‘SO Mr COLLINS IS busy tonight?’
‘Like I said.’ Bryant looked up from the syllabub, and Charlotte caught a defensive gleam in the usually reassuring blue. ‘He has some business or other to attend to.’
‘Family business?’ Charlotte tried to keep the tone casual, neutral, but she held her breath until Bryant replied.
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what Collins does in his spare time, not being his keeper, Charlotte.’
Charlotte felt suitably tongue-lashed. For whatever reason – and surely it couldn’t be the one she was thinking – this was a touchy subject. Best let it go and take her head out of the gift horse’s jaw. It wasn’t every night she was taken to an expensive restaurant by one of her suave and handsome bosses – in fact, this was a first.
‘So where’s this club we’re going to?’
Bryant relaxed, taking up his napkin from his lap and depositing it on the table beside his empty dish.
‘Oh, it’s just around the corner.’
‘Really? In this part of town? I thought this area was all Dukes and sheikhs and movie stars. It’s Swanksville!’
‘Yes, and the members are some of its richest citizens.’
‘Oh, I see. For some reason, I always imagine that kind of stuff going down in seedy basements in Soho or Kings Cross.’
‘Some of it does. Some of it doesn’t. In swinging, as in real life, all types of people from all social strata are represented. You know, for a girl who gets fucked in bondage more often than she eats a hot meal, you’re surprisingly naïve.’
Charlotte’s ears burned – ludicrous as it seemed to take offence at a comment that was both true and probably well-meant, she was mortified at Bryant’s crude remark. She did not mind how many fucks and cunts he came out with mid-scene, but to treat her like a whore while she was innocently eating her dinner and trying to be normal struck her as too cruel. Collins would never have been so crass, she thought. Or would he? Why would she idealise men who were, after all, when it came down to brass tacks, procurers? Pimps, that was all they were, she thought, with an inward toss of the head. Think of them as such and perhaps she could drive back all these … feelings that had been boiling up in the last few months.
‘I’m not here as your submissive tonight,’ she reminded him tightly. ‘And actually, I’m not your submissive really. Not in any meaningful way. Am I?’
Bryant did a double-take, leaning in close to her and taking her hand.
‘Charlotte – are you all right? Have I said something to upset you? If so, I’m truly sorry. I would never seek to … there must be some kind of misunderstanding. Really.’
‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ Charlotte lost her nerve, smiling wanly at him. ‘I just … sometimes I think you forget I have feelings.’
Bryant, as if made of stone, stared blankly at her for a long time, only his compulsive squeezing of her hand giving away the ticking heart behind the expensive suit.
‘I didn’t think,’ he murmured, as if to himself. ‘I didn’t think we could … oh, never mind.’
He asked for the bill and paid before giving his arm to Charlotte and escorting her out into the five-star Mayfair night.
‘So what do you think about swinging?’ he asked, leading her along the wide pavements, beneath the low-hanging branches of the trees that sheltered the street.
‘I don’t know much about it,’ confessed Charlotte. ‘I think of key parties, you know. People in kaftans, with pampas grass in the front garden. It all seems a bit Seventies/Eighties, if you know what I mean. Old-fashioned.’
‘I must admit,’ Bryant confided, ‘I haven’t really looked into this scene much myself. But when you passed on that email from the client, it struck a chord with me. I suddenly thought I ought to check it out. And I couldn’t go alone. Thank you again for offering to come with me, Charlotte. Do you think you’ll want to … partake? Or simply watch?’
‘Is watching an option?’ asked Charlotte nervously.
‘I should think so. I imagine a lot of the people here are voyeurs. Hopefully the figures balance, and there will be just as many exhibitionists. Otherwise it might be rather a dull night.’
They arrived at a gracious terraced house and descended some steps to the basement entrance – all very respectable-looking, with two potted bay trees either side of the heavy black-painted door.
