Lady Rosamund Davies wondered for a moment whether her family would ever arrive at any event together and in a timely manner if she didn’t set strategic clocks forward or back depending on who would see them. Her mother, the Marchioness of Abernathy, would arrive before the orchestra, because she hated the idea of missing any gossip.
Her older sister Beatrice would think she was arriving exactly at the moment of being fashionably late, because of course Bea was perfection in human form – the reason she’d married at age eighteen, and to such an important and gracious man. In reality she would dawdle about changing her hair and her ear bobs until only the servants remained awake.
Thankfully Beatrice and her important and gracious husband Peter, Lord Fishton (good God, what a name), had decided to spend the London Season with the rest of the family at Davies House, because managing to keep two separate households on schedule would simply be too much work. Rose sighed, gazing around at the crowded Ackley ballroom.
And then there was her father, the Earl of Abernathy, who insisted on arriving precisely at the moment specified on the invitation, which of course would never do. Despite the fact that thanks to her...time management they always managed to arrive in a timely manner, if any of her family members ever bothered to compare timepieces, she would be in for it.
Straightening her shoulders, Rose stepped forward to grasp the arm of the youngest family member in attendance, the one most likely to become lost on the way to any given soiree and never arrive at all. He didn’t require a clock; he needed a caretaker, and for more than one reason. “Dance with me, James.”
Her younger brother shook his tawny head. “Can’t, Rose. Might miss him.”
With a sigh Rose tugged again. “Might miss whom?” she asked.
“I saw him earlier. He’s the only fellow ever to win all the wagers he made at White’s during a single Season, you know. Every wager, Rose.”
She wasn’t certain whether it would be more prudent to humor James Davies, Viscount Lester, or to attempt a distraction. “Who is this sterling statistician?”
“Ha. A statistician. That’s like calling...Captain Cook a fellow who did a bit of traveling. Or Shakespeare a fellow who wrote some plays. Or–“
”I said ‘sterling’,” she repeated, thinking, and not for the first time, that her parents needed to invest in a very strong padlock for her brother’s bed chamber door.
“Well, Lord Bram Johns ain’t a statistician. He’s a...a...god.”
“Oh, please,” Rose returned skeptically, mentally wincing at the name. Why her brother couldn’t have befriended a parson or a kindly old whist player, she had no idea.
“A demi-god, then. At the least.” He sent her a glare, gray eyes narrowed. “And how is it that you’ve never heard of Lord Bram Johns? I talk about him all the time.”
“I didn’t say I’ve never heard of him. You wouldn’t tell me who you were looking for.” She tugged on his arm again. “And I still wish a dance. We’re at a very nice soiree, for heaven’s sake.”
“A soiree with a card room.”
Rose sighed. “Haven’t you considered that this demi-god of yours might have left the Ackleys’ for more...underhanded pursuits by now?”
“By jove, you may be right.” He pulled free of her grip. “Tell Father I’m off to Jezebel’s. If Johns ain’t there, I know who will be.”
She suppressed a responding shudder. “James, please stay. Keep me company.”
He flashed a smile over his shoulder. “Don’t worry, Rose. I won’t step in over my head.”
He would begin the evening at Jezebel’s in over his head. But chasing after him would only leave the eighteen-year-old more determined to prove his skill with cards or dice or kittens or whatever it was they would be wagering over tonight. Blast it all.
And she had certainly heard of Lord Bramwell Lowry Johns. From the reverence with which her brother had spoken of him over the past month, he seemed more of a myth than a man. At the least she couldn’t recall ever setting eyes on him. If she ever did, she would be very much inclined to punch this Hercules of scandal in the nose for being such a successful blackguard that an idiotic young man with no town bronze would want to emulate his awful behavior.
Desicated old Lord Oglivy creaked through the substantial crowd and stopped in front of her. “May I have this dance, Lady Rosamund?” he rasped.
Only if you promise not to expire in the middle of it. “Of course, my lord,” she said aloud, forcing a smile. At least a dance would distract her from the volcanic destruction in which James and by extension the rest of her family seemed determined to be swept away. Setting clocks clearly wouldn’t suffice here, but she still hadn’t found the appropriate lure to keep her younger brother out of trouble. And she needed to discover it quickly.
Because as much as she dreaded whatever tales of loss her brother would share with her tomorrow, part of her almost hoped that he would run across Lord Bramwell Johns at Jezebel’s. At least there were still some unknowns to the equation that was Johns. The man James was more likely to run into meant definite trouble. She could only hope that even Jezebel’s Club had become too tame this evening for the Marquis of Cosgrove. For all their sakes.
