What defines a woman?
Why, she does, of course.
—The School of Gallantry
London, England—May 1830
WHEN MAYBELLE first discovered at the tender age of twelve that her beautiful, silver-haired grandmother was in fact a French courtesan, it had been most…awkward. Yet equally fascinating, to say the least.
Being left in the care of such a sexually liberated woman certainly made for an unusual upbringing. For instance, French was taught, not out of cultural or educational necessity, but because her grandmother believed that the rolling off of French from one’s tongue was erotic. As such, French words always had to be sprinkled here and there like powdered sugar over the not-so-orgasmic English language. At fourteen, Maybelle refused to adhere to the woman’s ridiculous French/English rule. Mostly because she felt like a want-wit who couldn’t decide between two languages.
At fifteen, Maybelle was further astonished to discover that naughty little books were not only permitted. They were required. So unlike other girls who took to sneaking pornographic books and keeping them under their bedroom pillows, Maybelle was forced to sneak volumes of Voltaire. For there was only so much copulation a girl could ingest day in and day out.
Needless to say, after spending nine years under the perpetual rule of her grandmother, there really wasn’t much in this world that could actually astound her.
Or at least that is what she’d thought.
Maybelle eyed the full glass of cognac, which had been set onto the gleaming surface of the walnut table before her, and heaved out an exasperated sigh as she eased into one of the parlor chairs. She had expected the last morning spent with her grandmother to be difficult. But cognac? Honestly.
She met her grandmother’s attentive gaze from across the French crimson parlor and drawled, “I take it there is no tea in the cupboards?”
“Och. Tea. The English are overly obsessed with it.” Her grandmother rose from the settee, rustling not only her full verdant skirts but also all three sets of stringed pearls dangling over her more-than-generous bosom. “We have every right to toast to all of our upcoming adventures. After all, you will finally get to visit your beloved Egypt, while I, I will finally have my School of Gallantry.”
Maybelle paused. Then blinked. “Your School of Gallantry?”
“Ah.” Her grandmother bustled over toward the small writing bureau set in the corner of the parlor and snatched up a piece of parchment from atop a pile of correspondences. Turning, she bustled back again and halted before Maybelle. Smiling ever so charmingly, she held out the sizable cream-colored parchment by the tips of her manicured fingers.
Maybelle stared at the parchment dangling before her.
MADAME THÉRÈSE’S SCHOOL OF GALLANTRY
ALL GENTLEMEN WELCOME.
LEARN FROM THE MOST CELEBRATED
DEMIMONDAINE OF FRANCE
EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT LOVE AND SEDUCTION.
ONLY A LIMITED AMOUNT OF
APPLICATIONS ARE BEING ACCEPTED
AT 11 BERWICK STREET.
DISCRETION IS GUARANTEED AND ADVISED.
Well. That certainly explained why her grandmother had kept to herself these past few months. She’d been busy creating a school. For men. Heaven help her. This was going to follow her straight to the pyramids. At least the woman had used a nom de plume. Although it was only a matter of time before the gossip papers found out who was really behind it.
“Well?” her grandmother prodded, still holding out the advertisement. “What do you think?”
Ever since her father’s death left her in the care of his mother, she often felt as if she were the guardian. And enough was damn well enough. Maybelle rose from her parlor chair and snatched hold of the parchment. “Our reputation is already limp. Why on earth do you feel the need to flog it to death? You promised Papa that you’d never return to being a demimondaine. You promised.”
Her grandmother arched a silver brow. “This is not a return. I am merely selling techniques.”
“Techniques?” Maybelle smacked the parchment with the back of her hand. “It’s ludicrous. What man would ever admit to needing lessons in seduction? You of all people should know that it comes natural to men.”
“Does it? How odd. I suppose the thirty men who have already enlisted are merely looking for entertainment.” With that, her grandmother snatched the advertisement back and smoothed the edges of it carefully between her manicured fingers.
