Best Women's Erotica of the Year Volume 1

By: Rachel Kramer Bussel

The drawing room lights come on to reveal tear-streaked faces. One of the older women looks disgruntled and mentions pointedly that the medium she saw in London emitted real ectoplasm. But Ora is thrilled. “I told you it was real!” she whispers.

As we bid Lady Wentworth good-bye, my cheeks burn at the thought of the liberties I just allowed Theo. But he meets us at the door and reminds me that he is available for private ghostly sessions should I care to call on him.

“I admire your talent,” I manage to say, avoiding his eyes, “but I am very occupied with my charity work.”

“I have more talents than you saw tonight.”

How brash. But in the carriage going home, I can’t forget his hands sliding into my bodice, his mouth on my throat. I would have permitted him anything. How close I came to disgrace.

In my salon the next day, I stare at the flames in the fireplace. I’ve cranked the phonograph to play a Brahms concerto, and a novel is abandoned on my lap. It’s my usual life of books and music here in this room of forest-green wallpaper and somber oil paintings. But I can’t help ruminating over Theo: a penniless youngest son, maybe, getting through the world on his wits and his smile.

The clatter of hooves just outside. My body tenses. But it couldn’t be him, unless Lady Wentworth has provided my address.

The butler announces him. “Theobald Moore.”

That beautiful grin ignites my salon. “Mrs. Pond.”

I cannot repress my smile. How impudent. How bold. I shouldn’t be charmed, but I am.

“You seemed distressed last night,” he begins. “I felt I must come here today to offer my services—should you require them.”

In this quiet cocoon, he seems to crackle with life, brighter than the fire.

“How generous. What services would those be?”

He brings out a velvet pouch. “I will read your fortune,” he says, handing me a large deck of hand-painted tarot cards. “Shuffle the cards and we will see what destiny has in store for you.”

I choose three cards: the Knight of Wands, the Two of Cups and the Star. “An intoxicating union        ,” he says. “Not a lasting love, but a fleeting and exciting adventure.”

At least he’s honest.

“Perhaps yours will happen tonight,” he says. “I am attending a masked party.”

A strange heat creeps up my spine. He is not speaking of a respectable event, I know it. “Lady Wentworth again?”

“No. This is near Madison Square, at the home of a woman you may not know.” My trepidation must show on my face for he adds, “Everyone will be masked—no one will know who you are. So, you see, it will be an adventure.”

I feel faint with dread and excitement as I agree to go.

That night the hansom arrives at nine o’clock. I take a shot of sweet apricot brandy to settle my nerves, then tell my butler I must check on a friend who’s taken ill. He doesn’t believe me, of course. It is too unusual, a beautiful young man calling on me in the afternoon and an outing late that night. But as soon as the carriage door closes, I see the dark-blue mask on the opposite seat and I smile.

The driver takes me to Madison Square. Shadows move under the gas lamps, through the pools of golden light on the snowy walks. This is the New York night world I so rarely see.

The carriage stops in front of a brownstone. A man is waiting outside; his brilliant smile identifies Theo immediately under his black mask. “You did come. I love a woman of courage.”

We enter the house. Last year Ora had gotten hold of a New York guidebook which described saloons in thrilling detail, even ones with rouged and powdered male performers; several saloons were reputed to have basement brothels. Yet as Theo takes me into a foyer of stuffed wild animals and high ceilings, I know this night will be far more exotic and disgraceful. Two masked women lead us into a room of damask and gilt couches, while a masked man serves us red wine. Several musicians play the violin and cello in the corner.

I feel as if I am in an opium dream. This is the demimonde, disreputable people drinking and playing games in states of undress. My rose-colored dress seems mortifyingly modest.

At the front of the massive room a shirtless man with black, curly hair claps his hands. “It’s time for the game,” he announces. “All players must assemble here by the fire.”

I look questioningly at Theo. “A game of yes and no,” he says. “You will see.”

He joins eight other men and women by an enormous piano. The black-haired man says, “Begin. Who am I thinking of?”

“Myself and Gertie!” calls out one of the white-robed women.

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