My Kind of Earl – Vivienne Lorret

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’d have pickpocketed as a lad. Or the kind he’d seen It was going to stay that way, too. All a man had to do was follow a certain philosophy. He’d come 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 “Your promises are impossible to resist.

” Bending down to lift her vellum-skinned hand to his lips, the flickering glow of the lantern. “Get on with ye now, randy gent. I’ve said and were 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, homing 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 Vikinglike 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 Peering around the corner, Raven saw only the faintest of movements in the gloom, accompanied by 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.

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