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16

Daisy Spalding awoke to a sea of pain. The opium concoction she had taken last night had worn off, leaving her to the anguish of her bruised and battered body. She sat up cautiously on the narrow cot and took stock. She had survived another client, but only by the skin of her teeth. If one of the other customers had not heard the noise through the walls and come to investigate, she would have been dead this morning.

The client last night had been the most violent one yet. She had seen the madness in his eyes when he had tied the gag around her mouth and bound her hands behind her back. She had been terrified, but by then it was too late.

She had worked in the brothel for only a few weeks. She did not think she would last the month. After Andrew had died, the man to whom he had owed money told her that she could repay the debt by going to work in Phoenix House for a couple of months. She had considered the river for the first time then, but the creditor had persuaded her.

Phoenix House is not like other brothels, he assured her. All of the women who work there come from respectable backgrounds, just like you. They earn excellent money because they occupy a station far above that of the average streetwalker. They are courtesans, not street whores. Gentlemen are willing to pay well for the company of refined ladies.

But a whore is a whore, Daisy thought. She had been a fool to think the business would be different just because she had once been a lady.

Terrified of landing in the workhouse, she had accepted the offer. She did not discover until much later that when she went to work in Phoenix House, her husbands creditor had received a handsome fee from the proprietor, Madam Phoenix.

Madam Phoenix had explained to her that she was not pretty enough for the regular customers. The only opening was for a woman who was willing to take on the rough trade. Some of the gentlemen liked getting a bit violent, she explained. It aroused them, but no serious damage was done.

Daisy got to her feet, cringing, and looked at her reflection in the cracked mirror over the washstand. Her eyes were black and blue. Her jaw was badly swollen. She was afraid to examine the rest of her body.

This time the damage was serious. Next time it might well prove fatal. If she was doomed to die at the age of twenty-two, she preferred to take her own life. Damned if she would give that privilege to a gentleman who would likely have a climax if she expired because of his brutality.

In spite of her bleak determination to seek the ultimate escape, however, her will to live prevailed. She had heard whispers of an establishment in Swanton Lane where women of the street could go for a hot meal. Some said that the woman who ran the place could sometimes help a girl find respectable work under another name.

What did she have to lose? Daisy thought. But she would have to be very careful. Madam Phoenix was cold and utterly ruthless. It was whispered that she was responsible for the mysterious disappearance of the former madam. And the hard-eyed man she entertained in her private quarters looked even more dangerous.

Daisy shuddered. If Madam Phoenix discovered that one of her prostitutes had fled to the Swanton Lane establishment, there was no telling what she might do. She would consider it a very bad example for the rest of the women of Phoenix House.


| The River Knows | c