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London, June 1839
If Nicholas D'Arcy had been a less extraordinary lover and his partner, the lush red-headed Lady Alicia Burroughs, more discreet, her husband would not have discovered them. But 'less' had never been an adjective to describe Nick, any more than 'discreet' was an adjective one applied to Lady Burroughs, who was currently voicing her appreciation of his abilities with enough vocal skill to impress an opera diva.
Lucifer's balls! The whole house could hear her. Why stop there? The whole neighbourhood probably could. It was only by a stroke of luck that Nick caught the rapid thump of angry bootsteps surging up into the hallway just as Lady Burroughs took a breath beneath him before she climaxed. The climax was beautifully done, one of his best, and all screaming aside, the stunning Lady Burroughs was worthy of it, laid out across the bed as she was. Her auburn locks cascaded over the bed's edge, her head thrown back, throat exposed, neck and back arched as he thrust into her. She was breathing hard and, deuce take it, so was he. He'd managed to get fairly worked up about this, too. Lord Burroughs didn't know what he was missing, but he was about to.
'Alicia!' the man's voice boomed down the hallway.
'It's Burroughs!' Alicia sat up with a gasp and a believable amount of panic, enough to make Nick start worrying in earnest. He hadwhat? Ten seconds? Maybe fifteen? Burroughs was heavily built and not the fastest runner. Maybe he wasn't even running, just walking quickly. There'd be time for trousers, but nothing more.
Nick leapt from the bed and grabbed up the discarded trousers. He thrust in a leg, hopping around on one foot while he tried to simultaneously gather up his shirt and coats. 'You said he was gone until Monday!' Nick hissed, piling his shoes on top of the messy pile in his arms.
'Oh, hush, will you? You don't want him to hear you. Hurry.' Alicia sat in the middle of the bed, a sheet drawn up modestly over those creamy breasts of hers.
Nick glanced around the room. There was no time for this window and her door was certainly out of the question. 'Does the dressing room go through?' If he was to be caught, it wasn't going to be by a pompous ass of a man who couldn't keep his wife in his own bed.
With a wink to Lady Burroughs, he was off, sliding through the dressing-room door with two seconds to spare and into the connecting room just in time to hear Lord Burroughs roar, 'Where is he?'
In your room, you old windbag, Nick thought with a chuckle, but he had to think fast. This would be the first place Burroughs would look. Even Burroughs wasn't dumb enough to realise the only way out was through the dressing room. Nick dashed into the hallway and opted for another room on the garden side of the house. He sidled in and closed the door softly behind him. He was safe for now. He set down his bundle of clothes and put on his shoes.
'Millie, is that you?' a voice called from the antechamber. Nick halted in midmotion, one shoe on, one shoe off. He grabbed his clothes and raced for the window. He was too slow. An older woman in a dressing gown emerged from the little room before he was halfway across. The dowager countess!
She was going to scream. Nick could practically see it climbing up her throat. He had to silence that scream and he had mere seconds to do it. He did the only thing he could think of. He strode two paces towards her, swept her into his arms and kissed her. Most soundly, too, and damn it all if she didn't kiss him back with a little tongue. The dowager countesswho would have thought it? It was arguably the most pleasant surprise of the evening because afterwards, she cleared her throat and said, 'Young man, you'll want to use the window. I think you'll find the trellis quite stable.' Then she winked at him. 'It's been used before.'
Good Lord, did Burroughs have any idea what went on in his house? Nick thanked her and wasted no time. The last thing he needed was for Millie the maid to show up. He'd have to kiss her, too. But that would be better than Burroughs, who Nick could hear throwing doors open as he barrelled down the hall. Again it was down to a matter of seconds between discovery or escape. Nick tossed his clothes down first and stuck a leg out to test the rung.
'Come back any time you like,' the dowager countess called after him. 'I have the gardener keep that trellis well maintained. He thinks it's for the roses.'
Nick merely smiled and climbed into the darkness as Burroughs knocked on his mother's door. The dowager would have to live with her disappointment, Nick decided. He wasn't coming back to the Burroughs town house for quite a while.
The rest of the escape was easy after that. He found his way out of the garden and, after he'd travelled through the warren of back alleys, he stopped and finished dressing. He was safe for the time being, although safe was rather relative. Alicia Burroughs wasn't exactly a soul of discretion, as he'd noted earlier. It would only be a matter of time before Burroughs knew it was him.
