“I don’t normally allow strangers to . . .” She let her words trail off, but mouthed in a silent murmur, “. . . kiss me.”
In response, Raven’s gaze heated in a sudden flare, simmering to smoke as it rested on her mouth. Her lips tingled under his scrutiny.
As if he knew this and wanted to soothe her, the pad of his thumb skimmed that tender surface too. “I bought a new book the other day.”
The alteration in topic was unexpected. And yet, no other man could make such a statement sound so intriguing and so wicked at the same time. “What is the title?”
“Can’t recall,” he said mysteriously, stepping closer until his hip brushed her knee and the lamplight seemed to burn in his eyes. “Come upstairs with me and we’ll read it together.”
At once, she knew what he was doing and she covered his hand with her own, drawing it away from her blushing cheek.
“You are such a scoundrel,” she said, but there wasn’t even a hint of scolding in her breathless voice. Temptation, perhaps. But not scolding. “Why is it that whenever we’re talking about your identity, you try to distract me with seduction?”
He flashed an unrepentant grin, and didn’t even bother to deny it. “One is far more interesting than the other.”
~ ~ ~
Not many men would dare walk the London streets at three o’clock in the morning, all fancied up in a tailored coat of black superfine, brushed top hat and polished boots. Raven knew he looked like easy prey, flush in the fob. Just the kind of gent he’d have pickpocketed as a lad. Or the kind he’d seen gutted and left by the Thames far too often.
But he wasn’t worried. Nearly every day of his twenty-eight years had taught him about back alleys, crooked dealings, ruffians and cheats. And despite his unsavory beginnings, he’d made a good life.
It was going to stay that way, too. All a man had to do was follow a certain philosophy. He’d come up with four rules—or keeps, as he liked to call them—years ago and they served him well.
One: keep a watchful eye.
Two: keep your nose on your own face (and out of some other bloke’s business).
Three: keep what’s yours safe and sound.
And four: keep anonymous.
For an orphan raised in a foundling home, the last keep should’ve been simple. But he’d run into more scrapes than he could count just by being noticed. So, he’d learned the hard way to blend in.
It was a good skill to have, especially now.
This was the hour of cutpurses and wastrels. An earlier rain had sent the latter to the shelter of the mews to warm themselves by sputtering dustbin fires. But the former tended to lurk in the shadows, waiting for the telltale sounds of the rich—the plink and clatter of coins, the rasp of folded notes, or the distinctive clap of hard-soled Hessians on the damp pavement.
To avoid announcing his presence, Raven kept his footfalls in time with the night watchman on the other side of the street. The sharp measured strike echoed within the gathering snakeskins of fog that curled along the cobblestones and would disorient any thug listening in an alleyway.
Up ahead, an old beggar woman sat huddled beneath a streetlamp with a basket of yesterday’s wilted violets on her lap. She squinted through the chilly mist, then gave a familiar toothless grin as he approached. “Why, if it ain’t the randy gent back fer the second time this week.”
“I had to drop by to visit your flower shop, didn’t I?” he teased, touching the brim of his hat in greeting.
“Bah,” she sniggered, shooing her hand in the air. “The only visitin’ yer doin’ is to the bawdy house up a pace. Well, ’ere’s yer posy, then.”
Pretending great offense, he asked, “Now, when have I ever bought only one posy from you, Bess? That’ll be three posies. I’ve made promises, after all, and a man must uphold his word.”
She clucked her tongue at him and fished through the basket. “Three girls in one night. A cryin’ shame. Why, if I were me younger self, I’d have left you too weak to visit another bed. Buried two husbands, I did. A’ course neither were fine gents. Not like you.”
Raven smiled to himself. She didn’t realize that they’d crossed paths dozens of times when he wasn’t in his gentleman disguise.
