Excerpt: Two Scandals Are Better Than One


London, May 1870

Edward Radcliffe, Viscount Meriden, the right and proper son of the Earl of Limely, adjusted his velvet face mask and looked out over the debauched scene in front of him. From the outside, this had appeared to be a nearly-respectable house in a less-than-respectable part of London. But here in the great room, half-undressed women sprawled across the laps of shirtless men on sagging sofas of indeterminate color. Heavy cigar smoke tinged with something sweeter hung in the air. The wooden floor planks were by turns slick and sticky from spilled spirits. And three different high-stakes card games were underway in this room alone.

Edward glanced at his friend Swimmer, otherwise known as the Duke of Wrexham. Tonight, behind his own black mask, Swimmer was just another anonymous stranger to the rest of the revelers. That was the primary rule here. Neither recognize nor be recognized.

“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer a gaming hell or a reputable brothel for your one and only foray into London’s seedy underbelly?” Swimmer asked quietly.

“It’s just this once, as you said. No point doing it in half measures.” Edward pulled out his silver flask, having taken seriously Swimmer’s warning about the swill served at such house parties, and took a long draw of cognac.

“Ah, gentlemen!” A short, paunchy man stripped to his waistcoat approached them. He wore a bright red mask with one white feather attached at the left side. It identified him as one of the event’s hosts. “Crisp shirts. Straight spines.” The man grinned. “You must be new arrivals.”

Swimmer nodded.

“Do allow me to give you a brief tour.”

Edward prepared to follow the man, but the host stood his ground and opened his arms wide. “As you can see, this is our main hall, a common area, if you will. If you need more privacy at some point in the night, there are unoccupied rooms on this level. Your entrance fee entitles you to full run of the ground floor.” He inclined his head toward a laughing red-head whose dressed had just slipped down to expose a very round, very creamy breast. “And access to any of the ladies here. Peccadillos to be negotiated according to your needs, of course, but no haggling.” He winked. “These are whores of the first water. Worth every shilling.”

Edward blinked quickly, truly out of his element but doing his best to look unfazed. He wished he’d kept his flask in hand.

“The most entertaining pursuits can be found upstairs. There’s an additional charge for access. Opium rooms are in the back. Group rooms are in the front.”

Edward looked at the man. “Group rooms?”

The host grinned, making him quite resemble a jackal. “He’s green as grass, isn’t he?” he asked Swimmer.

Swimmer sighed. “The rooms where groups gather for orgies.”

No amount of fast blinking could stave off the heat that gathered at the base of Edward’s throat and spread up his face.

Swimmer, ever a friend, angled himself slightly in front of Edward to block the host’s direct view of a grown man blushing. “I think we’ll ease into things, stay down here for now.”

The man gave a slight bow, and Swimmer stiffened. But if the man recognized him as the duke, he covered it well. Neither recognize nor be recognized.

“Just a few more rules while you’re here,” their host continued. “Do not start any brawls. Do not get caught cheating at cards. And do not lay a finger on any of the ladies wearing masks.” He winked from behind his own mask. “Unless you have their permission, of course. They’ve paid their own entrance fees to pursue their own amusements, not to entertain yours.”

The host followed the line of Edward’s gaze, which kept returning to the maskless, bare-breasted red head. “Good choice. Wendy gets invited to every party. She’s one of our most accommodating girls.”

Swimmer patted the man’s shoulder none too gently. “I think we can take it from here.”

“All right. You lads enjoy yourselves, then.” The host inclined his head toward the ceiling. “And if you change your minds later, just find any one of us with a red mask and we’ll give you the grand tour.”

With a parting leer, the man turned on his heel and disappeared into another room. Edward was glad to see him go, although now he might need a long soak in a hot bath to feel cleansed of their illustrious host. He bent his head from side to side to stretch his neck and realign his thoughts. Steady Eddie, as his Harrow friends had dubbed him, would need a hot bath after such an encounter. But tonight, anonymous Edward would bathe in depravity, and he would relish it.