There was going to be hell to pay for this. Nick tucked his shirt tails into his trousers. His name would be all Burroughs would know, though. Responsibility for tonight's débâcle began and ended with him. There must be no connection to the agency, no threat of exposure to the League of Discreet Gentlemen, the organisation to which he belonged and which, by virtue of its name, had to remain discreet at all costs. People didn't mind doing business with a highly capable gentleman escort, but they did mind others knowing about it. If word of the organisation and what they did got out, every last one of them would be completely ostracised.
Nicholas began to walk. He wasn't ready to go back to Argosy House, the league's headquarters. What would he tell Channing? The league's founder would be so very disappointed in him. Discretion was the code the league lived by. To break it meant the worst kind of ruin. It would be the end of the Gentlemen, the end of the very good money he made, the end of a lot of things, not the least being the end of him; Nicholas D'Arcy, London's most outrageous lover. Women paid enormous sums for his skill in bed. They stuffed jewels in his pockets to find out just how outrageous he could be. And because he needed those jewels and those extraordinary sums of money, he encouraged it. Who was he if he wasn't Outrageous Nick?
Nick kicked at a pebble on the pavement. To be fair, he probably encouraged the attention for darker reasons than money and the notoriety. Sex was about all he was good at. Thank goodness he'd been able to turn his one skill into a marketable talent. More than that, he thanked goodness he'd met Channing Deveril, who'd made his success possible. Otherwise, he'd probably still be bumbling around as a clerk in a shipping firm on the docks, making too little to offset his family's financial needs.
Now, thanks to his reputation, he was able to send decent sums to his mother. He was able to write fabulous letters to his two sisters about the glittering parties he attended and all the latest fashions without making it up. Of course, they didn't know what he did for a living, only that he was now a man of business. Thanks to his brother's poor health, they would never know differently. There would be no chance for them to come up to London and see the reality, for which he was eternally grateful. A broken brother was bad enough. He couldn't break his mother's heart, too.
The milkmaids were starting their rounds when Nicholas climbed the front steps of Argosy House, nominally no different than any of the other houses along Jermyn Street quartering bachelor gentlemen of means. All the other windows on the street were dark, but lights still burned here. The boys would be up for another hour or so, reliving their evenings and then they would all retire.
A passing milkmaid gave him a flirty smile. 'Good morning, Master Nick. You've been out all night again.'
Nick swept her a bow and blew her a kiss. 'Good morning, Gracie.' He knew all their names, every milkmaid, every vendor that claimed Jermyn Street as their venue. Women especially liked that sort of thing.
Gracie waved a scolding finger at him. 'Don't you try any of your gentleman's tricks with me. I'm wise to all of them,' she teased. 'Besides, I've heard you've been up to no good.'
Nick was tempted to ask Gracie what she'd heard, but she'd already picked up her pails and moved down the street, her saucy hips swinging. Worry picked at him. Had his contretemps at Burroughs's already made the rounds? He stepped inside Argosy House to the sound of raucous male laughter spilling from the drawing room. He smiled. There was comfort in knowing the routine, of having expectations about what one would find when one came home. This was the only home he had now, the only place where he felt comfortable. It had been a long time since he'd felt that way about his real home.
Inside the drawing room, seven men sprawled carelessly on the chairs and sofas. Cravats were undone, jackets were off, waistcoats unbuttoned. Snifters of brandy in varying states of emptiness sat at their elbows. These were his colleagues of the past four years, the fellow members of the secret league.
Jocelyn Eisley spotted him first. 'Ho, ho, Nick my boy, you had a close call tonight. We were starting to worry.'
All heads turned towards him. Whistles and applause broke out. 'You'll be the talk of the broadsheets.' Amery DeHart saluted him with a half-drunk snifter.
'Three cheers for our man, Nick.' Eisley cleared his throat and leapt up on to an ottoman in a graceful move for one so big. 'I feel a poem coming on to commemorate the occasion. It's not every night one of us pleasures a lady with her husband in the house.'
There was a collective, good-natured groan. Nick took a seat next to DeHart on the sofa. Eisley's poems had become one of their traditions.
'A limerick, Eisley,' Miles Grafton called out. 'A dirty deed requires a dirty poem.'
'Here, here!' the chorus went up.
