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With a jaded outlook and a black heart, Matthew, Earl of Wallingford, knew exactly what human nature consisted of. Temptation and physical pleasure. At least he had it in him to acknowledge the flaw. Unlike so many of his peers, he did not pretend to be otherwise. He was an unconscionable wastrel without thought or feeling. A rake with insatiable appetites. A disreputable heartbreaker, women said with disgust as he strolled by. Yet it was these same women who entertained him in their husbands' homes, with anything but disgust.
Ah, the facade of Victorian morality. What a jest.
It was a wonderful time for someone like him to be alive. Someone who didn't believe the innate nature of humans was anything more than self-serving. He had seen very little goodness in his life. But then he had been the furthest from kind or good himself.
Every day he was confronted with man's startling avarice. And nowhere on earth was the confirmation of mankind's selfish, pleasure-seeking ways more evident than in London, among the aristocracy's elite.
Behind fluttering silk fans, and beyond the fashionable ballrooms where champagne and polite conversation flowed, lay a cesspool of immorality and vice. It was this dichotomy that Matthew found so amusing. He enjoyed watching the members of the nobility feverishly working to implement the queen's moral views on religion, family and sex. These were the men who married, fathered children and touted the merits of the married state thither and yon. They were the leaders whom the queen respected, whom she believed in. The ones who championed social reform, who rallied vigorously and vocally at parliament to keep the whores off the street and sex buried beneath a cloak of piety. It was these same men, he thought with amused cynicism, that he greeted in the evening as he toured the brothels, the gambling halls and the supper clubs. Hell, he even, on occasion, shared a cheroot and a glass of port with them while watching the naked dancers parade about, jiggling their breasts and bottoms from the stage where they danced seductively to a bawdy tune.
Pious and moral, indeed. Even now the mayor's secretary had a woman's face in his lap and another's breasts in his hand. And the mayor? He had taken his leave a few minutes earlier with his long-standing mistress hanging on his arm. Matthew wondered if the mayor had given his young wife and two-day-old son a second thought this evening. Not likely.
The world-weary space where his heart and soul had once lain laughed at the ever-opposing sides. Morality and London were not symbiotic. Human nature and temptation, now they were synonymous. He, more than anyone, understood that.
Glancing around the smoky supper club he suddenly realized that it never ceased to amaze him, the variety of proclivities offered in the metropolis. Vice of every kind was available in Victorian London. One didn't even need a fortune to secure one's pleasure. Some vices came cheap. Others, not so much. Some men would part with their souls for a chance to taste the sweet nectar of forbidden delights. It was that fact, coupled with his knowledge of what his peers lusted for, that had him here tonight.
He knew a thing or two about lust and selling one's soul. A painful, haunting lesson that, but one that had served him well. One that would pay him back tonight.
Considered a connoisseur of the more pleasurable vices, Matthew was a leader in things such as depravity and scandal, and tonight he was using his reputation to further his goals.
While the gentleman of the ton played at morality by day whilst indulging in sin at night, Matthew could not be bothered to pretend to be the former. He never was one for hypocrisy. Why act the gentleman when he was nothing but a bastard? He had never understood the need to act like two separate people. It seemed a lot of work, and for what? He respected these men no more than he would a thief or a convict. Perhaps, he thought with a small smile, he respected them even less. There was a certain honor among thieves, and these men, in their evening dress and smooth smiles, had no honor.
So, not desiring to be a hypocrite, he lived his life in sin, day and night. And he would have it no other way.
He probably should have felt a measure of mortification that he could so easily admit to such a flaw, but he was incapable of shame. He had no conscience or soul. No heart, either. That had broken and died years ago. The leftover pieces had petrified in his chest, leaving stone shrapnel in a black, empty place that felt nothing. Just a yawning void of… nothing. And he liked it that way.