“Shall we start with a game of cards, then?” he asked Swimmer.

His friend nodded. “But first…”

Edward followed Swimmer to the bar that was lined up against the back wall. There was no bartender, just rows and rows of bottles, each more questionable than the last. Swimmer propped his arms against the scarred mahogany, and Edward did the same. Swimmer fished something out of his pocket and held it out to Edward. It was a stack of cards— aces and kings.

Edward didn’t take them. “The man said no cheating at cards.”

“The man said don’t get caught cheating at cards.” Swimmer pushed the stack closer to Edward. “The stakes are high enough, so don’t be drawn into some kind of drunk pissing contest where you gamble away the country estate or some such nonsense. Don’t scowl. It’s happened, as you know very well.”

That sent a shiver down Steady Eddie’s spine. Their most raucous schoolmate, now Captain Lord Granston, but just Percy to the five friends, had left Harrow at age 16, the year he’d lost his father, gained his title, and inherited a pile of family debt. It hadn’t happened in a gaming hell, even one of the more disreputable ones. It had happened at a gentleman’s house party like this one.

“I’ll be damned. I hadn’t thought of that. Fine, then.” Edward took the cards. He slid the kings up his left sleeve and the aces up his right.

They turned around to face the room again. The drunk men on the sofa were laughing louder, and the women with them were wearing fewer clothes. Those at the card tables spent as much time watching the amorous displays happening on the edges of the room as they did watching their own cards, and each other. Edward saw two different men at two different tables swap out cards from their own sleeves.

“If I play while I’m still sober, I might win a small fortune,” he said.

“If you stay sober too long, they’ll call you out for cheating on that alone,” Swimmer countered. “Look, two seats are open at the far table. I’ll join you for one hand.”

Edward cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? Big plans after that?”

“Oh, yes.” Swimmer scowled. “I’m headed home. The duchess will be waiting up.”

Edward stifled a laugh, as his friend seemed anything but amused to have his mother staying with him. Again. “I thought she’d just moved back to her own house, now that every inch of it has repainted and papered.”

“She had.” Swimmer pulled out his flask and took a large swig. “Now she claims the workers were careless and let in mice. She saw two different mice last week. As if one could tell mice apart! She’s staying with me until the servants can get the situation sorted.”

Now Edward did laugh. “Your mother never struck me as the type to be afraid of a mouse, or even two.”

“Nor I, seeing as my brother and I spent a disproportionate amount of our early years slipping all manner of furry, scaly, and slimy creatures into her housecoat pockets, and never elicited so much as a squeak out of her.”

“It’s a sad day when our aging parents develop new fears,” Edward said.

They both knew he was lying. Swimmer’s mother, the duchess, was relatively young, quite beautiful, and still unquestionably fearless. Which meant that she, like everyone else who cared deeply for Swimmer, was still worried about his state of mind, even if he had significantly cut back on drink.

He’d lost his father a year and a half ago to a brutal bout of pneumonia after a series of health setbacks, and his own duchess a few short months later to a tragedy. Come to think of it, a debauched house party on the edge of town was probably the last place the still grieving duke should be.

“If you don’t mind me saying, old man, you’re bound to be recognized as Wrexham any minute now.”

Swimmer took another swig and tucked his flask back into his pocket. “Probably already have been, judging from our hosts’ sidelong glances.” His voice held no hint of fear, or even concern. Such was the luxury of a man born to such a high rank and to parents with reasonable expectations.

“Still,” Edward said, “it will be impossible for me to wallow with the other riffraff if they recognize my companion and start bowing and scraping all over the damn place.”

A hint of a grin lifted the corners of Swimmers mouth. “Fine. They’ll kick you out at dawn and load you onto one of the hired hackneys with any number of your new friends. My man Hareford will be waiting for you at the drop-off point half a mile down the road. If you don’t spot him, he’ll know to look for you among the pile of unconscious revelers.”

