|Lucien, Lord Strathmore, is England’s chief spymaster, and his current task is to infiltrate the Hellion Club, a group of decadent rakes that may conceal a dangerous French agent. That means chatting the members up in a pub one night. The barmaid is more interesting than the conversation.
Sally appeared with a full pitcher in one hand and a tankard in the other. She plunked the tankard in front of Lucien. “Here you go, my ‘andsome lad. Enjoy your devil’s punch.”
Then she undulated away. Her eyes had been averted, and her face was obscured by her garish hair, but the fleeting glimpse he had of her features showed that she was so heavily painted that she might be trying to cover up smallpox scars. Not that it mattered; few men would bother to look as far as her face.
The tankard proved to contain mulled ale with a hefty dose of spirits added. “I see why this is called devil’s punch,” he observed. “It burns like the fires of hell.”
“After two tankards, you’ll be able to recite scripture backward,” Mace said with sardonic humor.
“Or I’ll think I can, which comes to much the same thing.” Lucien nodded toward the barmaid. “Does she ever attend your ceremonies? She looks like a lively piece.”
Mace’s eyes narrowed. “What do you know about our rituals?”
“Rumor says that the Hellions dress as medieval monks. After a ceremony, each `monk’ chooses a partner from among a group of `nuns’ enlisted from the ranks of London’s better prostitutes. It’s said that some of the nuns are actually society ladies out for a lark.” Lucien gave a wicked chuckle. “I heard that once a monk and nun were appalled to rip off their robes and discover that they were husband and wife.”
Mace’s heavy brows drew together. “You’re well informed.”
“When half your members drink like fish, you can hardly expect secrecy.” Lucien gave a faint smile. “I thought your group sounded amusing. Life has been getting dull lately, which is why I accepted your brother’s invitation.”
“We do our best to stave off boredom.” Mace studied Lucien’s face, frank skepticism in his eyes. “Roderick said that you were interested in joining us. I was surprised. You give the impression of being too fastidious, too much the dandy, to want to be part of a group dedicated to dissipation.”
“I enjoy contrasts. I also enjoy intrigue.” Lucien made a minute adjustment to his cuff. “Most of all, I enjoy confounding people’s expectations.”
Mace smiled faintly. “Then we have something in common.”
“We have other mutual interests, I think. I’ve heard that you’re interested in mechanical toys.” When Mace nodded again, Lucien pulled a cone-shaped silver object from his pocket. “Have you ever seen anything like this? Look through the small end.”
Mace raised the cone to his eye and peered inside, then sucked his breath in. “Fascinating. It holds some kind of lens that breaks the world into a number of identical images?”
“Exactly.” Lucien drew a second one from his pocket and looked through it. The room immediately splintered into multiple images. “I know a natural philosopher who is interested in insects. He once told me that dragonflies have faceted eyes and must see this way. It sounded intriguing, so I decided to try to reproduce the effect. A lens grinder made these lenses to my specifications, and I had them mounted. For lack of a better name, I call it a dragonfly lens.”
He blinked when his casual sweep of the room brought Sally into view. A dozen pairs of lush breasts swayed before him, and a dozen slim waists. The effect was rather overpowering.
“Do you make other mechanical curiosities?” Mace asked.
Lucien lowered the dragonfly lens, reducing Sally to singularity again. “I design and build the mechanisms myself, but I have a silversmith make the exteriors.”
“I do the same.” Mace gave a small, secretive smile. “Over the years I have created a collection of mechanical devices that is utterly unique. Perhaps I’ll show them to you some day.”
When he tried to return the dragonfly lens, Lucien waved it away. “Keep it if you like. I had several made.”
“Thank you.” Mace regarded Lucien thoughtfully. “Would you like to attend the next time we have a ritual?”
Success. “I’d be delighted.”
Mace raised the lens again and studied Sally. “A rather overblown female. The girl who is usually here is more to my taste—slimmer, less vulgar.”
“That’s another thing we have in common.”
A man approached to talk to Mace, so Lucien relinquished his seat. Tankard in hand, he surveyed his companions. Most of the Hellions reminded him of boisterous university students, more wild than wicked. Across the room a very drunk youth unbuttoned his breeches and said brashly, “See what I have for you, Sally?”
