VIRGIN ENCOUNTER

"Tut-tut! Your actions, Miss Weatherford!"

Recognizing Malcolm's censorious tone only too well, I hardly breathed as my mentor in seduction stared me down.

Now what had I done? Or not done. Or done too quickly. Or taken my own sweet bloody time doing. Or any number of complaints Malcolm was always sure to indicate about the suggestiveness - or lack thereof - in my performance.

For sodding sure, he could not accuse me of sitting up straight. Not this time! Just as Malcolm had advised, I slouched - to minimize the fullness of my bosom. Evidently, the flat chested look was de rigueur this season. Who knew?

Not me. Thieves had more productive things to do with their time than follow the whims of fashion. Fleecing the unwary came to mind.

At any rate, there I was, slumped in my chair, my shoulders hunched, the rest of me statue still, as motionless as a nabbed crook before the police clamped on the shackles.

In my line of work, I knew all about shackles. And police.

Not to say I had a first-hand acquaintance with the hospitality of Charles Street jail. I did not! In all my years as a pickpocket, I had never once been apprehended by the coppers. My expertise centered on the avoidance end of things - not getting caught in the first place. But if ever I was escorted downtown, I knew what never to do:

Fidget.

Fidgeting was one sure way of making a con artist like myself look as guilty as hell. As I always was guilty as hell, there was none of this squirming and twitching nonsense for me.

Hands posed a problem. Mine always dripped sweat during these so-called seduction lessons with Malcolm. And as nothing screamed discomfort more than perspiring fingers, I kept all of mine tucked out of sight within the luminous folds of my borrowed gown, a prop for this con. The day dress was a gold satin number, the yardgoods smooth and slippery. Like myself.

Ordinarily.

Alas, in the face of Malcolm's critical stare, I was neither smooth nor slippery. Not ever. Invariably, I bumbled and stumbled. Today, though, I'd had it with Malcolm's condescending reproaches. Today, I would show him what was what. Today, I was calling his bluff.

And why not?

By trade, I was a charlatan and an imposter. Ruses were my bread and butter. My specialty?

The grand con. Stand back! I was about to foil the best in the business.

"My actions, sir?" Making sure the glass chandelier overhead mirrored my every pretense of haughty disdain, I tossed my head, just as I heard tell actress Letty Lind did up on stage. "What about my sodding actions?"

"Mind your language," Malcolm reminded me in that real snooty way he had.

"Sorry." I hung my head, plucked at my day dress.

Already tired of my dreariness, I snapped back to attention. "But what about my...actions," I said all over again, minus my favorite curse word.

"Exactly this," he shot back. "Your movements are far too abrupt."

His coolness defeated me, and I could only stutter, "Wh-what?"

"Not what," Malcolm exclaimed. "Pardon me!"

"Pardon you for what, sir? Sod off! I must have missed it. No matter," I said cheerfully. "We are all of us only human. Mistakes are inevitable in life. So, of course, you have my pardon. Besides which..."

I stopped mid-sentence. Upon deeper reflection - and seeing exasperation screw Malcolm's usually composed features into a bit of a wince - I realized he had been chastising my manners. Again.

In a small little voice, and shrinking in on myself, I muttered a mortified, "Oh. Pardon me."

"Abrupt," he repeated without raising either his voice or a pomaded hair on his glossy head. "Draw out each movement until the mark's tongue hangs out of his mouth. Make him drool over you."

Now I was confused. Dripping drool? A spastic tongue? A presumably gaping mouth?

Ew. Disgusting! With symptoms like those, the mark rightly belonged in a madhouse, not slobbering all over me.

An unbidden thought crept up on me then. Could it be...was it possible...was this a test Malcolm had devised to separate the wheat from the chaff?

I was just full of chaff, so this had me worried. And that was not all that set me to fretting.