Maybelle’s heart jumped. Thirty men had already enlisted?! Who on earth were all these naughty blighters? And what did they think they were going to learn?
Calm. She needed to remain calm. There had to be a perfectly good reason for all this. There were always reasons. No matter how far-fetched. “Are we having trouble with our finances?” she prodded, stepping toward her. “Is that it?”
Her grandmother frowned. “Non. Our finances are exceptionally good. Although I did have some assistance from the lovely widow Lady Chartwell. The woman fondly shares my vision of educating men.”
Maybelle’s eyes widened. England’s widows were actually donating to this plight? Although Maybelle wanted to outright demand why her grandmother would stoop to such a crude level of disrespect toward herself, her lips were simply too numb to form a single intelligible word.
“You are not pleased, I see.” Her grandmother sighed heavily and wandered back toward the bureau, carefully setting the advertisement onto it. She tilted her head to one side, causing her thick, silver chignon to shift, and centered the parchment before her as if she were straightening a painting. “London has always been so boring compared to Paris. I am used to more excitement. More passion. As you know, I have long sworn off my occupation and sadly, have no great grandchildren to occupy my time. What is worse, you and I have completely different interests. A pile of old rocks set upon endless hot sand is nothing short of torture. I am too delicate for such things.”
Oh dear God. There it was again. The pity-me routine. “No one forced you to stay in London. You chose to stay here. Furthermore, I won’t have you calling the pyramids a pile of old rocks. They are amazing historic monuments worthy of genuine fascination. I’ve already postponed my trip four times because of you and every time I was forced to pay my designated traveling companion ten pounds despite the fact that I never traveled anywhere.”
Maybelle crossed her arms over her chest. “So what is it that you want this time? Aside from great grandchildren.”
Her grandmother turned and feigned shock as her slender hand flew to her bosom. “Want? What would make you think that I want anything?”
Maybelle narrowed her gaze knowing a seasoned actress had stepped onstage. “You know exactly how I feel about these things, which is why you are trying to leverage this against me. Otherwise, you would have never told me. You would have waited until I left England and then opened the school.”
Those soft blue eyes, which were a mere shade darker than her own, remained fixed on Maybelle. “I am not trying to leverage anything. The advertisements have long been sent and the townhouse rented. It is done, chère. Classes begin next week. And in the end, I confess that the most difficult aspect was having to choose only four out of the thirty who had originally enlisted.”
Maybelle hesitated then drawled, “You are renting out an entire townhouse to host only four men?”
“Oui, but it is only temporary. Until I regulate the schedule and coordinate the lesson plans. As time goes on, I will add more men. Which of course will mean more work. It will require more teachers. More hosts. More toys.” Her grandmother paused and eyed her. “You would not consider staying and becoming a hostess for a few months, would you? Though we should qualify you more by dispensing of your virginity.”
Maybelle choked on a horrified gasp, then quickly cleared her throat. Twice. “I believe you are the only grandmother in the history of England to ever say such a thing to her granddaughter. That aside, do you even realize what you’ll be promoting by opening such a school? Do you?”
A mischievous smile appeared on those full pink lips. “I will proudly be promoting the pleasure of all my fellow women who are fortunate enough to come across my étudiants.”
Maybelle lowered her chin slightly but did not break their gaze. “No. You will proudly be promoting the idea that women are poodles and should be petted at will.”
Her grandmother tsked, puckering her lips. “Chère. If a man knows nothing about seduction, the courtship becomes merely poom-poom. Animal copulation. And it is the woman who suffers, for a man can always find pleasure. But a woman? Not so. We cannot keep men from the conquests they seek, but we can educate the lust-ridden fools and in turn benefit, oui?”
So. It had come to this. Cheap bargaining. “All right. Name your price.”
“Price?” Her grandmother blinked. “You mean for the school? I agreed on one hundred pounds per week.”
A gasp escaped Maybelle, despite the fact that her grandmother had completely misunderstood. “One hundred pounds per week?” she squeaked. “For mere advice? Are they mad?”
