Boston, Present Day
This time, she really meant it. She would read just one more page and call it a night:
A large, masculine hand ran up the bare flesh of my thigh. The masked lover I knew only as “Sir” whispered into my ear, his breath hot. “I have taught you everything I can. Tomorrow you will choose your first protector.”
My teacher kissed me then, more tenderly than at any time during his instruction in the Seven Sins of the Courtesan. “Are you certain this is what you wish?” he asked. “Once you enter this world you may never return to the life you’ve always known.”
“I know what I want,” I told him, luxuriating in the nest of silken sheets, a woman now, not the girl who had come to this bed a week prior. “Only as a courtesan can I be truly free to decide my own destiny.”
Piper Chase-Pierpont placed a white-gloved finger on the musty diary and slid it to the far edge of the museum workroom desk, providing some distance between herself and the devastatingly erotic secrets of a woman long dead. She needed to think. She needed to figure out how to handle this unexpected development, this sudden twist of truth.
Obviously, the first shock was that these diaries existed at all. But the story they told was nothing short of … well … frankly … this was the most triple-X, crazy-assed, explicit tale she’d ever read.
Piper’s head buzzed. She craved a large alcoholic beverage, and she didn’t even drink. She wanted to wolf down a Three Musketeers bar, though she knew it would only disrupt her endocrine system with free radicals, preservatives, and high-fructose corn syrup. She needed a little fresh air. Water. An ice-cold shower. She was short-circuiting. She tried to calm herself. It wasn’t working.
Oh God! What am I supposed to do with this stuff?
Through the broken lenses of her glasses, Piper glanced at the clock on the basement workroom wall. It was after 1 A.M., which meant she’d been held spellbound by these documents for more than five hours, her thighs clenched together in the desk chair, barely moving, breathing hard. She’d only skimmed through the three diaries—out of order, she now realized—but it had been enough to understand that she’d unearthed a secret so outrageous it would rock the known historical record, jeopardize the reputation of her museum, and maybe even give her boss the excuse he needed to cut her position.
And let’s face it, Piper thought—if she let this information out, everyone in town would hate her. What city wants to learn that their most beloved and righteous folk heroine spent her youth as a high-class hooker and accused murderess? Not Boston, Massachusetts, that was certain.
Maybe she should just pretend she never found the journals. She could simply take the diaries and run. But how would she live with herself? Piper was a senior curator at the Boston Museum of Culture and Society. Her job was to interpret history, not shove it in a shoebox and hide it under her bed.
Oh, but that wasn’t even the worst of it. The story she’d just read hadn’t only left her shocked—she was restless. Overheated. It felt as if the two-hundred-year-old words had been written just for her, Piper Chase-Pierpont, Ph.D., a sex-starved, uptight, overworked, and underpaid woman standing alone, looking down into the abyss of her thirtieth birthday.
God help her, but she wasn’t ready to share these journals with anyone. Not yet. Not until she understood the full historical—and personal—import of what she’d stumbled upon. Literally.
Piper’s glance went to the center of the basement workroom floor, where it all began. It had been seven in the evening. A Friday in midsummer, which meant the rest of the staff had long ago gone home to their lives. She’d been sitting cross-legged with her notes and sketches for the Ophelia Harrington exhibit spread out around her. Filling the room’s shelves and floor were nearly four hundred catalogued family artifacts on loan to the museum. Piper had been soaking it all in, desperately hoping a theme for the exhibit would gel in her mind. The Fall Gala was only three months away, and that made her nervous. She began to chew on an ink pen.
Sure, it was a terrible habit (one that her mother abhorred) but it’s what she’d been doing since middle school—when she thought hard, she chewed on a pen.
But this time, the pen snapped. Foul-tasting ink trickled into her mouth. One violent shake of her head and her glasses went flying. Piper jumped to her feet and lurched toward the restroom, stepping on her glasses in the process. In her half-blind state she tripped over Ophelia Harrington’s 187-year-old leather and cedar travel trunk, and when she returned from her scrubbing sojourn at the bathroom sink, she discovered that she’d knocked the trunk on its side, exposing a secret compartment. And the journals.