He was usually dressed in a regular coarse wool suit and shirtsleeves on his way to Sterling’s gaming hell, where he worked as a general factotum. His straight black hair wasn’t often parted and styled with pomade beneath a black Regent as it was now. And he didn’t parade about in a stiff pointed collar and cravat.
But he’d learned long ago that people saw what they wanted to see and he used it to his advantage.
“Your promises are impossible to resist.” Bending down to lift her vellum-skinned hand to his lips, he stared soulfully into her eyes. “Run away with me, Bess.”
She snatched her hand back and cackled, spots of color tingeing her wrinkled cheeks, her breath misting in the air beneath the flickering glow of the lantern. “Get on with ye now, randy gent. I’ve said before, I’m too much of a woman for ye. Now, take yer posies before there’s nothin’ left of ’em. A’ course”—she hesitated, holding tightly to the limp, string-tied bunches, her thin brows inching higher with meaning—“should ye ever need a new cook for yer fancy pile of bricks, ye know where to find me.”
Believing this was her way of negotiating for more coin, he fished a bob out of his pocket and dropped it into her waiting palm. She bit down on the tarnished silver token before sliding it into her frayed gray bodice.
“Aye. You’ll be the first on my list.” Then he tipped his hat and went on his way.
Once he was out of sight, he stowed the flowers in his pocket. The women working at the bawdy house wouldn’t appreciate the disrespect of wilted flowers, but buying them helped Bess gain a meal or two while still keeping her dignity.
Raven knew from experience that, sometimes, pride was all a person possessed.
Keeping a watchful eye, he walked on, not letting the stillness of these early hours fool him into complacency.
Even so, London almost seemed like a cathedral at this time of morning, hushed and reverent. On the street, a dingy yellow hackney lumbered by in a solitary procession, disappearing into the congregating fog toward some unseen altar. It chanted in a disembodied clip-clop-clip of horse hooves and rang bells of rigging. The sounds reverberated off the shingle and brick facades of boardinghouses and shopfronts that stood tall like pew boxes filled with sinners. And the incense that burned to purify the worshippers was little more than the charred, heavy soot that sifted down from chimney tops and mingled with the damp, fetid odors rising from the gutter.
He drew it deeply into his soul—the sounds, the scents, and the sights of his world.
Raven’s steps took him beneath a trio of painted wooden signs that hung from curlicues of wrought iron in front of darkened shop windows while their proprietors slept abovestairs. Here, houses, rented flats, and shops intermingled. All of a man’s necessities were within a short stretch of the legs—a barber, a tailor, a mercer, and a pleasure house.
Yet, Moll Dawson didn’t hang a sign out front. Not even a placard. She didn’t have to.
Moll ran the most exclusive brothel in London, catering solely to haute society nobs. Strictly invitation only. She even spun a tale that her girls had never been touched by common hands and were trained by courtesans from all over the world.
Raven was as common as soot. But, three years ago, when he’d started working at Sterling’s gaming hell, Moll had approached him with a secret bargain.
She’d grant him admittance to her infamous gilded parlor, with girls draped in silks and bathed in perfumes . . . as long as he directed the high-stakes winners at Sterling’s to her establishment instead of her rival’s.
After being spat upon by foppish aristocrats all his life, the offer was too tempting for Raven to refuse. So, whenever he came to Moll’s entertainment emporium—as she liked to call it—he dressed the part. He even mimicked the gestures and the air of supremacy that he witnessed at the gaming hell.
But she never let him forget his place. He was allowed inside solely by the favor of her graces.
It shouldn’t have made any difference to him. After all, a man with such humble beginnings shouldn’t expect anything better. And yet, something inside him had always wanted more.
Raven tucked that thought away, as he usually did, and paused in the shadows near the narrow ginnel between buildings, taking careful measure of his surroundings.
Outside the bawdy house, a pair of fine black carriages waited, the bobbing orange glow of a cheroot signaling a driver’s position high on a perch. The main floor windows were dark behind the drawn curtains, but lamplight flickered beyond the first and second-floor shades. Faint stirrings of music drifted down, along with the frenzied creaks of straining bed-ropes and occasional guttural groans.