After one bored glance, she retorted, “I’ve seen better.” In the howls of laughter that followed, the beet-faced young man buttoned himself while the barmaid sauntered from the room.
Lucien grinned, then turned his attention to the older Hellions, who included some of London’s most notorious rakes. Several were sitting together, so he joined them when Sir James Westley beckoned.
“Glad to see you, Strathmore. Wanted to say how much I enjoyed the visit to Bourne Castle.” The stout baronet gave a slight hiccup, then chased it with a mouthful of punch. “Good of you to arrange it with Candover. I’ve seen him give setdowns that would fell an elephant, but he was a very amiable host.”
His neighbor was Lord Nunfield, a cousin of Mace and Roderick Harford who shared the same lanky build. In a bored drawl he said, “You’re fortunate to have a friend who lives in such good hunting country, Strathmore.” His mouth curled into a characteristic sneer. “I understand that you and Candover have been the closest of friends since school days.”
The sexual innuendo was unmistakable. With deliberate ambiguity, Lucien said, “You know what school is like.”
“Boys will be boys,” agreed Harford. His gaze went to the barmaid, whose breasts bobbled delightfully as she poured punch at a nearby table. “But I think schools should have female students as well. It would make lessons much more interesting.”
A spark of interest showed in the eyes of Lord Chiswick, the last man at the table. The son of a bishop, he had devoted his life to breaking as many of the Ten Commandments as possible. “I’ve been getting bored with false nuns. It might be amusing if our little playmates dressed as schoolgirls at the next service. A delightful contrast of innocence and experience.”
Harford nodded thoughtfully. “Worth considering. Makes me think of the gamekeeper’s daughter, when I was fourteen.” He began to describe the encounter in detail that was as graphic as it was tedious. His anecdote was followed by reminiscences from the others. Even Lucien contributed a story, though his was fabricated from whole cloth; it was not his custom to discuss his affairs with anyone.
It was a dull evening, with the conversation seldom rising above the waist. However, from Lucien’s point of view the time was well spent. By the time midnight struck, all of the Hellions seemed to have accepted him as one of their kind.
To counter boredom, he kept an idle eye on Sally during her frequent comings and goings. Tart and teasing, she was expert at amusing her customers while dodging occasional groping hands. She was hardly the sort of female who usually caught his fancy, but something about her intrigued him, an elusive sense of familiarity. Perhaps he had seen her somewhere before.
By one in the morning, most of the Hellions had left and Lucien was thinking that it was time to go home himself. Then he saw the most vocal of her youthful admirers, Lord Ives, lurch to his feet and purposefully follow the barmaid out of the room. Though she seemed quite capable of taking care of herself, Lucien was unable to suppress his protective instincts. After saying good night to those of his companions who were still awake, he rose and quietly followed Sally and Ives.
The old tavern was a maze of flagstoned passages. Briskly the barmaid went down one, heels tapping, and turned left, then left again, ending in a storeroom half filled with kegs. Apparently unaware that Ives was close behind her, she set her candle on a keg, then stooped to draw off a pitcher of ale.
Lucien paused in the shadowed passage. If his assistance wasn’t needed, he would fade away. It would be bad for his pose as a rake if he kept defending beleaguered damsels, and where the Hellions went, damsels appeared to be beleaguered regularly.
As the barmaid straightened, Ives asked in a slurred voice, “If you won’t run off with me, pretty Sally, will you at least give me a quick tumble before I go home?”
She started, the ale sloshing from her pitcher, then said good-naturedly, “Even if I was willing, which I’m not, I doubt you’d be much use to me, lad. Alcohol may increase the desire, but it takes away the ability.”
Lucien was startled to hear a Shakespearean quote from a barmaid. Still, there was no reason why Sally shouldn’t enjoy the Bard as much as an aristocrat.
Less literary, Ives said, “If you doubt my ability, try me and I’ll prove otherwise.”
Her carroty curls bobbed as she shook her head. “My man is called Killer Caine, and he wouldn’t like it one bit if I spread myself around.” She gave Ives a playful push. “You go home to your bed, lad, and sleep off the punch alone.”