Bryant rang a bell and a burly gentleman in exotic silk robes and a pillbox hat with a tassel answered, raising an eyebrow at them. Charlotte had a presentiment that this was going to be anything but a dull night.
‘Names please?’ he demanded, consulting a clipboard.
‘Bryant and lady.’
‘OK. You’re on the list. Please come in.’
He showed them through to a small anteroom, all crimson and purple with beaded curtains hanging across the arched opening. Erotic paintings hung here and there, and Bryant helped Charlotte down on to the low cushions that provided the only seating.
‘Well, this is jolly, isn’t it?’ he murmured into Charlotte’s ear, amused, while the doorman went off to do whatever procedure demanded. He slung an arm around her shoulder, sensing her escalating tension. Somewhere in the distance, music was playing. ‘Relax, darling. You’re so tense!’
On a low table in front of them lay paraphernalia relevant to various different recreational drugs. Charlotte found this ominous and tried not to look at it.
‘Will everyone be stoned?’ she whispered to Bryant.
‘Those that need a bit of extra stimulation, perhaps,’ he mused. ‘Personally, I like my sex straight up – I don’t need chemical distractions.’
‘It’s never occurred to me to try it,’ said Charlotte. She shivered, now extremely nervous. ‘I think I’m a bit scared.’
‘I’ll look after you,’ Bryant assured her. ‘We can leave if you really want. You can research things without experiencing them, you know.’
‘Oh no. I need to know how these things feel – or I can’t get the details right for the client.’
‘I suppose so. I applaud your dedication, Charlotte. You’re a rare girl.’
Charlotte was still wondering whether rare was good or bad when the robed man returned, carrying a cloth bag which he set down on the table before them.
‘OK, you are new members, so I have to give you the full low-down. This club is not to be discussed outside these four walls with anyone who you haven’t met within them. I know you have taken tests for sexually transmitted infections, but until you get your updated results, you must use barrier protection for the first six weeks. You understand?’
‘Yes.’ Bryant nodded. ‘I’m fully equipped.’
‘And your lady?’
‘I … yes.’ Charlotte’s face flared. The man’s dispassionate manner made her think she was preparing for a gynaecological exam.
‘Good. Now, there are different events – usually once a week. Tonight it happens to be a masked ball. I have masks for you here.’ He emptied the bag, disgorging two eye masks – one plain black satin, the other adorned with paste gems and feathers. ‘Put them on, please.’
Bryant looked dashing in his mask, Charlotte thought, like Dick Turpin or Zorro. She wondered if hers conferred the glamour of days gone by on her, or if she just looked a bit silly. Everything felt transformed, mysterious, alluring through the almond-shaped eye slits. It was like taking a holiday from oneself.
‘You notice that something else was in the bag,’ the man prompted. Charlotte picked them up – two long chains with different pendants attached. One was in the shape of a heart, the other a lightning fork. ‘For the lady, the heart.’
Charlotte put the necklace on. The heart was heavy, hanging low in her cleavage. Bryant took off his tie, loosened his collar and placed his own identifier around his neck.
‘At the party, you will see that everyone is wearing a necklace. Mr Bryant, you are free to choose any of the women wearing hearts. If none of them appeal, of course, you have recourse to your lady here. In the same way, she may choose any man with a lightning pendant. If she does not like them, she may come back to you. If you are chosen by somebody you really feel you do not want – then of course you are free to reject him or her. However, should you do this, you will have to find yourself another club. The choice is yours.’
Charlotte and Bryant exchanged mask-concealed glances. Bryant seemed to be waiting for approval from Charlotte, which she gave with a near-imperceptible nod.
The robed man motioned them upward and they followed him along a corridor that led through the prodigiously sized basement until a curtained double door was opened into … well, it wasn’t really what Charlotte was expecting from a ballroom. It was more like an underground bar or nightclub, low-lit, distorted music flooding from wall-mounted speakers, the furnishings reminiscent of an old-time bordello.