* * * * * *
Lord Bramwell Lowry Johns straightened his coat and strolled back into the ballroom. Lord and Lady Ackley’s soirees were always well attended, and tonight the crowd had nearly been reduced to adopting the tactics of fish in a barrel – all having to swim in the same direction in order for them to make any headway at all.
As fish were want to do, however, when they came upon a predator they broke apart and swam well around before reforming their school. And so a pocket of space remained directly around Bram. The closest of the brightly colored fish sent him nervous glances, undoubtedly fearing his appetite. This particular shark, though, had just fed, and at the moment more than anything else he wanted a glass of Polish vodka.
He found a footman toting a tray of weak Madeira and sweet port, and placed his request. With a quick nod the fellow scampered away. The butler announced a quadrille, his voice barely audible through the cacophony, and several dozen fish split away from the school and re-formed on the dance floor.
His drink arrived, and he took a long, grateful swallow. Busy as his evening had been, what with a robbery and sex and it barely being midnight, restlessness continued to creep through his limbs. Bram sent a glance in the direction of the refreshment table, where Lord Braithewaite stood stuffing his jowls with biscuits and sugared orange peels.
The damned fat sloth had made the burglary too easy. That’s what it was. Putting the family’s finest gems in a Gibraltar-sized box of fine, carved mahogany, and then placing that squarely beneath the bed in the master bed chamber - the only thing easier to find and empty would have been a bag hanging out a window and embroidered with the words “expensive jewelry”. Bram wanted a challenge, and stealing from Braithewaite wold barely appease a boy in short pants.
Another figure joined the marquis at the sweets table, though he didn’t touch any of the refreshments. Bram’s jaw tightened. That was the man Braithewaite could thank for the removal of his valuables. The bloody Duke of Levonzy. Braithewaite needed to acquire better taste in both his desserts and his friends. The two men continued to converse – round-cheeked sycophant and arrow-straight, sharp-angled tyrant. Two demons for the price of one.
Damn. Now he was being witty, and had no one with whom to share it. Taking a breath, he turned his back on the duke and went to find two of the four people in attendance tonight whose company he could tolerate.
A moment later he spied them, dancing. Married for just over six months, Phineas and Alyse Bromley looked only at one another as they twirled about the floor, both of them wearing the sickeningly sweet expression of happiness and true love. Well, no one was perfect, and Phin had simply succumbed to being more or less...human. Poor fellow.
“Your expression is distressingly dour,” a voice drawled from low to Bram’s side, “especially to be looking at two very happy people.”
Ah, the third person he could tolerate. Viscount Quence sat in his wheeled chair, his ever-present valet at the handles behind him. “William,” Bram said, offering his hand. “I don’t mind that your brother and his bride are happy; it’s only that they exude a sweetness that’s likely to rot my teeth.”
Quence chuckled. “I’ll take your rotted teeth over Phin returning to the army. She saved his life, I think.”
Bram thought it more likely that the life saving had been mutual, but he offered a half grin rather than saying that bit aloud. “And the lives of untold French soldiers.” He sent a glance behind the viscount. “Speaking of lives being saved, is your sister about?”
“Beth is safely on the dance floor with the latest fellow to be smitten with her. Now that she’s out, I think she may be over her infatuation with you.”
“Thank God for that. You know she terrifies me.”
“Mm hm. If you don’t wish to admit that you’re being honorable by sparing her from your dismal reputation, I won’t contradict you.”
“I freely admit to being admirable about my godawful reputation. As you know, it’s been painstakingly earned by multiple misdeeds and unconscionable wagers and drinking, and I’m quite proud of it.”
The older man shook his head. “I’ll agree that you’re quite good at it.”
Despite Quence’s title and ownership of a very promising mineral hot springs property, the viscount sat alone. Bram swallowed his impatience and another mouthful of vodka and continued conversation with him until the country dance ended. He had worse things he could be doing, but certainly nothing better.
When Phineas and Alyse joined them, he was halfway through his second glass. Taking the chestnut-haired Alyse’s hand and bowing over it, he curved his lips.“ Are you certain you don’t want to change your mind about this unpleasant fellow? “ he asked smoothly. “I’m far more charming, and I know people who could see him shipped off to Australia at a moment’s notice.”
She laughed. “Thank you for the offer, Lord Bram, but I find myself rather...happy with my circumstance.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “But it’s been half a year.”
“I don’t rot after a week or two like old fruit,” Phin broke in, capturing her hand back. “And leave my wife be, you blackguard.”