All was as it should be . . . or so he thought.
In the next instant, however, he heard a scuffling sound from the dark gully beside him.
His ears perked, honing in on the sly shuffle. A lumbering footfall followed.
He hesitated, scenting the air for the ripe stench of desperation. Footpads and cutthroats often lurked outside of brothels for their chance to take a lust-addled man unawares and rob him blind.
But what he heard next wasn’t the sound of any ruffian he’d ever encountered.
“Hurry, cousin,” a feminine voice whispered just before a quick, pattering step rasped against the pavement like a rush of hailstones.
Peering around the corner, Raven saw only the faintest of movements in the gloom, accompanied by the unmistakable rustle of petticoat and skirts. He’d know that sound anywhere.
“I don’t get why you’ve got to go in through a window,” a gruff male voice said.
Raven suppressed a chuckle. He’d heard tales of women sneaking out of bawdy houses through a window to escape in the night, but never one stealing in.
Even so, he didn’t concern himself with the matter. Moll Dawson employed a big, blond Viking-like bully to guard the door. Sure enough, they’d sort this all out on their own.
“This is part of my research for the book I’m writing. It is of the utmost importance that I observe the . . . um . . . objects of my study without drawing attention to myself, ergo the window. You might even say that this is a scientific endeavor upon which I am about to embark,” that softly feminine voice answered.
The unexpectedly highbrow words caused Raven to pause once more. The cultured tone was as different from Moll’s distinctive husky growl—or any of the women here—as the crown jewels from paste gems.
Curiosity bade him closer. Blending in with the darkness, he edged along the constricted path until his eyes adjusted enough to spot two figures—a large hulking male and a small female in a dark cloak.
“If you say so, Jane.”
“Now, if you would be so kind as to boost me to the ledge. It is a bit taller than I calculated on my sketch of the establishment.”
The flesh of his brow furrowed as he listened to the odd exchange. There was something familiar about the bloke’s voice, too, but it was the woman who’d ensnared Raven’s attention.
In the sliver of lamplight that penetrated the darkness, he could see the outline of her form. He became acutely aware of every breath, every shift. The tilt of her head. The roll of her shoulder. The unfolding stretch of her arms to the sill. And if hearing her voice hadn’t already told him that she was a blue blood, then her movements would have done.
They were fluent and graceful, as if she’d spent years learning dance steps and the proper way to pour tea. A high-society chit.
Now, why would someone like her be shimmying in through a brothel window?
Even though it went against his own rules, he knew there was only one way to find out.
~ ~ ~
There were far too many mysteries in life and Jane Pickerington intended to unveil as many as possible.
Even if her quest required stealing into a brothel in the wee hours of the morning.
But this wasn’t a mere whim. No, indeed, she was fully prepared for any situation that might arise. Hers was, quite possibly, the most exquisitely formulated plan of the nineteenth century. Complete with exterior and interior architectural sketches. And, of course, she made certain that the room was empty before she’d climbed inside.
But it turned out that she wasn’t alone, after all.
Stepping away from the window seat, Jane instantly found herself nose to nose with a hard, unblinking face. On a gasp, her gloved hand flew to her throat.
Her mind rapidly calculated seven means of escape and three methods of incapacitation . . . until she realized who or what her would-be assailant was.
“A statue. Only a statue,” she murmured on a breath of relief.
Her pulse quieted as she surveyed the snug, darkened study of the proprietress, illuminated by the faint orange glow of dying embers. Three more statues stood along the wall behind her, but no other sentient inhabitants.
Thank the stars. This errand was far too vital to deal with any unforeseen complications. Her research depended on discovering the differences between gentlemen and scoundrels.
And what better way to learn about the male species than to study them while their objective was purely primal?