The floor was dotted with couples, swaying, smooching, some of them groping. There did not seem to be a uniform dress code, for some were in full eighteenth-century masquerade costume while others were in fetish-inspired underwear. Charlotte, in her short, low-cut cocktail dress and stiletto knee boots, felt positively conservative in comparison, and Bryant was one of only a few men in a business suit. Frilly shirts and britches were everywhere, interspersed with leather trousers and the odd bare chest. Charlotte was reminded of New Romantic music videos from the 1980s and rather wished for a pompadour wig and a ribboned shepherdess’s crook so she could really feel part of the scene.
‘Well then,’ said Bryant, after drawing a deep breath. ‘Shall we mingle?’
Charlotte, feeling shy, looked for a space on the low, cushion-strewn divans that lined the large bunker, but most of them were occupied by writhing bodies. None yet were at the stage of full engagement, but a few weren’t far off that happy state. Perhaps she could get herself a drink – where was the bar? She approached a rectangular gap in the purple silk wall, but there was no barman to be seen, merely bottle after bottle of champagne and a stack of glasses.
‘You help yourself,’ a male voice behind her said. ‘You’re new here, are you?’
She turned to see a squat figure dressed like a Civil War royalist, long curly wig and all, neatly-trimmed beard and … a pendant that was not lightning-shaped. She felt obscurely relieved. It seemed a bit early in the evening for claiming yet.
He reached and took her heart shape in his hand. ‘Shame,’ he said. ‘Stars for me tonight. Ah well. Maybe next time. Enjoy your drink.’
She poured a glass of champagne and took a big gulp, leaning against the wall and watching the action in the room, trying to follow Bryant’s movements as he danced with a succession of women. He did not seem terribly keen on any, though, as he continually ignored his partners in favour of scoping the room until he caught sight of her, holding her eyes through the double barrier of their masks.
Charlotte was suffused with a warmth that was not just down to the champagne. Bryant. He had always been the nicer of her two bosses; the more solicitous, the caring one. He was the one who fixed the things that went wrong in her flat or slipped her an extra fifty pounds here and there when he thought she was looking pale or thin. He was a wonderful lover as well, skilled and mature. She could do much worse than seek him out tonight and take him on to the divans.
But that was not the point. The point was that any man here – perhaps more than one – could take her and have her. What a dizzying thought that was. Charlotte tightened her fingers round the stem of the glass and shuddered with exhilaration.
‘A heart!’ A triumphant male voice awoke her from her reverie, and there was a man at her elbow – as dandy a highwayman as she had ever seen. ‘And you may have mine, my lady!’ he said gallantly, drawing her into the mêlée.
Charlotte, deciding that he seemed like fun, allowed the highwayman his will of her, blushing and smiling coyly when he brought her knuckles to his lips for an extravagant kiss, eyes low and gleaming behind that tight black mask. He manipulated her into the first position, as if about to start some complicated ballroom dance, but instead he held her there, against his chest, one hand on her hip, the other interlaced with hers at the fingers, as if accustoming himself to her particular shape, size and scent.
‘Oh, you’ll do very nicely,’ he told her upswept hair, the warmth of his breath parting the strands until it reached her ear. He smelled of some brash old-fashioned cologne – perhaps Old Spice – but it mingled so deliciously with the smell of the leather strapped across his chest that Charlotte felt swooningly faint. If they’d had aftershave in the eighteenth century, she thought, perhaps the ladies would have fallen into dead faints even more often. ‘You’re a real find. New here, are you?’
‘Yes.’ She breathed in sharply as the highwayman’s hand slid over her hip and rested on the slope of her bottom. ‘What about you? Do you, er, come here often?’
‘Oh yes. I’m a regular here. This is the place to come if you want to … um …’
‘And do you observe, or participate?’
The highwayman put sudden pressure on Charlotte’s rear, forcing her pelvis to crush against the crotch of his tighter-than-tight britches. Unless he had an antique pistol in there, Charlotte had to concede that his interest in her was genuine.