After withdrawing my sweaty hands from hiding, I clenched them in my lap. Now that it was too late to back out, I was beginning to have second thoughts about this whole scam. According to Malcolm, the mark was some sort of moldy old shopkeeper, an independently wealthy gent who sold antiquities and such as a pastime. Seduction would most likely kill a timid old geezer like that, a crime that would get my arse sent up the river for murder. Blackmail was bad enough, thank you very much, and blackmail was as far as I was willing to go even for Malcolm.

Although...although...if I refused to go along with what my mentor proposed, some other thief-in-training would step in and take my place faster than spit travels in summer. Getting fired would be a moot point then.

All of us petty hoodlums were here under Malcolm's tutelage on a trial basis only, to prove we had nerves of steel before he hired us on permanently. We could not all graduate from small-time larceny to big-time scoundrels, now could we? No, we could not! If high-stakes scams were that simple to pull-off, every two-bit thug in Boston would be doing them.

Here was the rub: Should any of us not measure up to Malcolm's strict criteria, the weak link would be out the door and back on the streets again, pockets empty, scrounging around for the next sure deal. Everyone understood this. But had Malcolm decided to ax me before the training period was even over? If so, was my premature firing due to being a girl?

What else could I think?

I was the only female in the group. Had he already labeled me a liability due to my gender?

No! That was my lack of confidence talking. Malcolm might be persnickety, but he was fair. We criminals were all from the sewers of Boston, we were all of us shifty to a one, and so we all stood on equal footing with him. Only our abilities counted with Malcolm.

Which was to say - anyone likely to make Malcolm look bad had to go. Which was to say - anyone likely to leave him open to criminal prosecution would get the boot.

I understood. In fact, I agreed. An incompetent con artist would squeal like a stuck pig if arrested. Names might be named. And holy hell, if one of those names mentioned belonged to Malcolm, the informant would end up as dead as a doornail.

My mentor took no chances. None. Amongst crooks, Malcolm did it all, from shaking down marks, to huckstering, to masterminding elaborate blackmail schemes like the one in which I was presently involved, all executed while he, the perpetrator, maintained a flawless legal reputation.

With impressive credentials like those, how could I not have fallen in love with Malcolm?

And I had. Fallen in love, that is. All he'd had to do was crook his finger at me and I was a goner.

Suddenly, I sensed something terribly amiss with the object of my affections. Suddenly, the normally unruffled Malcolm began to pace the pretentiously staged training room. At the sight of him wearing out a hole in the purloined carpet, nerve-driven laughter rose up inside me and threatened to escape.

No! How many times had Malcolm told me inappropriate hilarity such as mine would never pass muster in Boston drawing rooms, one of the locales where I was supposed to charm the pants off my mark?

Literally.

My mentor was forever going on and on about my "inappropriate hilarity", constantly reminding me not to laugh aloud. He told me this too many sodding times to count, along with never to sodding use the word "sodding.

Oops.

According to Malcolm, dowdy society matrons decried anything more boisterous than a reserved murmur of appreciation behind a raised hand. Outbursts of the sort I was prone to?

"Definitely declasse." Whatever the sod Malcolm had meant by that.

And there it was, about to explode, another of my raucous belly whoops building inside me.

And inappropriate laughter was not the worst of my offences.

According to Malcolm, my very familiarity with the word "belly" was an "egregious error in good taste" a far worse "faux pas" than actually splitting a gut chortling in public. And according to Malcolm, this was why:

By society's exacting standards, anything south of the waist anatomically was considered vulgar. Midsection was iffy. The word belly was...well...belly fell below the belt where fancy speechifying was concerned. Contrarily, the mention of cleavage - very much on display in haute couture - was allowable in polite conversation, especially if those half-naked bosoms happened to pop out on the dance floor during the Two-Step. Everyone would feel free to talk about them then.

Holy shit! Look out below! Tits a-toppling.

The spectators would probably use classier phraseology than me.