Piper smiled to herself at the irony. Despite her years of experience and a doctorate from Harvard, she had only luck to thank for this particular bonanza. Luck and clumsiness.
And now there they were, three small, innocent-looking journals bound in cracked brown leather, their powder-fine deckle edges ragged with age, their pages packed with historical dynamite.
She considered her options. Piper could follow standard procedure and copy the journals in the museum’s document center. But since it was locked on weekends, she’d have to wait until Monday, when someone was bound to peer over her shoulder as she worked. And boy, wouldn’t that be fun? They’d see phrases such as “rosy red nipples,” and “the dark curls of my pubis peeked from between his fingertips.”
No, thanks. Piper had barely been able to read those words alone in her basement workroom in the middle of the night. No way was she about to share them in a 9 A.M. staff meeting. The thought made her shudder.
What she’d do instead, she decided, was find an office-equipment vendor to deliver a professional-grade copier to her apartment on a Saturday. She’d pay out of pocket for it. Then she’d copy the diaries in private and study them at her leisure. She wouldn’t tell anyone a damn thing about the journals until she was good and ready, and that would be only once she’d verified the recounted events and could place the outrageous story in its proper historical context. Besides, at home she could apply cold showers as needed.
Piper frowned, suddenly aware of the appalling lack of professionalism in that line of reasoning. How could she even think of doing something so outrageous? What if she got caught? She’d always been more milquetoast than maverick. Certainly, these diaries weren’t worth losing her career and reputation over, were they?
She tipped her head and wondered.
Well? Were they?
The distant ping! of the basement elevator shocked Piper back to the here and now. The night security guard was on his way! Oh God. Oh no.
Oh, the heck with it!
And her decision was made.
Piper shoved herself to a sudden stand on bloodless legs, nearly toppling over. She stomped her feet to get the circulation going, shook her arms and hands, rolled her head from side to side. Get organized, fast. Get the journals and get out of here.
Footsteps came down the hall. Closer now. Heading her way.
Moving as fast as she could on feet that felt like concrete stumps, Piper began gathering everything she’d need—artifact tweezers, several more packages of lint-free white cotton gloves, acid-free paper, and Mylar storage sleeves, her favorite soft horsehair cleaning brush. Sometime in the future, she’d oversee the proper deacidification of the documents. Right now, she just had to get them home and get them copied.
And to think! Up until a few hours ago, her biggest challenge had been choosing a narrative theme for the Ophelia Harrington exhibit, finding a way to smoothly combine the public and private lives of one of the city’s most beloved nineteenth-century icons.
She kept moving. Gathering. Thinking.
Ha! Thanks to this shocking wormhole in history she’d just discovered, she was now faced with an inscrutable mystery: how had a much-desired Regency London courtesan known as “the Blackbird” become the most fiery female abolitionist in America’s history?
Piper gathered all three journals into one big sheet of acid-free paper, and shoved the entire bundle into her brown leather messenger bag. It made her cringe to handle them like that, but there was no time for delicacy.
She staggered toward the travel trunk still lying on its side, righting it. Then she plopped down amid her notes and sketches, pretending to be lost in thought, only this time without a pen.
“Yes?” Piper looked up and smiled as the door to the basement workroom opened.
Night security supervisor Melvin Tostel poked his head inside and frowned. “You still here?”
“What?” Piper tried to adjust her skewed eyeglasses. She wished she’d had a few extra minutes to retape them. She probably looked like a madwoman. If she was lucky, she looked like the same nerdy, workaholic curator she always had been, just a little, well, nerdier.
“Are you okay there, Miss Piper?” Melvin’s frown deepened. “You got an exhibit opening or something? I haven’t seen you here this late since—” He stopped himself. Even the security guards at the BMCS knew that Piper’s last exhibit—one of the more costly in recent museum history—had “fallen short of expectations.” That’s how her father described the fiasco. Everyone else just called it what it was—a flop. A disaster. An embarrassment.
It was common knowledge that the Ophelia Harrington exhibit was Piper’s last chance. The museum trustees had already cut several vital positions, and they’d made it clear that one of the two remaining senior curators would be next—herself or the brown-nosing weasel boy Lincoln Northcutt.