‘I participate, Milady. I can’t ask your name, so do you mind if I call you Milady?’
‘Milady – yes, I like the sound of that.’
‘Good. You may call me Dick.’
His other hand dropped hers and slipped instead around her back, preventing her escape from this dance-floor prison. ‘Are you a bad girl, Milady? I presume you must be, to be here at all.’
‘Yes. I am bad. Very bad. And wanton. A wanton hussy.’
‘Oh, that’s good. A trollop. A floozy. A strumpet.’
‘Yes, all of those.’
‘Mmm. Let’s dance.’
But the highwayman’s version of dancing was certainly the least energetic Charlotte had ever encountered. He simply gyrated very very slowly, one arm around her neck to guide her after him, the other busy gliding down the silky skirt of her cocktail dress. Before she could speak again, he had swallowed her words in a kiss and, as he kissed well, Charlotte was inclined to let him carry on, let that hand lose itself in the cloud of chiffon petticoats, let it find the elasticated lace of her stocking top, let it touch the cold, smooth skin of her thigh.
The palm moved up the back of her leg until it met the curving cheek of her naked bottom and then he broke off the kiss, staring at her in delight.
‘No knickers!’ he crowed. ‘You really are a wanton hussy, aren’t you?’
‘I didn’t think I’d need them.’
‘Such a practical girl. I like it. And it’s quite true – you certainly don’t need them. But I think the whole room needs to know just what a fast little slut you are, don’t you, Milady?’
Without waiting for her reply, he flipped the black sparkly froth of petticoats up, exposing her soft white bottom with its frame of black suspenders to the company. Many were too absorbed to notice, but there was some clapping and whistling and shouts of approbation at the sight of the fleshy curves disappearing down to the unhidden mound of her sex. Dick, not wanting anyone to miss the sight, drew further attention to it with a loud slap on her cheeks, cracking out like a pistol shot across the heath.
‘Stand and deliver!’ he proclaimed. ‘I think it’s time I fucked you, Milady.’
Milady certainly wasn’t going to argue, even if Charlotte might have done, and she allowed him to steer her over to the divans. En route another couple stood in their way – a tall man dressed as a pirate with a full face mask and his partner, a curvaceous blonde who seemed to be some kind of kinky bunny girl in tight PVC and black horns rather than rabbit ears.
‘Excuse me,’ said the bunny girl, putting a hand out to touch Dick’s chest. ‘We’ve been watching you and we wondered if you’d like a foursome. Captain Masters and I are wearing the same pendants as you. I know it’s a bit cheeky to ask, but …’
Charlotte, determined to go with the flow, merely batted the question back to Dick, who laughed and smacked her bum again.
‘I might have known, you racy little whore. Milady here will take on all-comers, it seems. Very well. But I want Milady first, and I want both girls at the same time. Those are my conditions. Do you accept?’
The pirate nodded resignedly, seating himself on the edge of a free divan and settling in to watch the show.
‘Right then. Let’s see. Bunny Girl, you can suck my cock while Milady here sits on my face. How’s that for starters?’
Dick stretched himself out on the divan, unbuttoning his fly for Bunny’s greater ease of access and stretching out his arms either side in mute invitation to Charlotte. Charlotte pulled up her skirts and placed her knees beside Dick’s ears, lowering herself steadily until the tip of his nose caught the end of her sex lips and then his hot breath was circulating around her wet slit. He caught her hips in each hand and slowed her descent, making it a drawn-out tease, flicking the tip of his tongue around her outer lips and the crease of her thighs until she was ready to beg for a direct hit on her clit.
Dick laughed richly into her cunt, the vibrations from his chest making her rock a little back and forth. Craning her neck around, she could see Bunny’s slick red lips wrapped around a thick column of cock – it looked hot, and she wanted to be part of the hotness.