Swimmer took one last look around the room, at the games and drinks and available women. “Sad, really, to pay ten pounds and stay less than an hour.” He slapped Edward on the back. “You’ll have to get both our money’s worth.”

Edward grinned. “I’ll consider it my personal mission tonight.”

Swimmer turned to go, then paused. “Really, Eddie, do be careful. More than half these easy-going drunks are armed.”

He nodded and mumbled assurances to Swimmer as he left, but Edward’d attention was drawn to the opposite side of the room. A wave of energy rippled through the air and caught several of the men and the handful of hired women in its wake. There, in the archway, framed by the gas lanterns in front of her and the flicker of candles in sconces from the hall behind her, stood the most glorious creature Edward had ever seen.

The lady— for her bearing screamed lady, making her appearance so unexpected and mesmerizing in this foul place— took the measure of the room and each of its occupants. Her gaze finally rested on him, lingering a bit longer than on anyone else, or so he liked to think. From half a room away, he couldn’t see the color of her eyes, but the weight of her scrutiny pinned him to his spot. He returned the impolite stare, taking in her long black hair pulled away from her face but tumbling in waves down her back. While the butterfly-shaped black mask embedded with jewels hid most of her face, the alabaster skin of her throat and décolletage was spectacularly displayed above the tight-bodiced, full-skirted black gown she wore. And the curves shown by that gown made him temporarily forget where he was, why he was there, and perhaps even his own name.

This woman, something inside him growled, this woman is what I want. Not one night of drink and cards and whores, but night after night with the mysterious beauty whose very existence sent dangerous excitement thrumming through his veins.

She was on the tall side for a woman, and she moved with the grace of a cat. A silky black cat who would purr in his lap. Her glide across the room stirred a hint of familiarity. It was as if he’d known her all his life, or perhaps had just been fated all his life to meet her. She moved in his direction, although no longer looking at him, focused instead on one of the two empty seats at the nearby card table. He moved in tandem with her, arriving seconds before her, just in time to pull out the chair for his heart-stopping mystery woman.

Edward could hardly believe his luck as he slid into the seat beside her. Everything he’d dreamed of each time he’d pined for an escape from his dull, prescribed life was personified in the mysterious woman sitting next to him.

* * *

Miss Lucinda Wagner could not believe her ill luck. Lord Meriden, at the most notorious house party in all of England. Fine, pious Edward. Her best friend Emme’s brother. Their father, the Early of Limely, had disowned Emme for what he judged to be unforgivable sins. And now Limely’s son sat at a card table in a place of such ill repute, the family name would never recover from the scandal, should it get out.

But, of course, it wouldn’t get out. Most of the men here were peers. All of them were wealthy. And as long as they protected each other, all of them were safe. Except, perhaps, her father, if he were to be found here after all.

Earlier in the week, with her father days overdue from his trip, she’d broken into his office in search of an explanation. In his desk, she’d found the address of this house party, as well as a name, written in her father’s steady hand. With one of her brothers off somewhere in the north of England and the other on yet another trip to France, she’d been home alone with servants, the only other witnesses to her ever-punctual father’s delay. No letter. No note. No words to explain it. Which left it to Luci to devise a way to find him.

This was so like her, to be found out, to spoil a secret and ruin a plan. And there’d never been a more important one. This was possibly life or death, her father’s life or death, and she was about to fail him. The shame of her own incompetence burned in her belly.

“Well, well, well.” The large man directly across from her leaned forward and propped his elbows on the table.

At least her reason for being here seemed unaware of her intentions. With his height, girth, and tell-tale green waistcoat, the large man across the table from her wasn’t anonymous to her. It was Sly Hombrage, real name unknown. But it was that fake name that she’d found in her father’s study. Had he known she meant to get him drunk— or drunker, as would be the case— and question him, he’d have had her thrown out on her ear by now. Or more likely, he’d have done it himself.

“What do we have here?” The man’s Cockney accent was faint, nearly undetectable. He’d worked hard to overcome it. But his slurred words belied just how much he’d had to drink, and the drink was returning him to his roots. The man glanced at Edward. “You two together, then?”

