived the streets, the uncertainty. The hunger. Demeaning jobs for meager wages.
Eliza would survive this, too.
It’s only your body. No one can touch your heart or your mind.
For one week, she could do anything if it helped Fanny get better.
“Thank you,” she murmured to Helen gratefully.
“You’re welcome. Oh, and go see the midwife for some pennyroyal at the end of the week. The kind that prevents consequences.”
“My neighbor suggested cotton root tea.” Martha worked in a bordello, and she’d filled Eliza in on what to expect after the auction. According to Martha, intimacies with a man were generally pleasurable, if not downright addicting. Eliza figured it must be true, considering all the babies in the world.
In the last five years, Eliza had seen and heard quite a lot. Knife fights, opium addicts, pickpockets . . .and yes, sexual favors. The alleys were full of all kinds of grunts and groans, people desperate for physical release. Most of Eliza’s education, however, came from their former neighbors, who’d been loud and enthusiastic in their intimacies, not to mention very specific about what they liked. Thanks to thin walls Eliza wasn’t completely ignorant as to what would occur during these seven nights.
Truthfully, she was looking forward to ridding herself of her innocence. Eliza didn’t have time for courting—those dreams died long ago, about the time she cleaned her first privy—but she would like to be held, to experience true pleasure, and to pleasure someone in return. Someone to fulfill these urges that haunted her at night, the physical cravings that had her reaching underneath the bedclothes to touch between her legs. . . .
Being a virgin was lonely and exhausting.
Still, she wouldn’t become a rich man’s mistress or marry a man she didn’t love. Independence was a gift, even if it came with fewer comforts and more struggles.
Time and time again, Eliza watched men use money to control women. Wives who struggled to make a few coins, only to have a husband collect them to fuel his whisky habit. Or Winnie, who’d worked with Eliza at the factory until she found a wealthy protector. Last Eliza heard, the protector forced Winnie to change her name to Viviana and tint her hair red.
Even Eliza’s mother hadn’t possessed money of her own. She went to Father for any expenditure whatsoever, and Eliza remembered her mother’s detailed lists of every shilling and pence for what the family required. It hadn’t been a request as much as an audit.
Eliza would never allow a man to control her like that. The loss of her freedom wasn’t worth it.
Which was why the auction was perfect. A simple transaction for a short amount of time. Then she could return to her life, focus on her sister’s health, and move to America to start over.
“Yes,” Helen said, “cotton root tea works too, though I think the pennyroyal tastes better.”
Before she could thank Helen again, the side door opened and the room fell silent. A woman holding a journal entered and began reading names. It was the same woman who’d signed Eliza up for the auction. Each auction participant answered when her name was called.
“Eliza,” the woman said.
“Here,” Eliza said in the loudest voice she could muster.
“Are you still a virgin, love?”
The air seemed to disappear out of the room as every head swung her way. “Yes.”
The woman nodded once and closed her journal. “Ladies, we’ll begin shortly.”
Then she left, leaving the women alone, and Eliza’s skin burned. Everyone here now knew she was an innocent.
“A virgin,” Helen said, her voice full of wonder, as if Eliza had declared herself a mermaid. “Bloomin’ hell. You’re going to fetch a fortune.”