‘Please, Dick,’ she muttered, working every muscle from abdomen to knee to try and force her clit into his mouth. ‘Please lick it, please.’
‘A gentleman never refuses a lady,’ he growled, allowing her finally to crush those hot wet petals against his hungry lips and tongue.
Charlotte, looking around her, could see that they were a popular spectacle. Under the artificially roseate light, the crowds drew closer, enjoying this piquant variation on the soixante-neuf. It was not the first time Charlotte had performed for an audience, but it was certainly the largest group she had bared flesh in front of. Usually she was shy, enjoying the masochistic humiliation of it, but tonight the mask nerved her, and she let her exhibitionist streak run rampant. She ground herself on Dick’s ravenous mouth, pushing her breasts up and together before wrenching down the top of her dress, so that they were visible to all. A cheer and some whistling greeted the revelation, so she continued the motion, keeping her spine straight, while Dick squeezed his fists into her rear cheeks before pulling them apart, making sure there was nothing sacred, nothing off-limits.
Suddenly he stopped and retracted his tongue, pushing her roughly off.
‘Turn around,’ he growled. ‘I want you to watch Bunny there when she gets a mouthful.’
Obediently, Charlotte repositioned herself so that she faced the hardworking Bunny, whose cheekbones were hollow with all the sucking. Once again, Dick’s mouth enveloped her dripping cleft, his tongue pushing harder now, a serious muscle probing every crack and crevice of her – but now he had added an exploratory thumb between her bum cheeks, pushing and circling, encouraging her to lean forward and stick her backside out further, to yield it to him. Charlotte gasped as the thumb broke through the border of her rear passage, beginning to jiggle and buck in earnest, her climax approaching fast.
The crowd were calling constant encouragement now; closer and closer they drifted until hands could reach out and touch her breasts and flanks. She saw a man come behind Bunny and twist the little fluffy tail around, so that it was obvious it must be a butt plug. Everyone wanted a handful, a piece of this action.
Bunny, her hands in their fishnet fingerless gloves around the base of Dick’s cock, gave a final guttural sound and then Charlotte knew that she was sucking up and swallowing the highwayman’s seed and the sight of it made her come hard on her temporary lover’s tongue, the orgasm intensified by his spreading of her cheeks and thumbing of her arse. She fell forward, almost banging foreheads with Bunny, who was sliding her lips up the detumescing cock in triumph, her face landing on the billowy fabric of Dick’s shirt, crossed diagonally with a leather holster-holder.
Dick, smiling roguishly with a glistening lower face and chin, allowed his handmaidens to dismount, sitting up slightly and leaning back on the cushions.
‘That was most excessively diverting,’ he drawled. ‘But poor Bunny didn’t get to come. Milady, I think you should help her out. Start with a nice kiss.’
Charlotte shuffled tentatively over to the other woman, wanting to ask her permission first, but feeling somehow that Dick would be disappointed if she did. Instead, they flung themselves against each other and lay down on the divan, engaging in a long and sensual kiss. Dick gave instructions at regular intervals, and they followed them without question. ‘Squeeze her tits.’ ‘Get those fingers down between her legs … that’s it.’ ‘Suck her nipples.’ ‘Milady, I think she needs you to lick her clit now.’
Charlotte went to work on the Bunny girl, snapping open her crotch zip and burying her nose in the damp, sweet delta that lay there. She was so busy discovering this new and underused talent that she did not notice Dick rousing himself from his languor and crawling over to the pirate. By the time she had licked Bunny to a squeaking, quivering orgasm, the pirate was well on the way to his own climax, courtesy of Dick’s silver tongue and deep male throat.
When the pirate caught Charlotte’s eyes upon him, he wrenched Dick up by the hair and flung him aside, then he fell upon Bunny, getting her on her knees and ready for rear entry.