“No, sir.” Even here, Edward’s impeccable manners and unerring speech remained with him. “Much to my chagrin.”

His boldness shocked Luci and she glanced at him to find him staring back at her. This was new. This was nothing like Steady Eddie, whom she’d known since childhood and had even fawned over in her adolescence, before she’d realized what a stick-in-the-mud he truly was. Now she observed him carefully. Not only did his stare reveal rudeness; it conveyed true naiveté, as if he didn’t recognize her. Perhaps her luck was not as bad as she’d feared. Perhaps she hadn’t ruined everything after all.

Hombrage slammed his hand on the table, disrupting her thoughts and making her jump along with the men at the table. “You in, or you going to find your own whore?” He addressed a man who’d been so distracted by the amorous couple on a nearby sofa, he now seemed surprised to see Luci at the table.

“I uh… I’m headed upstairs.” The man slid back his chair and stalked out of the room.

Luci did her level best not to blush. The wealthy, wicked widow she was playing would not be abashed by thoughts of what was happening in the rooms upstairs, the details of which had been described to her by one of the hosts whose sharp-toothed grin had made her think of a cornered fox.

Hombrage elbowed the man beside him, who had recovered from the earlier table pounding and slipped right back into slumber. The man snorted and snored in reply.

Hombrage scowled. “Too much time in the opium room. Looks like it’s just the three of us. We’ll keep the stakes low for now. Two-pound buy-in. Game is lady’s choice.”

Yes, good luck was with her. It smiled on her again when one of the hosts stopped by the table and offered her a drink, which she declined, then left Hombrage with a glass of what smelled, even from a distance, like whisky.

“Five-card draw,” she said.

Hombrage raised his eyebrows. “Know that one, do you?”

She silently blessed Captain Granston for teaching her the newfangled card game from America. She’d had an inkling that card gamesmanship would be a useful skill to learn, but had no idea how soon or how desperately she’d need to use her newfound abilities.

“I’m in,” Edward said beside her. He no longer openly stared at her, but he did glance at her frequently.

They each placed their buy-in chips on the table. She’d had to use far more of the emergency cash her father kept in the house to gain entrée to this party and purchase a reasonable amount of poker chips than she’d hoped, but he’d forgive her extravagance if she rescued him. When she rescued him.

The game went smoothly and Luci won, but it ended too quickly. Hombrage had gulped down the entire whisky by the end of it. Still, Luci wondered how many more hands and drinks it would take to make him loquacious. She decided to try a direct run at him to determine how close she was to her goal.

“Tell me, Mr… uh… sir, what line of business are you in?” She batted her lashes at Hombrage as she said it.

“Tsk, tsk. No questions about life outside these walls, Missy. House rules.” Hombrage dealt out the next hand.

“I apologize. I was merely trying to make conversation.” Luci glanced at Edward, remained silent.

After a few more hands, none of them won by Hombrage, the thoroughly slurring man came up with the solution of privacy for her. “How about the lady and me play one hand, just the two of us, hmm?”

“That hardly seems sporting.” Edward’s words were light, but his tone cut with an edge of steel.

Hombrage gave Edward a hard look. “Stakes’ll be too high for you.”

Edward held the man’s gaze and leaned forward. “I doubt it.”

Luci got a small thrill from seeing him take such a brave, albeit foolish stand.

“Think again.” Hombrage grinned. “If the lady wins, I’ll tell her anything she wants to know about my business.”

Luci’s mouth went dry. It was too much to hope for. Too good to be true.

“And if you win?” she asked.

“You show me everything I want to know about what’s going on under your gown.”

Edward flattened his palms on the table. “No touching a masked lady.” His voice was a low growl, and Luci wondered anew whether he’d recognized her as his sister’s friend in need of protection.

Hombrage locked eyes with Edward. “No touching a masked lady without her permission. Agreeing to the bet would be granting permission.” Hombrage turned his head slowly to look at her.