In Jane’s opinion, this quick sojourn through a brothel was akin to touring the wilderness to visit creatures in their natural habitat.
She and her friends were writing a book on their findings. After all, too many young women were ill prepared for the potential perils that awaited them in society. And Jane refused to allow another one of her friends to face ruination or be eschewed from London in disgrace, like poor Prue.
With a new Season beginning in a few short months, there was no time to delay.
Swiftly, she turned away from the statue. Then she jerked to a sudden halt, caught on something. Her eyes drifted down the marble form—correction, the nude marble form—and there, she found the culprit.
Her eyes widened in astonishment. The statue wasn’t adorned with any sort of fig leaf at all. Then again, it would likely take a banana leaf to conceal this artist’s rendering of male genitalia.
Unfortunately for her, the gold-threaded cord from her red paisley reticule had wrapped around a rather gargantuan priapic member.
She tried to tug herself free. When that failed, she considered breaking off the phallus entirely. It would likely be the quickest method of extrication.
Taking him in hand, she glanced up at his patient expression apologetically, then leveraged her weight on the turgid slope with a faint grunt. But she quickly discovered that his was a surprisingly solid and immovable appendage.
Using both hands this time, she tried again, adding a little hop to her movements.
It didn’t work.
Jane frowned down at the tangled disaster. Now, the tip of her left glove and middle finger were caught in the cord.
A problem-solver by nature, she sank to her knees for a better vantage point. But, not too far in the distance, she heard a door close, a heavy footfall, and an exchange of a curt greeting. Drat!
She worked faster, using her teeth to cut through woven silken strands. Silently, she prayed that this phallus wouldn’t lead to her ruination.
While she doubted anyone entering the brothel through the front door would walk directly to the proprietress’s study, she couldn’t rule out anything. She’d tried to account for every possible scenario or mishap—a lesson she’d learned after her first experiment with gunpowder.
She was immensely grateful that both of her eyebrows were currently intact. Yet, for the majority of her second season, she’d possessed only one. The other had been a poorly sketched impersonation, giving her the appearance of an unfinished portrait of an exceedingly plain girl.
But she would not permit this erection to blow up in her face. No, indeed!
A few seconds later, her hand slipped free of the glove, along with her reticule. At last! But some of the unraveled cording remained firmly wrapped around the shaft and her glove.
She would simply have to leave it behind. Time was of the essence and her cousin wouldn’t wait forever. Duncan was more apt to forget the reason he was waiting in the alley. Though she loved him dearly, he tended to be more than slightly beef-witted.
Jane adeptly maneuvered a path through the copse of nude statues, past the tufted rose hassock in the center of the carpet, and stopped behind a large fern on a pedestal near the camouflaged servant’s entrance.
And she was just in time, too.
At the precise instant that she stepped into the narrow servant’s corridor, she heard the unmistakable turn of a lock across the room. Someone was coming into the study!
Closing the door carefully, she hoped that no one would discover her or the scandalously affixed glove she’d left behind.
Using the dim light from a small jar of glowworms—lampyris noctilua—in her reticule, Jane stealthily navigated the concealed passageway. She was immensely grateful for the architectural drawings she’d committed to memory beforehand. Otherwise, she might have taken a wrong turn and found herself in the kitchens.
Instead, she stepped through another hidden door in the corner of the main parlor. Tucking her makeshift lamp away, she went inside to learn all she could about a man’s primal nature.
A potted palm concealed her entrance from the small gathering of gentlemen and their paramours. An entrancing melody of flute, lyre and spinet drifted down from an ovoid minstrel’s gallery perched high in the far wall, effectively muting the click of the latch as she closed the door behind her.
The room was precisely as it had been described. Honestly, it was positively astounding what gentlemen spoke of at soirees when they forgot a member of the female sex was among them. Then again, she supposed that being practically invisible to men ought to have some advantages.
And now here she was, inside a veritable womb of wickedness.