‘That looks so fucking hot,’ commented Dick, rubbing his head where the pirate had pulled his hair so unceremoniously. ‘But really, I could take offence at that. Are my blow jobs that bad?’
Charlotte, bemused, replied, ‘I suppose I’ll never know.’
‘Wouldn’t you like to? Wouldn’t you like to know how it feels to have a cock? I often wish I could have a cunt for the day. I’d fuck as many men as I could, just to see how I could improve my own techniques. Don’t you think that would be fun?’
‘Er, maybe,’ said Charlotte guardedly, never having considered this.
‘Ah well, no point wishing for the impossible. Come on. Get on your knees, facing Bunny. Perhaps you two girls can snog each other while you’re being fucked. I think the audience would like that. What a sight.’
It was indeed quite a sight, and Bryant, in the midst of the crowd with a glass of champagne, would have found it aesthetically pleasing. Two beautiful masked girls, their backs sloping and breasts dangling, their lips joined and their bottoms thrust up, getting fucked hard and fast by two handsome men, slamming and slapping into their presented hindquarters with furious intent. He would have found it aesthetically pleasing, at least, if one of the beautiful masked girls had not been Charlotte. As it was, his pleasure in the spectacle was strictly limited. Still, who could he blame? He had brought her here. If his calculation – that she would reject the other men with lightning pendants and look for him – had been inaccurate, then that was not her fault. She did not belong to him, after all.
A small female dressed like Madame de Pompadour appeared at his elbow, smiling up at him with gleaming teeth. ‘This is the best night I’ve been to here. I’ve never watched such a hot foursome before, have you?’
He noted that she was wearing a heart pendant.
‘It’s my first time,’ he confessed.
‘Oh really? Your first time?’ The woman put a kid-gloved hand on his elbow. ‘I could show you the ropes if you like.’
He smiled at her, a little wistfully. ‘You know, I hadn’t planned any bondage for tonight.’
She tutted and tossed her head. ‘You know what I mean, silly.’
‘I think I’ll just watch the rest of this show … and then think about my next move.’
‘Do you mind if I watch with you?’
‘Of course not.’
The woman moved into his side, pressing against him, and letting her hand drop, as if accidentally, down to his groin.
Back in the glare of full exposure, Charlotte whimpered into Bunny’s mouth, taking the final fusillade from her dandy highwayman, who gripped her hips and roared into her. The pirate, whom she could just make out if she rolled her eyes up and peered between Bunny’s incongruous fluffy ears, was coming to a similar conclusion, though he was strangely quiet and none of the expected coarse oaths made their way through his heavy beard. When he had finished with Bunny, he withdrew without comment, re-laced his piratical trews and stood by the divan, watching Charlotte, it seemed, rather more intently than was necessary. Did he expect a turn with her now? Would she be able to take another partner tonight, or had the highwayman plundered all her treasures to the extent that she would prefer to hang back for the rest of the evening? She was not sure how long the foursome was supposed to last, or if there was some point of etiquette that demanded each partner have equal access to the available prizes.
She fell forward on to the sticky plush, her face finding it almost as sharp as Dick’s stubble, while he set about the further divesting of his clothes. For him, it seemed, the evening was far from over.
‘Phew, I’m melting,’ he commented, and it was true that the underground room was humid and its air almost suffocatingly dense. ‘Fancy a hot tub, Milady?’
Charlotte, flat on her stomach with her cocktail dress torn and disarranged around her naked breasts and bottom and her hard-used quim, thought it was an interesting proposition, but she lacked the energy to go anywhere or do anything just at that moment.
‘She’s beat,’ said Bunny breathlessly. ‘But I’ll go with you. She can come in later.’
Dick took Bunny’s arm and the nearly-naked man and dishevelled bunny girl took their bows and their applause before cutting a path through their fans and out beyond a beaded curtain at the far end of the room.
