Played By the Earl – Alyson Chase

The pendulum of the metronome swayed to and fro, its unceasing ticking as irritating as a small pick digging into his brain. The device had been adjusted to pulse every one and a half seconds. The unfulfilled expectation was its own form of torture. The mind wanted the regular, once-per-second beat of a clock, and the difference between expectation and reality had John Chaucer, Earl of Summerset, digging his fingertips into his thighs. His hand itched to hurl the infernal contraption against the wall. He could only imagine how the naked and blindfolded lady-bird standing on tip-toe upon the small wooden chair with a noose around her neck felt about it. She knew it was a game. She knew John’s punishments culminated in pleasure. Yet still she quivered, aswirl in anticipation…and trepidation. The mind was a funny thing. John pulled out his pocket watch to check the time. Still two minutes remaining. He blew out a silent breath. Cyrus, the man who had set up this predicament play, leaned against the opposite wall. They were in the Amethyst Room of The Black Rose, the Venus club that catered to more unusual inclinations.

The American banker had become a friend of sorts during their acquaintanceship at the club. Enough so where John had been hard-pressed to think of a reason to refuse him when the man had asked for his assistance to set up a game for one of the club’s women. What John couldn’t figure out was why he’d wanted to refuse. He usually adored scenes such as these. When the woman was willing, it gave him a rush like no other to manipulate her mind, make her question reality until need and fear made her body shake with the thrill of it. He glanced at Suzy, and yes, right on schedule, a tremor rippled through her luscious body, her small breasts jiggling, her dark nipples hard as buttons. John leaned his head against the wall and adjusted himself. Such a beautiful sight before him and still only half-hard. Perhaps he truly was getting old as his friends had joked last week. Cyrus dragged his gaze off of Suzy.

He looked expectantly at John. Time to get this charade over with. John straightened and approached the woman. “I’m pleased you’ve learned to hold your tongue as you wait. Are you ready for your punishment?” “Yes, my lord. My apologies once more for spilling my wine on you.” Suzy’s voice was high and breathy. She turned her head, following his footsteps through sound alone. John stopped next to Cyrus and took the end of the rope from his hand. The rope travelled over a beam in the ceiling before coiling around Suzy’s throat.

Cyrus had kept just enough pressure on it to make the woman believe it was tied fast to the beam. “I know you’re sorry, but still one must pay for one’s mistakes.” John leaned against the wall and adjusted his grip on the rope. If Suzy fell, it would slide harmlessly through his fingers, causing no injury to the girl. “Wouldn’t you agree?” She flexed her shoulders. By this point, her arms tied behind her back must be burning with the need to adjust their position. “Yes, my lord. And I know how much you like your finery.” John twisted his lips. The burgundy stain on his peach-colored waistcoat was a necessary evil of this scene.

His valet would be most seriously displeased. He supposed that was why Cyrus had asked him for his participation. It was most believable that John would be upset over the ruination of an article of clothing. Too bad Suzy didn’t know that Cyrus had intentionally jostled her, causing the spill. “You still have the option to make amends by cleaning the garment.” John tugged at the hem of the apple-green waistcoat he’d had the foresight to bring with him that night as a replacement. “It will only take you several hours of scrubbing.” She wrinkled her nose. “No, thank you, my lord. I’d rather have my punishment over and done with.

” She swallowed and angled her neck, her skin scraping against the rope. “I think.” Cyrus circled the woman, running his finger along her waist. Suzy jolted but remained silent. She and John had played in the past but the last several months she had seemed uninterested in his touch. John had a sneaking suspicion as to why. Would she object, thinking it was him stroking her skin? Cyrus came around and stood next to him. He looked at John and raised his eyebrows. John nodded. “Your punishment is almost at an end.

” Cyrus struck a bit of flint against steel, sending sparks cascading to the rough wooden floor. Suzy squeaked and edged away. John made the rope pull tighter about her neck, keeping his eyes trained on her. The mind truly was a curious thing. She must know that if he wanted a flame he would merely pick up one of the candles about the room as Cyrus was now doing. He would have no need to strike a flame anew. But the sound effects were an integral part of the manipulation. Hearing them helped to circumnavigate the rational part of the brain, making her uneasy as to what would come next. John took the candle Cyrus handed him and released the end of the rope, making sure there was nothing it could catch on. The American waded silently into the sea of pillows lain about the chair and stood in front of Suzy.