“Give me a kiss, then. Just a kiss.”
Before she could reply, he pulled her into an embrace, his mouth crushing hers and one hand squeezing her bounteous breast. Lucien guessed that Ives meant no real harm, but in his drunkenness he didn’t realize his own strength, or notice that the woman was struggling to escape. Unpleasantly reminded of the chambermaid at Bourne Castle, Lucien decided to intervene.
He started forward, but before he could enter the storeroom, Sally stamped hard on her admirer’s foot.
“Ouch!” Ives yelped and raised his head. Keeping his hand on her breast, he asked reproachfully, “Why did you do that?”
“To get rid of you, lad,” Sally said breathlessly.
“Don’t go,” he pleaded, his hand kneading the ripe globe that filled his palm.
She shoved against his chest and managed to break his hold. Before he could embrace her again, she snapped, “ ‘Tisn’t me you want, it’s these.”
Reaching into her bodice, she wrenched out an enormous bust improver and threw it into her assailant’s face. “Have a good time, lad.”
Ives released Sally and rocked back on his heels as the soft, pillow-like object bounced off his nose and fell to the floor. After staring in befuddlement at the undulating cotton curves, he raised his gaze to the barmaid. The folds of her bodice now fell loosely over a chest of modest dimensions.
To his credit, the young man began laughing. “You’re a false-hearted woman, Sally.”
“It’s not me heart that’s false,” she said pertly. “Now get along with you so I can do my work.”
“I’m sorry—I behaved badly,” he said. “Will you be here next time the Hellions meet?”
She shrugged. “Maybe yes, and maybe no.”
Blowing her a kiss, Ives left the storeroom by the other door, which led toward the front of the tavern. Sally was watching him go when she heard Lucien’s chuckle. She jumped, then spun and spotted him in the shadows. “If it isn’t old Lucifer himself,” she said waspishly. “Did you enjoy the show?”
“Immensely.” He moved forward into the storeroom. “I had thought you might need help, but obviously I was mistaken.”
“Lucifer to the rescue?” she said with heavy sarcasm. “And ‘ere I thought you wanted a piece of my padded arse.”
Now that the bust improver was gone, it was obvious that only her slim waist had been natural. Take away the hip padding and she would have a lithe, feminine form that Lucien found more appealing than her exaggerated cotton curves. “Why do you conceal a figure that is perfectly pleasing as it is?”
“You may like scrawny females, but most men prefer a buxom wench with a bouncy backside.”
When he grinned, she said acidly, “You may think it’s a joke, your bloomin’ lordship, but that cotton stuffing puts three quid a week extra into my pockets.”
“I’m not laughing at you,” he assured her. “I admire cleverness wherever I find it.”
She ducked her head, apparently discomfited by his compliment. In the silence that followed, he was very aware of her innate sensuality, which owed nothing to her fraudulent figure. He was close enough to see that the skin under her heavy paint was unpitted, and he guessed that she was younger than he had first thought. “You’d also be prettier without the paint.”
She raised her head and gave him a fulminating glance. “I didn’t ask for your opinion, my lord. Believe me, I know me own business best.”
Her eyes were clear and light, though he couldn’t identify the color in the dim light. Again experiencing a nagging sense of familiarity, he said, “I have the feeling I’ve seen you before. Have you ever been on the stage?”
She looked horrified. “I may be a barmaid, but there’s no call to be insulting.”
“Not all actresses are whores,” he said mildly.
“Most of ‘em are.”
Before he could reply, a voice bellowed from the tap-room, “Sally, where the ‘ell are you?”
She scooped up the bust improver, then ostentatiously turned away. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to put me bosom back.”
He found that he was strangely reluctant to leave. Sally intrigued him, and he wanted to know more about her. The impulse was dismaying, for he had never been given to seducing servants. Lightly he said, “Tell Killer Caine that he’s a lucky man.”
Yet as he left the tavern, he found himself hoping that Lord Mace would invite the barmaid to the next orgy, and that Lucien would be able to recognize her in a nun’s robe.