‘Not even a kiss goodbye,’ thought Charlotte in confusion. ‘Not even a “Thank you, ma’am” after all the whamming and bamming.’ Even Collins and Bryant at the height of their sadistic conspiracies were not so cruel or dismissive. It wasn’t that she was against being used in public, it was just … oh, what was it? Charlotte had to accept that she didn’t know what made her uneasy about the scenario. Something was missing. That was all she knew. And then she looked up to find that the pirate was looming over her with folded arms. Couldn’t he see that she was rumpled, crumpled, ruined and stained? Couldn’t he just go and let her sort herself out?
‘You look fucked,’ he said, and the voice was instantly familiar, low and caressing, with an undertow of velvety menace.
She scrambled instantly to her knees, wrapping her arms around her bare breasts, mouth wide open in shock.
The audience had drifted away, many of them into their own frantic couplings, and Charlotte and Pirate Collins seemed almost the only people in the room who weren’t fucking – writhing bodies, vanilla and chocolate and coffee, filled the divans with heaving, throbbing lust in action as far as the eye could see. Bryant seemed to have wandered off the map, unless he was in the Jacuzzi, or one of the dancers – more like gropers now – on the floor.
‘Don’t say my name. We don’t have names here.’
Charlotte had no idea what to say next. She felt obscurely ashamed, as if caught out in a misdemeanour, though heaven knew she had done all sorts of equally depraved things with Collins either involved or observing.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘What are you doing here? Who are you here with?’
Collins stroked his falsely-bearded chin for a moment. Something told Charlotte that he was angry, though he was not a man who ever betrayed outward emotion.
‘He had no right,’ he said at last, so tightly that Charlotte felt frightened for her other employer.
‘It was research,’ she whispered. ‘For a client.’
‘That’s what I’m here for. It’s too bad. Bryant has gone too far. I know what he is planning, and I won’t stand for it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, dear nameless tart, that Bryant is greedy and doesn’t like to share.’
A nod was the terse rejoinder.
‘That’s absurd,’ said Charlotte with a near-hysterical laugh. ‘If he doesn’t want to share me, why would he take me to a swingers’ club?’
‘I suspect he planned to keep hold of you. Perhaps put on a show with you while the others watched. Or perhaps not take part at all – just watch with you and then take you home. To bed.’ It sounded, for all his blank delivery of the words, as if there was a volcano boiling up inside Collins, and Charlotte was a little nervous of being there when it erupted.
‘Why …’ Charlotte tried to phrase it delicately, then gave up. ‘Why shouldn’t he?’
‘Have you all to himself? Is that what you want? Do you want a lovely little romance with our Mr Bryant? Hand-in-hand down the Strand? Flowers and dinners and visits to galleries? A little house in Barnes or Putney? Marriage, children, pensions?’
‘You talk as if all of these are bad things. They aren’t. Why do you think they are?’
‘They aren’t meant for you, or me. They probably are for Bryant though. He’s so dreadfully suburban at heart.’
Charlotte was shocked at the naked animosity in Collins’s words, and yet she was excited by it too. Excited by the clear signs of jealousy it displayed.
‘You think he’s your … rival?’
‘He is my rival.’
‘I thought you had a partnership.’
‘We did. And now he is my rival. He has made himself so, by bringing you here, in secret, without my knowledge.’
‘But you came here in secret without his knowledge too.’
‘With Lady Markham.’ Collins’s waved a hand in disgusted dismissal. ‘She is getting rogered by some person done up as the Marquis de Sade. She is quite happy. Bryant would neither care, nor want to know about that.’
‘Whereas you do care, and you do want to know, about him coming here with me?’
‘Why do you think?’
‘I think you should tell me.’
‘I think we should go.’
‘I don’t want to. I want to find Bryant.’
‘Then it is him that you want?’
‘No, I didn’t say that! I just think … can’t I want you both?’
‘Not any more.’
Collins turned to leave. Charlotte leapt up behind him, pulling on her heels, reluctant to let him leave thinking that she had somehow rejected him.