Red-tinted globes diffused the sconce light, giving the room a crepuscular glow. Walls papered in oxblood silk were trimmed in ebony wood and adorned with long gilt-framed mirrors. Overhead, the vaulted ceiling was painted with a fresco of nude heavenly bodies in unabashed poses that, in many cases, appeared anatomically impossible. And, in a nearby corner, stood a mysterious curtained alcove swathed in black brocade.
The interior was completely immersed in darkness. It would be perfect!
Hidden behind her cloak and a convenient copse of palm trees, she crept to the shadowy nook like a zoologist on a London jungle expedition. The air was thick with jumentous body odors, poorly cloaked in perfumes. And peculiar porcine swoughs and squeals drifted down a recessed staircase tucked into the far wall beneath the gallery.
Peering through palm fronds, she spotted a pack of wild gentlemen—genus intoxicatus—playing cards at one of eight linen-draped tables. They tossed back their amber libations and communicated in grunts, snorts and nods to the Cyprians draped in silken petticoats and colorful corsets.
In turn, these rouge-cheeked and kohl-eyed women fawned and fussed over them, enswathing their patrons’ necks in bare-armed embraces, displaying their voluptuous adornments in a proximity very near to smothering.
Strangely, the men appeared to enjoy the oxygen deprivation.
Jane pursed her lips in scholarly contemplation as she skirted, unnoticed, into the dark alcove. Absently, she speculated if a simple test to discover the difference between gentlemen and scoundrels might be the duration in which one could hold his breath. Perhaps, the longer the interval, the greater likelihood that he was, indeed, a scoundrel. Hmm . . .
To ensure she recalled this hypothesis later, she reached inside her reticule and withdrew a small ledger to scrawl a hasty note.
Lifting her gaze to the inhabitants of the room once more, she caught sight of a man standing beneath the arched doorway. He was lean and broad-shouldered. A fine figure of a man. But there was something guarded in the alert glance he swept over the room beneath the shadow of his brim. He was so intent in his scrutiny that even she scanned the room in speculation once more. Then her study returned to him as he doffed his hat, revealing hair as black as jet and eyes a color so pale and bright that she could see the glow of them from a distance. Her entire attention was ensnared by them.
A strange current of static electricity skittered up her spine and burrowed into the wispy brown curls at her nape, lifting them. If she were given to flights of fancy, she might even make note of the occurrence and think about it later. However, her pragmatic self reasoned that his arrival had brought a waft of air from the opening of the outer door. Said waft merely swept into the alcove with enough force to disturb her coiffure, albeit without moving the drapes. An architectural oddity was all it was.
Even so, she couldn’t look away.
And she wasn’t the only one either. Every female eye veered in his direction. Even the musicians in the gallery abruptly stopped playing.
In the quiet that followed, Jane heard a slow sigh from one of the women, the susurration dissipating in the air like the slow evaporation of steam from a Watt condensing engine.
He was unlike other men she’d observed before. There was nothing stiff-shouldered or aristocratic about the way he prowled along the perimeter of the room. His body moved in a lithe pantherlike stride, arms slightly forward as if prepared to defend himself from unseen assailants at any given moment. The hard set of his angular features and razor-cut mandible looked positively feral, especially with his inky black brows lowered.
He appeared unduly focused on the task that brought him here. Though, if his primary objective was to find companionship, his intensity was surely unwarranted. He was in a brothel, after all, she thought with amusement.
Her gaze wandered appreciatively over his form. Jane told herself it was no different than a scientist studying a prime example of any species. But she must have become too distracted. Because, before she realized how close his steps had brought him, he suddenly halted.
Directly in front of her hiding place.
Jane held her breath and remained perfectly still. Even though the mirror across from her proved that she was fully concealed in the shadows, her pulse did not care. It hopped like a kernel of popping corn prepared to burst from its pericarp.