Piper was savvy enough to understand why the trustees had approved her idea for the Harrington exhibit. First, it would be dirt-cheap to install, because she’d already convinced prickly family matriarch Claudia Harrington-Howell to loan all of her ancestor’s personal effects to the museum without compensation. Second, the subject matter would offend no one. And then there was the fact that the trustees had long sought to lure Claudia—and her deep pockets—into the museum’s fold.
Somehow, Piper didn’t think revealing that Claudia’s beloved ancestor was a hot mess of a slut would help with that.
The security guard cleared his throat. “So what are you up to, then? You’re here awfully late.” Melvin began to glance around the room—with suspicion in his eyes, Piper noticed.
Was he on to her? How? It was only moments ago that she’d decided to violate every ethical guideline of her profession and remove antiquities from the museum premises. Without permission. She’d never done anything without permission.
“Nothing!” she announced, louder than necessary. She pushed herself to a stand, still wobbly from the restricted blood flow. “I just lost track of time, I guess. You know how I can be. Well, I should probably get going home now.”
Piper stumbled to her desk to grab her messenger bag. She turned off her desk and worktable lamps. She limped toward the door.
“You know your lips are blue, Miss Piper?”
“Oh, right.” She shrugged. “An ink pen. What a mess.” Piper clomped toward the elevator on her concrete stumps.
“You hurt your legs or something?”
“No! They fell asleep. Sitting for too long in one position can compress the arteries, thereby preventing nutrients and oxygen from reaching the nerve cells.”
“Huh.” Melvin cocked his head and produced a quizzical smile as he held the elevator door open. “I’ll get you safely to your car. Half the lights are out in the parking garage—budget cuts and all.”
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” Piper said, trying to sound casual, thinking about what she had crammed down inside her bag and the fact that she wasn’t the type who usually spent time in a women’s prison—her six years at Wellesley aside. “I’ll be perfectly fine.”
“It’s the middle of the night, Miss Chase-Pierpont,” Melvin said. “Here, let me help—”
He looked at her like she was crazy. Maybe she was. Maybe this was what happened to single, lonely, pornography-stealing women about to turn thirty.
Piper and Melvin remained awkwardly silent on the elevator ride and through the garage, their footsteps echoing in the emptiness.
“Here we are!” she announced, gesturing to her rusty Honda Civic. She flung open the passenger door and placed the messenger bag on the floor.
“Thank you again, Melvin!” she said, racing around to the other side of the car. “Have a good night!”
Without warning, Melvin smacked his hand on the roof of her Civic. Piper was so startled that she nearly jumped from the pavement. She panted, clutching her car keys to her chest.
Suddenly she pictured her criminal trial in great clarity—her mother in a front-row courtroom seat, her shoulder bones rattling as she sobbed, her father shaking his head in disapproval (if he could even bring himself to witness the public shaming of his only child), and the jury box? That’s right—it would be filled to the brim with members of the museum’s board of trustees, hearing aids and all.
Now, wouldn’t that be something? The first time in thirty years that Piper Chase-Pierpont doesn’t play by the rules and she gets sent to the big house.
“Hairspray and baby oil!” Melvin announced, laughing.
Piper blinked. “Uh…”
“I’ve been racking my brain for how my wife got that printer cartridge ink off her fingers a few years back, and that’s it! Hairspray and baby oil!”
“Oh.” Piper began to breathe normally again, bracing herself against the car door. “That’s an excellent idea. I’ll try it as soon as I get home. Good night!”
She burned rubber on her way out of the parking lot, another first in a night full of them.
I tightened my arms about his neck and cried out at his entry, my sob of aching satisfaction disappearing into his hot mouth.
No wonder it was taking Piper forever to copy these diaries. Every time she found an efficient rhythm while managing to maintain the rigorous preservation standards the job required, she’d run across another word or sentence or paragraph that would stop her cold.
He said, “I will bury my hands in your hair and drive my cock deep, then pull it wet and slippery from your lips, only to do it all again.”
