On the day of Lia’s university graduation party, her parents—wealthy art collectors with friends in high places—gift her a beautiful wine cup, a rare artifact decorated with roses. It’s a stunning gift, and one that August Bowman, a friend of her parents and a guest at Lia’s party, also has his eye on. The cup, August tells her, is known as the Rose Kylix, and it’s no ordinary cup. It was used in the temple ceremonies of Eros, Greek god of erotic love, and has the power to bring the most intimate sexual fantasies to life.
But Lia is skeptical of August’s claims of the cup’s mythology and magic—after all, he’s a collector himself, and she suspects he just wants to get his hands on this impressive piece of art. So he dares her to try it for herself, and when Lia drinks from the Rose Kylix she is suddenly immersed in an erotic myth so vivid it seems real—as though she’s living out the most sensual fantasy with August by her side…
Realizing the true power of this ancient and dangerous relic, Lia is even more wary of giving it up, though August insists it is only safe with him. He’s willing to pay the full value of the cup, but Lia has another type of trade in mind. One that finds them more tangled up in each other—and in fantasy—than either was prepared for.
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Lady Ophelia Anne Fitzroy Godwick—Lia to her friends—called the emergency meeting of the Young Ladies’ Gardening & Tennis Club of Wingthorn Hall to order.
“If I could have your attention, please,” Lia said to the three young ladies in her bedroom. “We might have a problem here.”
“No alcohol at this meeting,” Georgy muttered as she scrolled through her phone. “That’s a massive problem.”
“I’m not joking,” Lia said.
She met their eyes, one by one, so they could see she was serious.
Georgy—blonde, buxom and wearing strapless yellow tulle—sat prettily in Lia’s armchair. Rani, brown-skinned, dark-eyed, tall and slender, lay in her red satin best across Lia’s bed. Jane, the bookish brunette with secret talents hidden behind cat-eye glasses, leaned against Lia’s bedpost in off-the-shoulder ivory.
Lia, in a vintage party dress of palest rose pink, stood with her back to the fireplace facing all three of them—a general addressing her troops, a knitting needle in her hand in lieu of a swagger stick.
“What’s the problem, boss?” Rani asked.
“Fourteen,” Lia said. “The three of you and fourteen of them.”
Rani’s eyes widened.
“Fourteen of our clients are coming?” she repeated.
That got the ladies’ attention. For the Young Ladies’ Gardening & Tennis Club of Wingthorn Hall was not a gardening club, and they didn’t play much tennis, either. The YLG&T Club was, in fact, an escort agency.
“Which ones?” Jane asked.
Lia quickly rattled off their names, ranks and identifying proclivities.
Georgy tucked her iPhone into the bodice of her gown, muttering, “If Sir Trevor tries to lick my feet during dinner, I’m not going to be happy.”
“Nobody is licking anybody’s feet at dinner,” Lia said. “Except maybe Gogo.”
Her dog, an enormous gray deerhound who looked perpetually confused, raised his head at the sound of his name.
“Go back to sleep, boy.” Obedient to his mistress, he laid his long face down onto his paws and closed his eyes. “As I was saying, we have clients coming here tonight so we need to be on our best behavior. When you go downstairs, just remember, this is my graduation party, not an orgy. And this is Wingthorn Hall, not a brothel.”
“Could have fooled me,” Georgy said. Lia ignored her.
“Not only are fourteen clients coming here…so are their wives. Thus, you’ve never met these men before, right? When you do ‘meet’ them, be polite and then disengage quickly. Feel free to fake food poisoning and run for it. Stick together. Don’t post any pictures online. And whatever you do—” and here Lia paused to look directly into Georgy’s eyes “—do not flirt with anyone.”
“What?” Georgy sat up straighter. “No flirting? You mean, at all?”
“At. All.” Lia punctuated those two syllables by slapping her palm with the knitting needle.
“But, boss, what if he’s really handsome?” Georgy asked.
Lia shook her head.
“What if he’s literally the most handsome man in the world?” Rani asked. “And rich.”
“Flirting is banned until further notice.”
“What if,” Jane said, “he’s handsome, rich and DTFMEL?”
“DTFMEL?” Lia knew the DTF. She wasn’t sure about the MEL.
“Down to Fund My Extravagant Lifestyle,” Rani translated.