She watched the slight tilt of his head. Heard the deep inhalation through his nostrils. And saw the satisfied smirk curl the corner of his mouth.
Newton’s apple! Surely, he wasn’t intending to enter into this alcove?
He issued a murmur deep in his throat. The sound was little more than a low growl, but the deep timbre vibrated inside her and caused the rush of her blood to purr feline-like in her ears. It made her peculiarly dizzy, befuddling her senses.
“Ah ha,” he said quietly. “Here you are.”
She startled. It took every ounce of control over her central nervous system not to gasp, or shift, or move in any way to alert him to her presence.
He couldn’t be addressing her. Could he?
No, of course not. He must have a habit of speaking to himself. Perhaps his introspection was directed at one of the Cyprians he’d hoped to encounter this evening, which would explain his concentrated perusal of the room.
But Jane, no matter how curious, did not turn her gaze to see which woman had earned his attention. She dared not even blink for fear of discovery.
Then, after what felt like an eon of continental shifting and tectonic plates rumbling beneath her feet, eroding her balance, he moved on.
Finally! Her relieved lungs staggered out a breath and then in, her pulse gradually slowing. Even so, Jane kept an eye on his progress, watching as he dropped his gloves inside his hat, exposing one long-fingered hand after the other.
He took inordinate care in choosing a table, pausing to cast a sweeping glance about the room from each position.
By the time he sat down, not one but two of the women from the minstrel’s gallery had rushed down to join him, leaving the spinet player on her own. The lyrist and flautist wore expressions of patent delight, crowns of golden laurel leaves in their upswept ringlets, and . . . nothing else beneath their Grecian-fashioned robes of transparent white gauze.
She watched them both choose a well-muscled thigh to perch upon. They peppered his face with adoring kisses, their hands snaking inside his coat. And Jane felt a disturbance in the epidermal layer of her cheeks, a telltale prickling as the temperature rose by at least two degrees.
She was blushing, of all things. Though, frankly, she did not understand why she should blush now when she hadn’t while observing the smothering embraces of the other women to their men. Quite perplexing, indeed.
He turned his head to whisper something in their ears, and Jane found herself leaning forward on the balls of her feet, as if she might hear that low timbre again. From this distance, it was an absurd notion to have. Nevertheless, whatever wickedness he spoke was enough to make his companions giggle with glee before they kissed him, then raced back up the stairs.
They appeared again at the oval gallery that overlooked the parlor. Only this time, instead of picking up their lyre and flute, they drew a diaphanous curtain as one would across a stage. The lamps illuminated behind them caused a shadow-puppet effect against the silken wall, the outline of their forms on perfect display.
Jane had only a moment to wonder what sort of entertainment the Cyprians were planning. Then, with the spinet playing on, a wordless enactment began. It was a dance of sorts, a graceful movement of limbs twining, necks arching on soft sighs, bodies brushing and embracing.
Curious about the intended goal, Jane studied the audience, noting that the cardplay and conversation at the table halted. With rapt attention, every gaze lifted to watch the performance.
Well, all except for one.
The very man who’d sent the women upstairs, and seemingly for this purpose, looked away.
He did not sweep the room at a glance.
He did not fish in his pocket for a watch to check the time.
Instead, his piercing gaze settled directly on the alcove, as if those unfathomably pale eyes could somehow peer through the darkness . . . and directly to her.
When Raven had entered the bawdy house shortly after the little trespasser, he’d been surprised to find the study empty. She’d simply disappeared like an apparition. And yet . . . a scent lingered in the air.
The subtle, powdery essence was far different from the profuse odor of musk and the cloying perfumes of the bawdy house girls. No, this smelled clean and soft like the late autumn cuttings of lavender he’d once seen hanging from a frilly swag over an open window of a fancy corner bookshop.
Instinctively, he knew the fragrance was hers. Much like the dainty glove he’d found dangling limply from one of Moll Dawson’s prized statues.