Anyone else would probably have been wise to warn him away from a female to which they had a prior claim. If there was one line that Bram hadn’t crossed, though, it was loyalty. And Phineas Bromley was his friend. But for Lucifer’s sake, if he couldn’t at least pretend to be a wolf, he might as well hang himself. “The only reason I appeared here tonight was for a waltz with your wife,” he said aloud. “Or with you. I’m not particular.”
“Mm hm.” Phin glanced beyond him, his expression sharpening a little. “Alyse, give me a moment, will you?”
She nodded. “I’m expecting you to appear for the second waltz tonight,” she said in Bram’s direction, then joined Quence in greeting the frighteningly cheerful Beth as she returned from the dance with her partner.
“You wouldn’t be the reason that Lady Ackley is missing one earbob and Lord Ackley looks as though he’s about to go pull a saber off the wall, would you, Bram?” Phineas asked, stepping closer and lowering his voice.
Phin had always been the observant sort. “Damnation. At times I appreciate a woman who can’t keep her mouth shut, but outside the bedchamber I would prefer a little discretion.”
“You are in the man’s bloody house,” Phin returned. “Isn’t that a bit bold, even for you?”
Bram snorted. “A few minutes ago I was in the man’s bloody wife. And you’re no saint, yourself.”
“I never claimed to be. But I have more than myself to consider, now. And if Ackley’s going to be challenging you to a duel, I don’t want you anywhere around Alyse.”
“Well, that’s lovely, isn’t it? Enjoy your sugar-coated domesticity, Phin.”
As a rule, Bram didn’t allow censure to trouble him, but Phin Bromley’s conversion to piety was damned annoying. Together he and Phin and Sullivan Waring had left a well-marked trail of mayhem across half the Continent – or at least the bits that England was attempting to keep from Bonaparte. Sex, gambling, fighting, killing – they’d done it all. But now, a bare two years since he and Sully had returned, and one year less for Phin, he seemed to literally be the last man standing. They might call it a shame and say he would be happier married, but neither had they dared send any respectable, marriageable females in his direction.
He blinked at Phin. “What?”
“I need to go dance with my sister. Are we still arguing, or are you going to stomp off?”
“I can’t very well stomp off now that you’ve suggested it.”
Bram took a breath, the thought of wandering about the ballroom for another two hours while avoiding both Lord and Lady Ackley making him want to gag. “Come to Jezebel’s with me.”
”I’ll tell you who I robbed this evening.”
Phin opened his mouth, then closed it again. It must be difficult for Phineas, Bram reflected, to be morally superior in front of someone who knew of his every previously-committed misdeed. At the moment Bram had no sympathy for him at all.
“Let me guess,” the former highwayman and present loving husband finally said, sending a glance in the direction of the refreshment table. “Braithewaite, or Abernathy.”
“‘Abernathy’?” Bram turned around. A third oaf had indeed joined the ranks of the overly-pompous. “Now this is a fortunate turn of events. I rescind my invitation to Jezebel’s.”
“Damn it all, Bram, you can’t burgle the household of everyone who says a word to Levonzy.”
“You know I hate to be contradictory, but I believe I can.” He smiled, his so-called heart accelerating. A second robbery in one night. Everyone would be talking of the Black Cat tomorrow. Even Levonzy.
“Does the duke have any idea what you’re doing?”
“Who gives a damn? Not I.”
“The man is your father.”
“That is the one thing in my life that isn’t my fault. Pray don’t remind me.”
Phin rolled his shoulders. “I can see this isn’t going anywhere. But didn’t I see you at the Society the other day with Abernathy’s son?”
“Yes. Viscount Lester. He’s been following Cosgrove and me about like a lost puppy.”
Phin’s jaw clenched for the briefest of moments, but Bram saw it, nevertheless. If he was in for another damned lecture, he was going to flee.
“So you’d burgle the house of a friend.”
“I didn’t say Lester was a friend. And that wasn’t your complaint. Come now. Don’t spare the horses, Phin.”
“No. I am not going to wade into that with you.”
Bram forced a chuckle. “Go dance with Beth, then. And give Alyse my apologies for missing the waltz.”
Sketching a lazy bow, he strolled out of the ballroom. He’d been seen by all and sundry, so no one would name him as the Black Cat. And now he had another task to occupy the remainder of his evening. He only hoped that burglarizing Abernathy’s home would be a more interesting excursion than the visit to Braithewaite’s had been. If it wasn’t, he had no idea how to amuse himself next, or even which hobby, which activity, even remained undiscovered, unexplored, and undiscarded.
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