He didn't get close to any of the women he took his pleasure from. And he never took them to his home, either, and preferred to rut on anything but a bed. Proclivities, he reminded himself. London could provide for even the most bizarre perversions. Finding women who would give him what he wanted wasn't a trial. The only real difficulty was avoiding those irritating emotional entanglements that women liked to enmesh with the act. Fucking was fucking as far as he was concerned. The act was nothing but cock, cunt and the grunts of pleasure. There was nothing more to it than a physical connection in which a male and female's genitals met. Of course, the poets would fiercely argue otherwise, and his best friend, Lord Raeburn would strenuously work to dissuade him of his slanted view. But Matthew knew better. He'd never been with a woman who didn't spread her thighs for nothing. There was always a reason: coin, advancement, even something as mundane as making a husband or other lover jealous. There was always motivation behind it.
It hadn't taken a lot for Matthew to discover that women manipulated men with sex. It was a female's most lethal and effective weapon. And being a man who rather enjoyed getting off, he had no recourse but to submit to them, despite their manipulations.
"Evening, guv." The sultry voice was followed by the brush of an ample breast along his arm. He stiffened, striving to put the old anxiety and distaste back in that gaping void where his soul had once resided. He didn't care to be put upon by a female who took the lead. In this chase, he preferred the part of predator. But this one, with her doe eyes and pouting mouth would not easily be run to ground. Her air of innocence was an illusion. She was as calculating as they came, and any submission on her part would be feigned.
"I could suck the Thames dry, you know."
Focusing on the stage, where the dancers were strutting about in drawers and bare breasts, Matthew ignored her throaty voice and the subtle sounds that were designed to mimic sucking lips. "I'm not in the mood for mouth play."
"What are you in the mood for then, guv?" she whispered while she raked her hand through his hair.
A bundle of money, he thought savagely, hating how he had to sit there and endure her attentions. Her perfume was suffocating him. So were her tits, which she kept shoving in his face.
"That 'andsome gent over there tells me you've painted a naughty picture, and it's going to be auctioned off tonight."
Matthew glanced at the gent in question. Broughton. His friend never could keep his mouth shut. Broughton caught his scowl. The bastard actually grinned.
"Why don't you give me a try, guv?" she purred, running her hand along his thigh. "I could be naughty."
He ignored her, even as her fingertips traveled down the leg of his trousers. "Cor, yer hard," she cooed. "Big strong thighs, I bet yer built like a bull, aren't ye?"
Wrong words. Any erection that was mounting despite his mental distaste deflated like a hot-air balloon. "Excuse me," he growled, nearly toppling her to the ground when he jumped up from the chair.
"Come back, guv," she called. "We can have a merry party."
With a sense of relief, he saw that the woman had now fixed her attentions on Broughton. She was crawling all over him as Broughton leaned back in his chair allowing her attentions.
Matthew had never been one for that sort of play, preferring something more direct, like his cock in a quim without preamble. What was the point of foreplay when it didn't interest him? When he wanted to fuck, he wanted his pleasure. The rest could all go to hell.
Reaching for a glass of champagne from a passing tray, Matthew made his way to the back room where the portrait he had painted was going to be auctioned off. He had heard enough crude remarks this night, and seen enough antics to know that this was the perfect venue for his art auction. The clientele of the supper club was a good mix of old and new money. They would pay a fortune for his portrait, and in return he would use their money to fund his art gallery.
Downing the champagne, he felt the slow burn along his throat, wishing it was something stronger, even though he was already well on his way to being drunk. More and more, he found himself on the way, he thought morosely. But when one lived the sort of life he did, dissolute and isolated, one needed the company of something that understood.
Taking another glass, he watched the men swarming into the room with the club girls and their mistresses. There were no wives here this night, a fact that Wallingford did not belabor. He was here for the money to fund his art gallery. Plain and simple.
"Everything is going well," Raeburn said as he slapped Matthew against the shoulder. "What a bloody crush."