With a smirk and a swift tug, he’d tucked the black silk into his pocket and continued his search, knowing the trespasser couldn’t have gotten far.
And he’d been right.
The instant he’d stepped into the parlor, he caught the barest trace of lavender and followed it to a curtained alcove in the far corner. Standing there, he could feel the warmth emanating from her body in sweetly scented waves. He’d even been tempted to reach inside and pull her out into the open.
But he hadn’t. He understood the need to keep secrets, better than most.
Even so, he was curious about her. The curtained grotto was used by both voyeurs and exhibitionists alike and it made him wonder if she was waiting for a lover.
Had she slipped inside this brothel for an illicit tryst? Or was it something else altogether, like that peculiar research she’d mentioned outside?
He did not have an answer and, if her silence was any indication, she hadn’t been prepared to reveal herself. At least, not to him.
So he’d done what came naturally—he’d walked on but kept a watchful eye.
At first, he’d wondered why the other men hadn’t taken notice of her. Then again, most blokes weren’t used to searching every dark corner as a matter of life or death. Yet, as he moved through the room, studying the nook from each angle, he discovered that she was almost completely concealed in the shadows. Almost.
He’d smiled to himself as he lowered onto a straight-backed chair at the far table. This vantage point provided just enough sconcelight to reveal her. And after sending Hester and Venetia upstairs, he eased back to proceed with his own research.
The debutante was a mere wisp in a fine black cloak and wore the hood pulled low. Much of her face was still hidden, except for a wide mouth and a narrow chin. A pair of deep red lips moved faintly as though she were murmuring to herself. Then she paused, her head cocked toward the gallery as the music and entertainment were reaching a crescendo.
Sighs and moans drifted down like a siren’s call. There were few greater visions in life than watching a pair of comely women pleasure each other. It was no wonder that the audience’s attention was ensnared.
All except for his.
Raven was more intrigued by the trespasser’s response and how her mouth fell still, relaxing to a plump pout. Strangely, the sight of it stirred him more than the kisses and caresses from Hester and Venetia had done. So much so that he was aware of his breath exhaling in a rush across the surface of his own lips and how they tingled in response.
Nearby, the gents from the other table and their evening’s paramours stood, heading for the stairs to sate their appetites. In the alcove, the trespasser’s subtle spellbinding incantations resumed.
His gaze drifted lower, edging along the satin trim that lined her cloak to a pale hand and a dark glove. But it was the objects those hands held that perplexed him—a palm-sized booklet and the stub of a pencil.
Was she taking notes . . . in a brothel?
Blast me, he thought with a wry smirk curling one corner of his mouth. Were all debutantes as peculiar as this one?
Regrettably, he was so engrossed in watching her reaction to the orgy unfolding overhead that he missed the instant another man staggered into the hall.
Raven stiffened when he saw it was Ruthersby. The baron was a dissipated drunkard known for leaving welted red handprints on the girls. Just one more reason to hate self-entitled blue bloods.
Whatever the little trespasser was doing here, she needed to steer clear of a man like that.
Fully alert, Raven sat forward, poised to intervene. The baron tottered sideways as he neared the alcove, his attention on the sights and sounds of the minstrel’s gallery. He righted himself, wavered one-footed, then set off again. But gravity seemed against him.
He staggered backward, swinging a silver hawk-handled cane in a wide arc to right his balance. The pointed tip struck somewhere in the middle of the shadows and earned a soft gasp from the trespasser, her lips parting.
The baron didn’t seem to notice her. He simply wobbled on. And Raven, adhering to his second rule, resumed his seat.
Until the baron stopped, and turned.
With the tip of his cane, he probed the alcove with purpose. Then he reached inside.
Raven was already across the room when the drunkard hauled the young woman out by the wrist. The hood slipped to her shoulders, baring a lopsided twist of honey-brown hair and a slender mask of black lace. A pair of almond-shaped slits revealed wide eyes that shot past the baron and centered directly on Raven.