Channeling the wealthy, wicked widow, whom she now hurriedly named Madam X, Luci gave him a fake smile. “I’m afraid those stakes hardly sound even, sir.”

Hombrage raised an eyebrow. “That’s because you still haven’t heard about my business.” He sighed and reached into his pocket. “But to sweeten the pot,” he dropped an exquisitely detailed, gem-studded gold pocket watch onto the table, “I’ll up the ante. That’s worth three times what the best whore here’ll take home with her in the morning, after fucking god knows how many men in god knows how many ways tonight.”

His assessment was probably true, but it sickened and humiliated Luci, not only for the women working here tonight so they could feed themselves and their children this week, but also for herself, having just been reduced to something to be weighed against a hunk of metal and stone.

She swallowed the bile that threatened to gag her. Taking offense would get her nowhere, and Hombrage had just put in reach the one thing she’d come here to get. Even if she lost the hand, she’d have him alone and drunk and could press him for answers. Perhaps she’d be better positioned if she lost the hand.

“Well?” Hombrage pressed.

“Yes.” It only came out as a whisper. She cleared her throat. “Yes, I’m in.”

“Then so am I.” Edward reached into his waistcoat and pulled out a silver flask, encrusted on one side with small diamonds in the shape of an E.

Luci gasped. She recognized that flask. It had been a gift for Edward’s twentieth birthday, from his and Emme’s sister, who had died three years after giving him that gift.

“It’s worth more than the pocket watch, I assure you.”

“I’m happy to take your flask, but it’s up to the lady.” Hombrage looked at Luci.

Luci nodded her agreement. It hardly mattered whether Edward joined the game. She intended to lose this hand and Hombrage intended to win it, no doubt nefariously if it came to that.

“Deal the cards, sir,” she told Hombrage. “And do me the courtesy of keeping your hands in plain sight at all times.”

He laughed as he dealt, then they all picked up their cards. Luci held up three fingers and laid down three cards. Hombrage slid replacement cards in her direction. Edward took two cards and Hombrage took one, then called the hand.

Luci’s hand trembled as she laid down her hand, a pair of sevens over a pair of fours, along with nine.

“The lady has two pairs, sevens high.” Hombrage turned to Edward. “Young man?”

Edward flipped over his cards. “A full house, aces high.”

Hombrage threw down his cards, a mixed-suit flush. A vein in his neck bulged and his face reddened. “Cheater,” he mumbled at Edward.

For his part, Edward had gone pale and was taking deep breaths. “For a minute, I was worried I’d lost,” he whispered so only Luci heard it.

Hombrage jumped to his feet and tossed the undealt deck in Edward’s face. “On your feet, you scrawny bastard. We’re taking this outside.”

Four red-masked hosts surrounded Hombrage. “Sir, some of the guests are becoming… agitated,” one of them said.

Hombrage pointed at Edward. “He cheated.”

Edward held up his hands in front of him. “I won the hand. I did not cheat.”

All four hosts waited for Hombrage’s response. He ws in charge here. If he wanted Edward removed, it would be done in under a minute.

But Hombrage smiled and turned toward Luci. “M’lady, what did you see?”

She could say it was a misunderstanding and that she thought Hombrage had probably won, after all. That would get her alone with him. But it might also get Edward taken outside and beaten, if not worse. She thought of the words said to her by Miss Temple , the former prostitute who’d provided Luci with most of her information about this house party: The hosts take card cheating very seriously. And they all carry sidearms.

Luci nodded her head toward Hombrage. “I’m afraid he’s mistaken. No one cheated. This gentleman simply won the hand.” She smiled at Edward. “And now if you’ll excuse us.”

She stood and sidled away from the table. Edward collected his flask and the watch, then followed just a foot behind Luci toward the back hallway that led to the private rooms. Each one had its own bed and a choice of body oils, as the cornered fox had gleefully told her.