'All right then.' The big blond called for attention. 'I give you my latest creation.' The big blond's baritone resonated with enough dramatic flair for Drury Lane. 'There once was a man named Nick who satisfied women with his prick. How women did swoon when Nick did moon. He was the envy of every man in the room.' He gave an extravagant bow.
'Aren't we all?' Amery put in more loudly than necessary. 'We're the rakes who make husbands jealous.'
'And thank goodness for that,' Captain Grahame Westmore said darkly from his corner by the fire. 'If the men of the ton did their duty properly, we'd be out of a job.' A former cavalry officer, Westmore was private, as private as Nick was himself. Of all the men present, Nick knew the least about him.
'Well, what do you think?' Eisley stepped off the ottoman. 'Is it my best yet? I'll recite it at White's this afternoon and, by dinner, my little ditty will be repeated in every Mayfair drawing roomdiscreetly, of course. You'd better lay in another order for those French letters you like, Nick. Your popularity will soar. They'll call it "Nick the Prick".'
'They're calling it "In the Nick of Time", in the papers, according to my sources,' a sombre voice said from the doorway.
Nick winced. He didn't have to look up to know Channing Deveril, the league's founder, had heard the news already. It seemed quite a few people had heard if milkmaids and journalists knew. He'd hoped for a little more reprieve.
'Close call tonight, eh, Nick?' Channing's blue eyes met his.
'Only close, though.' Nick shrugged. Maybe Channing wasn't too upset. It was merely an occupational hazard. After all, it could happen to anyone.
Channing managed a half-grin. 'We can all be grateful for that. Come to my office and we can speak of it more privately and decide what to do.'
Nick's good spirits sank, replaced by a wary sense of caution. 'What is there to decide?' he asked, settling into the chair opposite Channing's polished desk.
'What do with you, of course.' Channing eyed him as if he were an idiot. 'You may have gone too far tonight.'
'You can never go too far.' Nicholas laughed, but Channing did not.
'I'm serious, Nick, and you should be, too. This won't blow over. Burroughs will know it was you.'
'I prefer suspect. He doesn't know it's me, not for sure,' Nicholas amended.
Channing cocked an eyebrow in disbelief. 'You're deluding yourself. With limericks like "Nick the Prick" and drawings labelled "In the Nick of Time" floating around London like so much flotsam?' Channing had a point there. 'Besides, I don't think Alicia Burroughs wins any awards for secret keeping.'
Another point in Channing's favour. A rather valid one, too, given tonight's display. 'The agency won't be implicated,' Nick put in, hoping to soothe Chan-ning's feathers.
'My worry is not for the agency alone. I worry for you, too, Nick. I don't want there to be a duel.' Channing opened a drawer and pulled out a folder. He pushed it across the desk. 'That's why I have a new assignment for you.'
Nick scanned the document inside with a frown. 'Five nights of pleasure? In the countryside? Is such a thing even possible? It sounds like a unlikely juxtaposition to me.' Nicholas D'Arcy pushed the letter back across the polished surface of the desk with obvious disdain, his dark brow arched in sceptical disapproval of such a proposition. He was a London man. The city was his preferred environ with its refined women. There was nothing quite as fascinating as a city woman with her fashions and perfumes, her sharply honed repartee on a myriad of cutting-edge subjects and her bold overtures. In sum, a London woman was someone who knew what she wanted on all accounts. But a country woman? Lord spare him. 'It's really not my speciality, Channing.'
Behind the desk, Channing quirked a blond brow in answer to his darker one. 'And provoking duels with cuckolded husbands is not mine. If I may remind you, the league's mission is a woman's pleasure without the attendant scandal. Duels, my friend, do not fit our code of discretion. You need to get out of town and let the rumours settle. You know how London is this time of year. There will be another scandal within the fortnight to retire this one, but not if you're here reminding everyone with your presence. Until then, I have no wish to see you on the receiving end of a jealous husband's pistol.'
'Nothing will come of it, I promise,' Nicholas protested. 'Burroughs has no proof.' It had been a nearrun thing though, getting out the window in time. 'He couldn't have seen more than a shadow.'
Channing played with a letter opener. 'Yes, well, what he'd like to do to that shadow is all over London. Was anything left behind? A shirt stud? A boot? Anything that could link you to the scene?'
'Nothing,' Nicholas replied vehemently. 'I never leave anything behind. It was a clean getaway, I swear.' A getaway that involved kissing the dowager countess. Still, it had been clean in the end and that was all that mattered.