Seriously. Her priority needed to be copying each page, not reading for her own titillation. The heat and humidity of her post-war, no-frills box of an apartment was the worst possible environment for these artifacts, and the window fan she’d strung up from the kitchen pot rack was doing nothing but stir the sticky heat around. Each second she wasted put the fragile paper, leather, and ink in further peril.
Piper suddenly felt evil feline eyes boring into the back of her head. “I said I was sorry,” she snapped at Miss Meade, dabbing her own forehead with her sleeve, her gloved fingers carefully fisted against contamination. “I told you I can’t run the air conditioner and this behemoth at the same time or I’ll trip the fuse box again.”
In response, the Divine Miss M. raised her overstuffed, gray tabby hind leg and licked daintily at her kitty giblets, her disapproving gaze still focused on Piper.
Back to the task at hand. The original journals had to be returned on Monday to the museum documents room, where they could be stored properly. She’d keep the copy with her at all times, to read, reread, study, make notes on, and use to painstakingly compare to the known historical record.
Clearly, there was no time for diversion. If she stopped to linger over every provocative phrase and erotically tinged word she encountered in Ophelia’s elegant and fluid handwriting, she’d be standing at the copy machine for the rest of her natural life.
Piper carefully lifted Volume II from the glass surface and forced herself to concentrate. Though she followed document-handling protocol to mitigate damage, each turn of a page had resulted in some additional injury to the journals, the paper tearing slightly along the hand-sewn spine. It was unavoidable. The pages were brittle with time, pockmarked by insects, and weakened by mold and mildew. Yet it could have been far worse, she knew. The diaries were in surprisingly good condition for their age and had remained mostly legible, thanks to the way they’d been wrapped and stored.
Ophelia Harrington had meant business when she packed these away in the false bottom of her trunk, a task that she accomplished on or after April 16, 1825, the date on the London Examiner news sheet used to wrap them. Nearly six layers of newsprint had encased each volume.
In addition, the trunk itself had offered a good deal of protection from humidity and light. Whoever built the travel chest had been a master craftsman, fitting the seams so tightly that the secret compartment and its spring release were invisible even upon close examination. In the three months Piper had been poking around the trunk (along with all of Ophelia Harrington’s belongings), she’d never suspected such a feature. And it would have remained a secret—the diaries lost forever—if Piper hadn’t knocked the trunk on its side when she tripped.
She cautiously turned the page, lifted the journal, carried it to the glass plate and turned it over for copying. That’s when her eye caught the phrase “my masked lover” and her pulse spiked once more.
This stuff was addictive! Mind-numbingly erotic! Historical and sexual C-4! And Piper knew if she lost her focus and started reading the diary entries as a woman instead of a scholar, then she’d be in serious trouble. She’d already seen enough to know that Ophelia Harrington had lived a far juicier life than Piper had. Furthermore, she’d done it in an era of limited rights for women, a strict social construct, and before the girl even turned twenty-five!
Piper, on the other hand, lived in a time where she could be anything and do anything she wished. And what had she done with thirty years of freedom?
She’d studied. Worked. Read the classics. Traveled when she could. Tried to please her parents. Dated men who weren’t quite right for her, and only occasionally.
With the discovery of these journals, Piper had to face the fact that compared to Ophelia Harrington, she was in danger of becoming a dried-up, frustrated, bitter, and boring woman.
The most hurtful event of her life flashed through Piper’s brain—the way it often did in moments of self-pity—and in her mind’s eye, she watched Magnus “Mick” Malloy’s strong and straight back as he walked out her door.
God, the thought of Mick Malloy still made Piper’s belly clench in shame. She’d followed his superstar career over the years, of course. It would have been hard not to in their line of work. Mick Malloy had become the unofficial cover model for The Curator, Archaeology Today, and Science Magazine. She’d even heard the rumor that Malloy was getting his own cable reality show. And why not? He was made for TV. Sexy. Sun-bronzed. A real-life Indiana Jones with a brilliant mind, a sharp wit, and a devastatingly fine …
Forget it. It doesn’t matter anymore.
Piper sighed. The details she wanted to know about Mick weren’t to be found in magazines or TV shows, anyway, and she’d never dare come right out and ask someone.