At once he was struck by irises so pure and blue it felt as if she’d stolen the tint from his clear icy gray. A shock spurred his pulse, filling him with the uncanny desire to steal it back.
“What have we here?” Ruthersby slurred in singsong. “A fresh new piece for me to—”
Before the baron could finish, Raven gripped the man’s arm, forcing his fist open on a wince.
With the deb free, he took hold of her gloveless hand and tucked her behind him for safekeeping. “She’s mine for the hour.”
But she misunderstood his better intentions and jerked out of his grasp. He thought she would make a dash to the door, and he was ready for it. But she merely stood apart from them and lifted her hood in place.
“For your information,” she said, “I belong to none other than myself, in this hour and in any other.”
Raven frowned. That highbrow tone was too self-assured under these circumstances.
But the baron grinned and adjusted his hold over the head of his cane, his gloves creaking with the effort to stretch over those fat fingers. “Mmm . . . You speak like the governess I once had. Quite strict and quick to temper. Tell me, my dear, do you have a fondness for a firm hairbrush?”
Her head tilted and those lips pursed in confusion. “I hadn’t really thought about it. However, I suppose a firmer bristle is more efficient than—”
“Don’t say anything more,” Raven warned and tried, again, to shield her. Of the three of them, he seemed to be the only one with enough sense to see that she didn’t belong here. To the baron, he growled, “Lay a single finger on her and you’ll regret it.”
The baron’s liquor-flushed cheeks turned florid, his gaze gleaming with fast fury. “Listen here, usurper! I saw her first.”
“Actually, that isn’t correct,” she informed him, peering out from behind Raven. “This man was watching me from the table before you arrived. Though, I hadn’t had the opportunity to discern the reason before you stumbled drunkenly past me on your way to the stairs. A man your age really shouldn’t imbibe so heavily.”
The more she spoke, the more the baron’s eyes gleamed with debased hunger. No doubt, he was already imagining all the cruel things he would do to her. “Name your price, my dear. I’ll double it—whatever the amount. I refuse to let this gentleman stake his claim.”
She huffed in exasperation. “Apparently, you were not listening a moment ago when I said that I belong to no one. And, besides, he isn’t a gentleman. You can tell this simply enough by his button.”
The hair on the back of Raven’s neck rose. Moll Dawson’s arrangement with him depended on his convincing charade. For the past three years he’d never incurred the slightest suspicion.
The baron squinted at him but shook his head in dismissal, and Raven knew there was no possible way this debutante had seen through his guise.
Even so, his own gaze skimmed over his togs. Pretending snobbish effrontery, he crisply intoned, “There is nothing amiss with my button.”
“I beg to differ.” A dainty bare finger pointed as she spoke in a confident, but dizzying rush. “The third one down on your waistcoat has been reattached with brown thread instead of black. The stitches are slightly twisted, as well, which suggests an untutored hand. From these observations, I can surmise that you mended the button yourself, using whatever thread you had available. Undoubtedly, you mistakenly believed that one dark color was like any other. A wife, housekeeper, or a valet would never have made that error. This leads to the natural presumption that you are neither married nor wealthy enough to employ servants. Therefore, it is my conclusion that you cannot be of the same ilk as the gentlemen who call upon the headmistress of this exclusive establishment.”
Raven studied her with deceptive calm. As if blood weren’t rushing in his ears. As if she hadn’t just laid his secret bare and obliterated his bargain with Moll in the process.
Damn it all! That’s what happened when a man ignored his own rules. And yet, if Ruthersby didn’t believe her, Raven still had a chance to recover.
Unfortunately, one look at the baron and that last hope fled.
Ruthersby had his own agenda, after all. Flicking a glance from Raven to the debutante, his eyes suddenly gleamed with cunning and triumph. He drew in a barreled breath and bellowed, “Imposter!”
Then all hell broke loose.