Feet. Dependent upon context, feet were permissible in discussion. For example: if someone had been caught out in a rainstorm and gotten their feet inadvertently wet while splashing through a puddle. Or, not so inadvertently in my case. I absolutely adored splashing through puddles. I did so intentionally whenever possible. Alas, society types limited themselves to accidents only.

Sodding idiots! What fun those prigs were missing out on without even knowing it.

Legs. Admitting to owning a pair was strictly forbidden. Why, even the word "limb" barely passed muster in decency. Well-turned ankles, however, were a cause for boasting.

This was where Malcolm and I came to a parting of the ways - in my opinion, bragging was sodding rude. Then again, sometimes I got everything all mixed up. So many rules! How did those stuffy Boston Brahmins keep them all straight?

Anyway - off-the-cuff-impersonations were my forte. My ear for a cultivated tone of voice was beyond reproach, as was my ability to portray gentrified manners. In all things mimicry, I was a veritable sponge, soaking up everything around me.

Especially the unsavory.

Call me a fraud. An imposter. Do! I would answer to both. But never call me untalented. My thespian skills gave me a leg - Oops! - a limb up on the competition. If there was one thing I knew, it was how to put on fake airs in public. Thanks to my mentor's tutoring, I aimed to be very best pretend society lady in all of Boston.

No siree! My mentor was not getting the chance to toss me out on my tastefully tailored, if grossly exaggerated bustle, most of which was all-me, not stuffing.

Which reminded me:

"Sir, in a bustle, my hindquarters resemble a sodding horse's sodding arse. I have plenty enough natural padding of my own without needing to strap on peplum or whatnot."

My mentor stopped pacing and stared me down. Intently. Again.

Not censoring my thoughts before speaking was a bad habit of mine.

At Malcolm's unspoken indictment, I chewed the inside of my cheek until I nearly choked on the less-than-blue blood filling my mouth.

I had learned my lesson. Here on out, euphemisms all the way.

I could do this. I could do this. I could talk highfalutin'! What? Was I born in a sodding barn?

Probably.

My humble beginnings in no way signified where I would end up. I had big dreams and high hopes...and a bad attitude.

That last I would endeavor to correct.

As I balanced my nether regions on a velvet cushioned chair, references to little Miss Muffet ensconced on her tuffet did not escape me. Was Malcolm my spider? Would he frighten me away?

Never! Not even if he cozied up beside me as the hairy bug had done with Miss Muffet in the beloved nursery rhyme. Rather, his closeness would thrill me.

Too bad Malcolm never cozied. Too bad familiarity was not his way. Too bad not even a smidgeon of human warmth penetrated his chilly heart. Too bad day-old corpses radiated more heat than my mentor. Too bad I loved him despite the risk of frostbite.

A glutton - that was me, all the way around. For punishment. For loving people who found it hard to love me back. For food...

As a child, I stole to quiet noisy hunger pangs. My present voluptuousness testified to my success in the area. As I grew older, my thieving repertoire extended beyond meat pies.

I started stealing pretty things. Or, at least I thought them pretty at the time:

High-heeled boots that laced up the calf. Tawdry gowns in gaudy shades of magenta and orange. Jewelry. Drop earrings that would bat my jaws as I sashayed down dark alleys, my wide hips rolling like a ship on the high seas, stilling only long enough to lift fat money pouches from drunken whoremongers who congregated outside the Mad Dog Tavern.

Those whoremongers never solicited me. I stole, yes I did, but I never did prostitute. At twenty, my age now, the same applied.

This extortion scam would correct that deficiency in my education.

"You meet your mark on the morrow," Malcolm needlessly reminded me. "And, frankly, that meeting causes me untold anguish."

Anguish? Wait! Malcolm had feelings?

Me too! A shitload of anger held me in its grip. Like inappropriate laughter, the vexation had been building in me a long time. Now I seethed with it.

Why did Malcolm ever hire me?

If a lady of the evening was what he required for this scam, Malcolm should have sodding gotten someone else. What did a virgin like me know about getting a gent in bed?

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