Was he happy? Had he ever married? Had a woman ever captured his mind and heart the way archaeology had? If so, who was she? And in how many ways was she the complete opposite of Piper?
I will not go there.
Piper straightened her shoulders and carefully executed the task at hand, reminding herself that these journals were not about her or Mick or how she’d blown her chance with him a decade ago. The diaries weren’t some kind of yardstick with which to compare her own adventures—or lack thereof. These journals were a historical treasure with yet unknown repercussions.
Ophelia’s firsthand accounts of her life as a London courtesan would not only add a fascinating complexity to her role in history, but it could improve understanding of early nineteenth-century underground London economy, its social mores, and the indiscretions of the rich and powerful. This was a serious scholarly matter, not a Cosmo quiz.
“Mrrraow.” Piper turned to the yellow demon stare of Miss M., who had draped herself over the back of the Queen Anne chair in dramatic fashion, her tail swishing in the stuffy air as if she were fanning herself.
“You think I’m enjoying this?” she asked her cat. “I’m exhausted. It’s ninety-four degrees outside. My life is about as fun as one of Mom and Dad’s dinner parties! And this girl—this courtesan chick who ran around calling herself ‘the Blackbird’ and bending over to light men’s cigars so that her mammary glands fell out of her dress—” Piper gestured toward the diary she held above the copier. “My God! What a complete tart that girl was!”
Miss Meade blinked, then looked away as if offended by the outburst.
The phone rang, saving Piper from further crazy cat-lady conversation. She eased the journal into its makeshift cradle of organic cotton batting covered by acid-free cloth, and checked the caller ID. Suddenly, chatting with her cat seemed like a perfectly reasonable endeavor. Piper let the call go to automated voice mail, but clicked on the speaker.
“It’s your mother,” the clipped voice said through the telephone console. “Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll assume you’re not coming for dinner tomorrow. I am concerned about you. We haven’t seen you for going on a month. You haven’t returned my calls. Your father thinks you might be back on dairy and are experiencing symptoms of bloat and/or depression. Are you back on dairy? Are you depressed? Are you bloated? Call me, please.” Click.
This would be as good a time as any to take a break, Piper decided, heading into her tiny kitchen for some ice cream. The real stuff, too. Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean. Five hundred eighty calories and thirty-six grams of fat in a one-cup serving.
As Piper opened the freezer compartment and stuck her head inside for a quick respite, she thought about how she’d like to answer her mother. If she had the nerve. She might say, “Hell, yes, I’m back on dairy, Mother dearest! And by the way—you seem to have forgotten your only child’s thirtieth fucking birthday!”
A sudden tingle that went through her had nothing to do with the open freezer. She found it immensely satisfying to speak to her mother like that—especially using the f-word—even if only in her head.
She smiled to herself. Oh, if her mother only knew …
Just yesterday, Piper had enjoyed a Polish sausage, fries, and a giant vanilla shake. And three days prior to that she’d gotten completely out of control and had a huge slice of New York cheesecake—the chocolate marble swirl kind.
Piper was aware that her bingeing on dairy was a classic case of rebellion, the kind she should have experimented with at seventeen. But she hadn’t had the nerve at seventeen. Or eighteen. The truth was, it sucked being the only child of the founders of the Caloric Restriction and Human Longevity Lab at Harvard. They were among the country’s most revered biomedical researchers—and two of the most tightly wound, repressed human beings ever to inhabit the earth.
Birthdays weren’t celebrated in her family. Her parents said holidays were just an excuse to overdo. For her birthday, Piper could count on a kiss on the cheek and a new book, but never cake and ice cream or a beautifully wrapped gift.
“Will vanilla work for you?” Piper asked Miss Meade, who was rubbing against her ankle and purring, a sure sign of her improving mood.
As she scooped out two bowls of the heavenly substance, it suddenly struck Piper as pathetic. Her idea of debauchery in the twenty-first century was a cup of vanilla ice cream. Ophelia Harrington had spent part of 1813 studying the erotic arts, under the tutelage of a masked man she knew only as “Sir,” who served as her professor of gluttonous depravity for seven days and seven nights.
There was something wrong with this picture.
Copyright © 2011 by Celeste Bradley and Susan Donovan