Matthew grunted and took a drink of his champagne as he looked about the room. It was a bloody crush. There wasn't a corner free of slobbering lustful men waiting for a chance to see the portrait he had dangled and teased before them. Hopefully the piece would be inspiring enough to force the men to bid heavily. He needed the blunt if he was going to get his gallery opened. And the gallery had been the only thing of importance in his life for a very long time.
Finally he tore his gaze away from the crowd and settled it on his best friend. "I wasn't aware your prison cell had an escape route," he muttered.
Raeburn laughed, motioning away a serving girl as he did so. "Prison?" he said, his eyes glinting. "If you call having a beautiful woman at my beck and call prison, then so be it. I'll die a convict."
Matthew arched his brow in annoyance. Raeburn was madly in love, a fact he could not decide was a blessing or a curse. "I do call monogamy prison," he grumbled as he looked away from the glimmer in Raeburn's eyes. "It would be a death sentence to me to spend my life tied to one woman."
"You haven't found the right one yet."
He snorted. "Out of numerous samplings, I think I would have found her, if indeed, she even existed. Admit it, Raeburn, you're an oddity."
His friend shrugged. "There are many men who find themselves in love."
Not like this, Matthew thought churlishly. He had never seen a love like Raeburn shared with Anais. Even he, a depraved muff chaser, had marveled at the beauty of it. And if he were being honest with himself, which he rarely, if ever was, there were times, like now, when the wicked little fingers of jealousy crept up to choke him.
"So, I've heard nothing but excitement since I entered the club. Everyone is wondering what scandalous thing you've done."
Matthew shook himself free of all thoughts of love and fidelity. "Why do you not stay and see for yourself?"
"I won't be bidding, of course. I doubt it is something my future wife would welcome in our home. However, I had to come for just a peek. And what an eyeful it was. Lucky bastard." Raeburn leered. "Imagine being tucked in your little studio with those naked women spread before you. How you must have been in your glory."
Matthew listened while he kept his eye on the staff. The champagne was being passed about as freely as water from a fountain. Soon the men would be drunker and itching to begin the bidding.
"Not that I would have done such a thing, of course," Raeburn continued, "I'm quite happy with Anais. There isn't another woman who could tempt me."
"I am well aware of your irritating attachment to your intended. I find it rather annoying, if you must know."
"No, you don't." Raeburn grinned as he rocked on his heels. "You're just jealous."
"The hell I am," he growled.
"Miserable again tonight," Raeburn taunted. "Don't worry about a thing, old boy. I have a feeling the bidding will go on for quite some time. Everyone is panting to get a glimpse of the infamous portrait."
"I never worry," he muttered. But his insides were tight and he felt as though he couldn't catch his breath. It wasn't like him to be nervous.
"I had Anais invite Lady Burroughs to our wedding," Raeburn said, chatting away. "Thought it might make the weekend more enjoyable for you. I know how you feel about weddings and such. No need to thank me," Raeburn added when Matthew frowned. "Well then, I think I shall be on my way. Anais, you know, is home alone." Raeburn waggled his eyebrows at him. Matthew rolled his eyes.
"You have the rest of your life to bed the girl. Why you do not find the idea of monogamy stifling, I will never understand."
"With the right woman, Wallingford," Raeburn drawled, "you will never get enough of her. In the right woman's bed, you will never grow bored."
Could he be monogamous, even if he desired to be? He didn't think so. He was a different man than Raeburn. Cold. Distant. He was not the sort to make a woman happy. With him, a woman would only find loneliness and emptiness, hardly conducive to conjugal contentment.
"I'm off, then," Raeburn said as he set his glass upon a passing footman's tray. "Do not forget you're the best man. There isn't anyone else I'd want by my side as I marry the woman of my dreams."
"I will be there."
"I thought weddings give you rashes."
Matthew shrugged and reached for another glass of champagne. "I will simply instruct my valet to put a salve in my portmanteau."
Raeburn grinned. "Good luck tonight."