‘Please! I don’t want to … split you up.’
Collins turned to her, and his eyes behind the mask glittered venomously.
‘We aren’t lovers,’ he said.
‘I don’t want this! I don’t want … what we have … to be disturbed. I don’t want you two at each other’s throats.’
‘So what do you want, Charlotte? Or, more to the point, who do you want?’
‘I want what I’ve got! What I had! I think.’
She stopped abruptly. Was that true? Wasn’t it the case that a seed of resentment had been creeping into flower inside her – nagging worries about her lovers’ near-anonymity, about their intentions, about never knowing where they lived or with whom. She did want more, if she was honest. But how much more? And with both of them, or just one? The questions tangled in her head like thorns, and she could not say any more.
‘You think? Better be sure, Charlotte. Because nothing stays the same, you know. Change is part of life. Are you coming with me?’
‘I can’t leave without … wait. Let me just tell Bryant I’m leaving.’
‘No. Come with me now, or don’t.’
The split second of hesitation was enough to give Collins his chance to turn on his heel and disappear through the bead curtain, towards the Exit.
The distorted music was too loud now, and the club smelled of sweat and rancid perfume. Everywhere people gyrated, whether in dance or sex, in a manner that seemed to Charlotte now ludicrously overwrought. Nothing of intimacy or affection existed here, and she had lost the taste for it as quickly as a piece of gum has its flavour chewed out. She would find Bryant and tell him what had happened.
When she found him, he was sitting on a divan with a rather glum expression, being desultorily sucked off by an eighteenth century courtesan.
‘Ah, Charlotte,’ he said, seemingly able to converse effortlessly mid-fellatio. ‘I thought you’d gone for second helpings with that pirate.’
‘I, um, no. That pirate,’ she said, unsure how to broach the subject, especially with a man who had his cock in some woman’s mouth. ‘Sorry, sir, but I think we should talk. It’s important.’
‘Important, eh? Sorry, dear.’ He tugged his cock out of the woman’s mouth, leaving her to splutter indignantly. ‘Thank you so very much, but something’s come up. Please don’t take it personally. You’re, ah, a highly accomplished woman. Good evening.’
Outside, in the cool fresh air, Charlotte walked with Bryant over to the neighbouring park, finding a secluded bench in the thick of the bushes, which rustled with nocturnal activity.
‘Why have you brought me to the local cottage, Charlotte?’ asked Bryant, bemused. ‘If you wanted to watch me with another man, there was provision for that in the club.’
‘Would you have done it?’ asked Charlotte, momentarily intrigued by the scenario to the extent of forgetting why she was there.
‘Would I have? I have done. Not with Collins. His tastes are too close to mine. But certainly with other men, particularly when I was younger – mostly letting submissive young men suck my cock, though I have gone … further. On occasion.’
‘I didn’t realise.’ Charlotte put a hand on Bryant’s thigh, expecting him to cover it with one of his own, but he was unusually unresponsive. ‘Did you … enjoy your evening?’
‘Honestly, Charlotte? Not really.’
‘Not as much as you did, at any rate. You and that highwayman …’
‘Are you jealous?’ Charlotte could suddenly see the truth in all that Collins had said; it was like sands shifting. Everything was different. How had she not seen this from the start? ‘You are, aren’t you?’
‘You’re precious to me, Charlotte.’
‘So why … don’t you show it? Or tell me? Or something?’
‘Why do you think?’
‘Yes. Got it in one. Collins.’
‘You know … he was there tonight. He was the pirate.’
Even in the darkness, Charlotte could see that Bryant paled.
‘Are you joking? Please don’t joke about Collins.’
‘I’m serious. He was the pirate. And … he’s quite angry. That you took me there, without letting him know. I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is that makes it such a big deal but … I don’t think things are going to be the same any more.’
‘No,’ whispered Bryant, staring straight ahead. ‘Things can’t be the same any more.’