To Bait a Rake

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London, May 1892

The moment she spied a line of men forming around the exterior of the Crescent Coffee Palace, Abigail’s empty stomach filled with dread the weight of a lead anvil. Dressed in casual morning suits and even formal evening attire, the men rustled their newspapers or conversed with the others waiting in anticipation of what… surely not her?

The promise of three pounds and a hot meal kept a pleasant smile pasted on her face while her feet carried her swiftly past the men in colorful waistcoats and doffing top hats. A young man at the front of the line eagerly opened the Palace’s door, setting in motion a little bell announcing her arrival. The soft jingle sounded suspiciously like a dinner bell, and she feared his wolfish grin suggested she was the main course.

“Mrs. Manning,” the kind woman she’d met while responding to a personal ad for a widow, poured a steaming cup of tea into a cup at an empty table.  She gestured that Abigail should sit. “You look perfect for the part.”

Sarah.  The name popped from her memory. The woman’s name was Sarah and she had engaged her to gather information for a poll. Though now that she thought about it, the subject of the poll had been artfully avoided. Abigail remembered being more interested in the compensation.

“Why are so many men waiting outside?” She brushed her hand uneasily across the black crepe she’d been specifically requested to wear. “I thought I was to interview women.”

“Not exactly.” Sarah handed her a copy of the Mayfair Messenger with a inked border drawn around one of the ads. “The men are responding to this.”

 

Do you value a night of pleasure? Is it difficult to restrict your attentions to just one special woman? Have you been referred to by another as a rakehell, a roué, a profligate?  Come to the Crescent Coffee Palace on May fourteenth at nine o’clock as we wish to know of your experience in these matters.

 

What on earth? Momentarily speechless, she plopped heavily on a curvy feminine cafe chair.

“You can see why I requested a widow,” Sarah explained in a most efficient manner. “I would imagine this would be easy for you, Mrs. Manning. The men will speak freely to a widow. You’re attractive so they will be anxious to talk. Only you can ask the sort of questions I need for my survey.”

“Questions?” Abigail croaked around the constriction in her throat. “What sort of questions?”

Sarah handed her a few sheets of paper with the required questions listed.

 

                  Why did you respond to this ad?

              Is there a reason people call you a rake?

              Is there a special place that you go to meet women?

              What do you like to do when you’re alone with a woman?

              Is there a certain technique you employ ?

 

 Abigail felt the blood drain from her face.  Surely, this engaging woman couldn’t expect her to ask complete strangers such intimate questions.  Panicked, she glanced at Sarah.  “Why?”

“I’ll explain more later,” Sarah promised with a glance out the window. Abigail did the same, but her stomach growled at the listing of menu items etched in gold print on the glass.

 Sarah frowned. “You haven’t eaten?”

 Embarrassment heated Abigail’s cheeks. “I thought perhaps later I could—”

“Nevermind.” Sarah bustled toward the door. “The men look restless.  We need to start before they leave.”

 Abigail weighed her need of money against the task she was expected to perform. “I’m not sure I can do this. My marriage was not—“

“I’ll pay you two shillings extra for every interview you complete,” Sarah said. She flipped the sign in the door window from “Closed” to “Open” and the line of men began to move. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here observing everything.  You won’t be alone.”

Before she had time to think more about it.  The eager young lad who had opened the door for her crossed to her table and sat.  His lips thinned into what he must have assumed was a manly seductive smile, but given his obvious youth, it lost its intended impact.  She smiled to herself.

“Good morning, sir. May I ask your name?” She positioned her pen at the top of the provided paper.

“Names aren’t important when whispered in the dark,” he replied.

Abigail glanced toward the early morning sunlight streaming through the window. “We’re not in the dark.”

“But we could be,” the man-child insisted. 

The peach fuzz on his chin glinted in the soft light. Abigail relaxed.  This boy posed no threat.

“Very well then, no names.” Abigail wrote the number “one” on her page. “Tell me why you responded to this ad.”

 

While many men were indeed rakish in manner and dress, many were not.  They’d come out of curiosity, they said.  A few had waited in line just to call her names and preach repentance. As her life had been shaped by her uncle who embraced similar beliefs, these had little effect. She’d heard the names before. Fortunately, Sarah would intervene and one of the men waiting in line would assist in removing the zealot.  After far too many hours of interviews, the last subject left, and Abigail stood to stretch her muscles.  She glanced at her neatly penned interviews and imagined she’d earned enough to provide more than her next meal.  Her stomach growled in agreement.

“Was this enough research for your article?”

Sarah had mentioned her purpose when replenishing Abigail’s tea. She handed Sarah her papers while noting Sarah had accumulated many sheets of observations on her own.

“I hope so,” Sarah adjuested her glasses then flipped through papers. 

“And this is for the Mayfair Messenger?” Abigail narrowed her eyes. “I would have thought the Messenger would be far too conservative for such an article. I imagine there are other publications that appeal to more purient interests, but I recall you had mentioned this paper in particular.”

Sarah blushed. “I work for the Mayfair Messenger, but this research was for a different purpose.”

“That’s all well and good, but please remember you can not use my name in connection with this project.”  Before Abigail could continue, she was interrupted by the tinkling of the bell above the coffee house door.

A tall man with arresting beauty entered with his hat firmly in hand.  No, she corrected, not beauty.  That was the wrong word for those prominent cheekbones and piercing, defiant eyes. Even his soft black hair curled over the tips of his ears in resistence to fashion’s demands. Long and lean, he emitted a sense of power and competency.  Her chest lifted in response while an unfamilar tension pulsated beneath her corset. Her eyes concentrated on his well-defined lips which did not lift in a smile like so many before him.  He scanned the otherwise empty room before narrowing his focus on her.

“Are you the one promising pleasure?”

Donna MacMeans_Coming Soon

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