The year 1899, Manhattan, New York

The year 1899, Manhattan, New York

Mrs. Susan Lindsmore reclined on her daybed, her languid pose belying her inner excitement. Gluing her gaze to the sitting room's oak-paneled door, not a tic or twitch disturbing her carefully composed expression, she tunneled a hand beneath the gold toile pillows plumped at her back... and screeched with all the dignity of a fishwife, "Where the fuck has it gone?"

This month's issue of Licentious, an illustrated underground periodical dedicated to indulging all the sensual pleasures, was missing.

Fear clutched at her heart. No. No. No. This could not be happening, especially not now when she needed relief so badly. Who could have discovered her hiding place?

The housemaid, perhaps. Yesterday, while polishing the furniture with beeswax or beating the brocade upholstery for dust, the daygirl might have stumbled upon the naughty magazine.

Or possibly Mrs. Harris. Cook dropped off the week’s menus just last night. That fidgety woman was forever touching the cushions.

Please, pleeeaaaaase, not one of her six stepdaughters during their all-too-frequent visits, anyone else but her innocent darlings.

Panic-strickened, Susan twisted in the seat, groping, clawing, punching the perfectly arranged, tastefully beige, always plump, decorative pillows, disorganized tassels and fringe flying every which way.

She held her breath as her fingertips collided with something suspiciously paper-like between her hip and the chair's mahogany side. That deliciously decadent something must have slipped from its hiding place this morning while she pretended to count cross-stitches on her ghastly boring needlepoint pattern.

A yank dislodged the discreetly wrapped package. Like a squirrel recovering a hidden acorn from the lawn, she warily settled her buried treasure on the outermost region of her lap, ready to dig her guilty pleasure back under the pillows at a moment's notice should one of the girls barge in on her. As an additional precaution against discovery, she draped the gray sash of her loose-fitting surah and cashmere gown over the flat envelope.

One could never be too cautious. Or sneaky. Her darlings had an uncanny knack for interrupting at the most inopportune times.

Like now, when she was randy as all hell.

From the outset of her custodianship, she had welcomed her husband's brood into her private sanctuary. After all, as their father's second wife, the children considered her an interloper here at Number 22, and she’d had much to prove. Naturally, the girls resented her presence. Naturally, they had striven to drive her away. All motherless children misbehaved the same.

To earn their trust, she'd had the lock removed from her private sitting room door and encouraged her new family to come to her with their problems at any hour, day or night.

Just her foul luck, the annoying brats had taken her up on the offer. She had not enjoyed a moment's solitude since. Like Mary Shelley, she had created a monster. Only her Frankenstein was a beautiful six-headed she-beast with golden ringlets and an irritating propensity for giggle fits. In this very room, she had bandaged interminable scraped nees, taught a myriad of schoolroom lessons, bolstered endless symptoms of flagging self confidence, and listened to constant tales of woe. She had always been there for the girls, had always attended to their wants, no matter how large or small.

Or silly. Extremely and utterly silly.

Girls born to privilege were such insecure twits. Always concerned with what others thought of them or their hair or their clothes or which boy they had tendre for that week, while sheltered from the hard reality of actual survival. Thank goodness, poverty had spared her their ignorance.

Apart from the monetary, she supposed there had been compensations for the vexation. Sloppy kisses -- if one cared for that sort of messy thing. Clumsy hugs -- each of the girls had nearly strangled her at one time or another. Lisped declarations of undying devotion -- what idiot would be taken in by such claptrap? Pride taken in their successful launches into New York society...

By sheer luck, her stepdaughters had all turned out admirably well. No biological mother could have been any prouder -- or more relieved -- at the girls’ debutante balls.

At any rate, she had done her duty, and now it was time to get on with her life, the one she had put on hold for the last fifteen years. Thirty-three was not all that terribly long in the tooth. Still, according to Sir Isaac Newton, gravity could drop her tits to her feet any day now, so she had not a moment to waste.

She intended to shake up her dull routine -- providing none of the girls caught her at it.

Nothing must jeopardize her darlings' tidy and safe little worlds. Nothing must disillusion them, especially not her. God help her, the girls sincerely believed they loved her.

Loved her?

They knew absolutely nothing about her.

What they loved was the illusion of her, the stylish perception she projected for their sakes, not the real flesh and blood her. Her stepdaughters actually assumed, because of her fluency in the language, that she was French. They envisioned her as a displaced aristocrat of pristine lineage, an impeccably coiffed Marie Antoinette -- only in possession of her head.

Romantic rubbish! She could hardly countenance their flights of fancy.

Although, never once, not by thought, word, or deed, did she dissuade them from their ridiculousness. In fact, she guarded their naivete for it served all of them. Gravity might someday drop her tits to her feet, but those feet were made of clay. What a shock it would be to her darlings' delicate systems if they learned the truth about her.

Her background was a sordid one, even by her own low standards. As a former Five Points street swindler, a pickpocket extraordinaire, and the daughter of a Siamese concubine trained since birth in the art of satisfying a man, Mrs. Susan Lindsmore was not at all what she seemed.

A bit of an onion is what she was in reality. Expose one layer of deception, and there were more layers lurking beneath it, all quite pungent and guaranteed to bring a tear to the eye.

Not her eye, naturally. She was too hardened for tears.

Chewing her bottom lip in wanton anticipation, she slid the brown paper wrapping off her package. Her mouth agape, she shivered. Ohhhh, my. Oh, my, my, my.

The editorial staff of Licentious had outdone themselves. This month’s edition, by far and away, boasted the most explicit cover yet.

Unable to contain herself, she stroked the hand-painted lithography depicting a couple making mad, passionate love. In the great outdoors, of all unlikely places. Amid tall ostrich ferns and stout zebra grasses, the nude woman rode an equally nude man. Her perspiring flesh green-shadowed, her astride positioning scandalously uninhibited, the model clenched her thighs about her partner’s hips as he -- dear Lord -- bucked beneath her.

One happy subscriber, she ogled the pictorial from every angle, including upside down, pronouncing it an absolutely flawless execution of the subject matter, with meticulous attention to detail. Never mind the implausibility of the scenario. Never mind that, in real life, the sharp foliage of the various plants would flay the man's broad back to the bone and slice the woman's knees to a bloody pulp. Never mind that such a humid environment would teem with creepy, crawly, icky insects of every description and variety. Never mind that, ordinarily, she found pooling and dripping sweat anything but attractive. Pesky logistics and intellectual analyses aside, Licentious never failed to inspire her.

Bunching her dove gray mourning gown up over her belly, she slid a hand under her petticoats and into the gathered waistband of her drawers.