Lia considered that. After all, while she handled the appointments and the money in the YLG&T Club, she didn’t own the ladies. And this was the job. She could hardly begrudge them for making a living.
“We’ll take it on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “All I want is to get through tonight without ending up in the back of a police car or on the front page of the Sun.”
Earl’s Daughter in the Streets, Madam in the Sheets: The Scandal of the Century…
She could see the headlines now. And the think pieces on women and sex work. And the tweets.
Oh God, not the tweets.
“All right, boss,” Jane said with a jaunty salute. “We’ll behave. Promise.”
“Another thing—let’s drop the ‘boss.’ I’m Lia. I’m your friend. I am not, I repeat, not your boss. Right?” She grinned and nodded. “Yes? Agree with me, please.”
“Right, boss,” Georgy said. Smart-arse.
“I hear prison isn’t all that bad these days,” Lia said. “I’ll catch up on my knitting.”
Unless they didn’t allow knitting needles behind bars.
“Why didn’t you tell your parents ‘no party’?” Rani asked. A fair question.
“Trust me, I did. They are, unfortunately, proud of me and couldn’t be stopped. I asked them not to invite anyone except family. Also didn’t work. I asked them for no gifts. I’m guessing there’s a table covered in gifts down there.” Which would all be going to a charity shop tomorrow, if Lia had her way.
“Loads of them,” Georgy said. “How awful.”
Rani met Lia’s eyes. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” Lia wanted to believe Rani. “Nothing’s going to happen tonight. They’re more scared of us than we are of them.”
Lia nodded. However…she couldn’t quite shake the feeling that something bad, very bad, was going to happen tonight. She didn’t tell her “young ladies” that. Once they’d been her friends but now they worked for her, and she couldn’t have them seeing her rattled for no good reason.
Or was there a good reason?
“I’m sure you’re right,” Lia said, faking a smile. “Now… Escorts dismissed.”
“Come on, birdies,” said Georgy as she rose from the armchair. “Time to face the music.”
The three of them filed out of Lia’s bedroom. Gogo attempted to follow them.
“Not you, boy. Unless there’s something you need to tell me,” Lia said.
Gogo trotted back to his dog bed.
Once she was again alone in her room, Lia’s shoulders sagged. She put her hands to her face and breathed through her fingers. If she had a time machine or even a friendly neighborhood wormhole, she’d hop into it in an instant and go back about three years ago to the night when she’d had the bright idea of starting an escort agency with her friends. She’d find herself, grab herself by the arms and tell herself, “Lia, pet, you’re going to regret that…”
Would she have taken her own advice? Probably not.
Lia knew she needed to go downstairs. Guests were arriving already, and she couldn’t play the fashionably late game forever. Still, she didn’t leave her bedroom. She paced her floor, trying to calm her nerves.
As she passed her fireplace mantel, she laid eyes on a statue, a marble Aphrodite Anadyomene that had once belonged to her great-grandfather Malcolm, the thirteenth Earl of Godwick. According to family legend, her notorious rake of a great-grandfather had worshipped Aphrodite, goddess of romantic love and passion—“the one deity I have any respect for,” he’d said. Fitting, then, that Lia had this particular goddess on her mantel. Aphrodite was probably the only deity around who’d answer the prayers of a frazzled madam.
Although she hadn’t said a prayer to Aphrodite in years, Lia decided to give it a go. She doubted it would help but it certainly couldn’t hurt, could it? She found her sewing scissors on her dressing table and took a candle from the candle box by the grate.
Lia lit the candle and, with the little scissors, she cut one gingerbread-colored curl from her hair. As her hair caught in the flame and burned, she whispered, “Aphrodite, goddess of love, lust and badly behaved women, please protect your daughters tonight—Georgy, Jane and Rani. And me, too, I suppose, if you don’t mind.”
Then Lia added, “If you run into my great-grandfather Malcolm in the afterworld, please tell him he’s a bad influence.”
She blew out the candle and found that she felt a little better. At least she could say she did all she could. Outside she heard the beginnings of a fierce rainstorm. Odd. Rain hadn’t been in the forecast. Lia glanced at the lovely and placid countenance of Aphrodite on her mantel.
“Your doing?” she asked with a smile. Of course Aphrodite did not answer. Lia left her bedroom. If luck or Aphrodite were on her side tonight and that rain kept up, the house might flood and then the party would be canceled.
A madam could hope.
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