“It is a very respectable price. Understand that an experienced demimondaine such as myself could actually demand much more.”
“Grand-mère, please. I will gladly bargain with you, if need be, but for heaven’s sake, you must close the school before you become an even bigger celebrity of the wrong sort.”
“I will not bargain for the school but—” Her grandmother paused, then turned abruptly toward her. “I will bargain for the money you wish to travel with. Since I still hold all the purse strings.”
Maybelle blew out an exhausted breath. She knew that trying to leave London was going to be an adventure in and of itself.
Her grandmother’s sharp features softened and her blue eyes took on a form of pleading. “Once, chère. It is all I ask.”
Maybelle lifted both brows. “Once what?”
Her grandmother slowly made her way toward her, her eyes never leaving hers. “I have taught you everything I know, and yet here you are at one and twenty, and have only kissed one man. Why?”
“I did not kiss that man,” Maybelle sternly corrected, holding up a rigid finger and shaking it. “He kissed me.” And the mere thought of that pock-ridden bastard stating his never-ending noble intentions, only to then grab her and shove his sour tongue down her throat made her queasy. Sadly, it summed up her relationship with every man thus far. For they all seemed to think that just because she was the granddaughter of a courtesan, any approach would do.
Her grandmother sighed. “I do not understand. You have no intentions on ever marrying, and yet you hold onto your virginity as if it were worth a dowry. A woman’s innocence is only valued by men. The moment you dispense of it, you take your first step toward freedom. Your first step toward ensuring you do not belong to anyone but yourself.”
“Yes. I am well aware of that.”
“Then what is the problem?” A concerned look crossed her face. “Do you prefer women? Hm?”
Maybelle could actually feel her cheeks growing hot. Unbearably hot. “I want it to be memorable, is all. I want to look upon a man and say to myself, oh, yes, I’ll bed that one please. Besides. You know the ton. They keep all the titled, good-looking men to themselves and give us their horrid remnants no one else wants.”
Her grandmother paused before her and shook her head. Almost pitifully. “You think the ton is keeping the good men away? Pffff. The ton has no power over us. We are our own government which no man rules. We define ourselves. And that is why I am asking you to define yourself. Without the ton’s ridiculous restrictions. I say, storm the Season. Claim the man of your choosing and enjoy life. Perhaps then you would not be so horribly tense.”
Maybelle glared at her grandmother. “Horribly tense? Need I remind you, we cannot even attend social gatherings unless they’re being hosted at a brothel.”
“You, Maybelle, are my granddaughter.” Her grandmother smiled and swept on open hand toward their surroundings. “As such, you have the ability to place every man at your feet. Make a name for yourself and the sort of men you want will come by the dozen.”
“Grand-mère, I am not interested in becoming a demimondaine. Life is difficult enough with you being one.”
“But you have the makings of greatness.”
“Greatness indeed. I learned from Papa long ago never to overextend myself to anyone as it leads to very bad things. Surely, you remember how obsessed he was with Mama. And she’d been dead for twelve years.”
“Henri was born a romantic. What can I say.” Her grandmother sighed, reached out, and took hold of Maybelle’s hands, squeezing them tightly. “Have I returned to being a demimondaine after becoming your gardienne? Non. Yet why is it men continue to roll at my feet, begging to be patted at any cost? Because I cannot escape the name I have created. Nor do I want to. I enjoy sex.”
Sex, sex, sex. It was all the woman ever talked about. Maybelle released her grandmother’s hands, shook her head, and stepped back. “I will not watch you destroy whatever integrity London has left by teaching all the men how to take advantage of women. It is not right.”
Her grandmother grew unusually serious, the laugh lines around her eyes clearly fading. She lowered her voice. “I will tell you what is not right, Maybelle. Because of who I wish to be, because of who I have always been, I have not only sent my son to an early grave, but am now forcing his child to flee from me in the same manner he did. I know what will happen once you leave today. You will not return. You will disappear from my life. As Henri had.”