When they reached the hallway, Edward angled in front of her and found the first room with an open door. He peered inside to make sure it was empty and not merely occupied by exhibitionists before waving Luci inside. He closed and locked the door behind them. They both breathed a sigh of relief.

With a deep breath, Luci prepared herself for his questions. What are you doing here, Miss Lucinda? Where’s your father? Where are your brothers? Do you know what my sister will do when she finds out I met you at a den of iniquities and didn’t immediately drag you out of it?

But Edward wasn’t asking. He wasn’t speaking at all. He was staring at her again, as he’d done when they’d spotted each other across the room, like he’d done again when he’d sat down beside her. He had the look of a man who’d just woken from the most pleasant dream, but was still half in it. And for the life of her, she swore he hadn’t recognized her, that he still didn’t recognize her.

He slowly looked her up and down, his gaze lingering over every exposed inch of skin— and there were more than was decent— and every curve exhibited by the expertly fitted costume that had been sewn by Mrs. Billings, Miss Temple’s neighbor.

“Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?” His look was feral and possessive, but his voice was silky smooth and calming.

She’d known this man since she was five and he was Emme’s protective ten-year-old brother. When she was twelve, she’d said more prayers than she cared to admit that her best friend’s seventeen-year-old brother would be moved to kiss her, knowing a young man of such integrity never would. She’d rolled her eyes when she was seventeen herself and learned he’d taken a lovely but boring young widow as his mistress, something she’d never have known if it hadn’t been for Captain Granston’s love of gossip, because Edward himself was the epitome of discretion.

But in fifteen years of knowing him, he’d never aroused such a shock of awareness in her.

The man looking at her right now, the man who’d come to this depraved party for a purpose she couldn’t fathom, had no thought for protection or integrity or discretion. The man ravishing her with his gaze still didn’t realize she was his childhood friend.

“I’m sorry for what that horrible man said to you. And I have no expectation…” He shook his head. “That’s not true. Perhaps I did have an expectation, or at least a hope.”

He stepped close to her and slowly raised his hand toward her face, stopping just inches from touching her. Luci didn’t know whether her heart pounded most from the worry he might pull off her mask, the hope he might kiss her, or the fear he wouldn’t.

“I won’t touch you if you don’t wish it.”

She shouldn’t be in this house. It had been foolish to come looking for Hombrage, as her father and brothers would tell her if they were here. But they weren’t. Their absence was at the root of all of this.

But Edward was here, and he had kept her safe. Whomever he was trying to be right now, whatever role he was playing, for reasons she didn’t understand, Steady Eddie was still at the center of this man. He was a good man. A fierce protector. And whether it was fear, adrenaline, or sheer attraction, she desperately wanted him to kiss her.

“The lady gives her permission for a kiss. Just a kiss.”

He brushed his fingertips along her jawline. “It’s more than I could have hoped for when this evening started.” He bent his head toward hers.

She’d been kissed before, exactly twice, by two different suitors. One had been a long, wet kiss on the cheek. The other had been a quick, dry peck on the lips.

As Edward’s mouth brushed softly against hers, then lingered and pressed more firmly, she knew she’d never really been kissed until now. And when his tongue flicked against her lips and teased them open, she wasn’t sure what she did and didn’t know anymore. She vaguely remembered that something about this was wrong, or so she’d been told. But everything about it felt right.

Luci laid her hands against the smooth material of his evening jacket, meaning to gently put space between them. Instead, she slid her hands higher until she grasped his shoulders. He cupped her jaw in one hand and slid his arm around her waist, pressing his other hand into the small of her back. Instinctively, she arched toward him, and every nerve ending in her body sparked to life.

When he ended the kiss, they breathlessly clung to each other. He slid his hand up over her cheek, running one finger under her mask. This was it. He would reveal her. And she would allow it. She would show him her face, confess her mission. After that life-altering kiss, she would tell him everything.

“They’re in one of the rooms!” Hombrage shouted in the hallway, still at a bit of a distance away, but not for long. “And when we find them, you’re going to let me shoot that cheating bastard.”