Maybelle swallowed and closed her eyes, inwardly fighting with the reality of her situation. For although, yes, life in London was unbearable, and had been for many years because of her grandmother’s reputation, she had no desire to flee. As her father had.
At sixteen, the man had altogether left France assuming he could escape his infamous mother, and upon arriving in England, set out to marry a respectable woman. That woman being Maybelle’s own mother, who died giving birth to her. In the end, her father’s stubborn pride kept them from changing their name, thus making it difficult to escape all the back turning that came along with being associated with a renowned courtesan. When he eventually grew ill and lay dying, he realized there was no one to hand his twelve-year-old daughter to. No one but the mother he’d been running from all his life.
Maybelle opened her eyes. Stepping forward, she took hold of her grandmother’s slim shoulders and squeezed them gently, assuredly. “I would never abandon you. Ever. Seeing the pyramids is a dream of mine. You know that. And the way that Ferlini man is going about destroying them, there may very well be nothing left for me to see. You’ve read the papers. He is damn well smashing tops off pyramids and plundering tombs wherever he goes.”
Her grandmother pinched her lips together, her blue eyes now glistening with tears. Tears Maybelle hadn’t seen since the woman had arrived from France and threw herself at Papa’s bedside while he lay dying.
Her grandmother must have realized her faux pas, for she quickly blinked back those tears, pulled away, and sniffed. Waving a hand, she muttered, “Go. Follow your heart, your love. I will pay for everything and manage the school on my own. You will see.”
Maybelle slowly exhaled, feeling guilty and exhausted. For in the end, her love, not to mention her very heart, belonged to her grandmother. Would always belong to her grandmother. And considering the outrageous endeavor the woman was about to embark upon, she needed support. For she knew there would be little of it from anyone else. “I will stay for two months,” Maybelle finally announced. “But only two months.”
Her grandmother turned back toward her, those blue eyes lit with beautiful mischief once again. She clapped, rattling her emerald bracelets. “Two months will be magnifique! You will join me at the school on opening day, oui? Aside from all the men you will meet, I have countless rooms filled with all sorts of treasures and adventures.”
Treasures? Adventures? It sounded like a pirate ship. One she wanted no part of. Maybelle pointed at her grandmother and kept herself from altogether poking the woman in the shoulder. “Let us not get carried away. I am not interested in schoolboys learning how to please a woman. I know more than the basics thanks to you. Understand, Grand-mère, that the trouble with most men, even the experienced ones, is that they are forever seeking out attachments and are for the most part quite possessive. Albeit in different forms, but it all ends the same. If it isn’t a wife they require, it is a mistress, and if it isn’t a mistress, it is some other form of convention that they ultimately define in their own terms. Which is why I see absolutely no point in pursuing a single one of them.”
Maybelle took in a deep, calming breath and let it out. “Now. I propose that over the next two months we point all of our efforts in the direction of your school and then in the direction of my travels. Then we will both be happy. And that is what we want, yes? To be happy?”
“Ah!” Her grandmother held up a finger in the air, causing all of her bracelets to fall down the length of her wrist. “I have an idea.”
Oh, no. Not an idea. Maybelle stepped back.
“Lord Hughes owes me a favor. A considerable one, I admit.” She winked with great exaggeration. “I shall therefore see to it that he invites us to several of his soirées. He does not care what the ton thinks.” Her grandmother smiled and smugly folded her hands before her. “I promise to find you a man incapable of demanding any attachments.”
Maybelle’s eyebrows rose. Why, that sounded horrid. Not in the least bit promising.
“And when we find him,” her grandmother went on, gesturing toward her ever so graciously, “it will then be entirely up to you to make the best of it.”
Which is exactly what she was afraid of. For there was a rather big difference between knowing everything about men and actually dealing with them. Maybelle sighed ever so softly. A pile of old rocks set upon endless hot sand sounded rather perfect as of now.
If only she wasn’t so bloody softhearted.