“This punishment shouldn’t be too harsh.” John stepped closer and raised the candle so the light flickered across her bare arse. “I remember how much you used to enjoy playing with Sutton after all.” A blatant lie. She was the one girl who had outright refused to work with the Baron of Sutton, John’s close friend and owner of The Black Rose. The baron enjoyed bringing fire play into his bed sport. His flame and wax were now reserved solely for his wife, but when he used to play at the club, Suzy would make sure she was occupied doing anything, or anyone, else. John moved the candle closer, letting her feel the heat from the flame. She screamed and flung herself forwards, unheeding of the noose. The rope slid easily over the beam and Suzy tumbled, right into Cyrus’s waiting arms.

He staggered back and they both fell to the cushioned floor. Suzy rubbed her flushed face against Cyrus’s chest, dislodging the blindfold. She glared up at him from her one exposed eye. “You! I should have known you were behind this.” Cyrus chuckled and untied her wrists. He chaffed her arms. “And you shouldn’t have told me your dream about a rope around your neck if you didn’t want this to happen.” He nuzzled her throat. John blew out the candle. Another successful mind game.

Some sort of thrill should have passed through him. Suzy smacked Cyrus’s shoulder, but there was no heat behind it. “You know I hate fire.” “But you love being scared,” he replied. “I adore that you know me so well.” She dug her fingers into the back of Cyrus’s head and pulled him to her. John blew out his cheeks. Another nauseatingly happy couple. Why couldn’t people merely enjoy fucking anymore? Everyone had to have feelings nowadays. develop a tendre before tupping.

It was all dreadfully dull. He turned to leave, but Cyrus’s words stopped him at the door. “You’re going? I’m certain Suzy and I can think of an inventive way to thank you.” John turned. Suzy was draped over Cyrus, her lithe body a delicious inducement. Her eyes glittered, the excitement from the game still evident in her smile. He should accept the invitation. It didn’t look as though he’d be able to play with the woman much longer, and she had been one of his favorites. But Cyrus’s looks were becoming much too proprietary and Suzy gazed at the American as though he placed the stars in the sky just for her. No, those two would stop playing with others and belong only to each other soon enough.

Another pairing. John forced his upper lip to remain uncurled. “Thank you, no. It’s time I returned home.” Cyrus squeezed Suzy’s hip. “All right. You celebrated your birthday last week, did you not? I guess old men need their sleep.” “Oh!” Suzy nodded at John while tracing a pattern on Cyrus’s shirt. “Much joy. Was it your fortieth?” “I have just attained five and thirty,” he said through gritted teeth.

Yanking open the door, he stepped through, slamming it shut on Suzy’s, “I could have sworn someone said he was forty.” John stomped down the hall to the main room. At this time of morning, it was nearly empty and he could see at a glance that Sutton wasn’t among the men. Although his friend managed the club with his wife, he was rarely in attendance. He was probably snuggled up tight to his bride, snoring away in domesticated boredom, slinking into decrepitude with every breath. John accepted his greatcoat and hat from the footman and plucked up his walking stick. He smacked the head into his palm. The sting on his skin from the thirty-six rubies encrusted into the nob only served to increase his irritation. “Your carriage is being brought around, my lord,” the footman said. John nodded and strode outside.

The brisk early morning air hit him like a slap to the face. The sky was a sooty grey, the color that foretold when sunrise was only minutes away. The time when all good men of sense were winding up for their next round of debauchery. A muted roar of laughter at the corner of the cross street caught his attention. He walked to the end of the short drive and looked down the street. A group of five young bucks swayed together as they sang a lusty song. John rubbed his breastbone. Not too long ago that had been him and his friends. Perhaps they had never sung, badly or otherwise, but the five of them had ripped through London with the same joie de vivre. They hadn’t turned for home and bed at the first signs of morning light.

John’s shoulders rounded. He’d just come from a club that catered to his every desire. Been offered an invitation to indulge in wicked pleasures. He should have felt as those boys did. Exuberant. Invincible. As though he straddled the world. Instead, exhaustion weighted him down. Ever since the prime minister had told him his services were no longer desired, an insufferable malaise had slowed his step. No matter how many hell houses or clubs he patronized, he couldn’t escape the boredom of an early retirement.

And the hell of it was, he couldn’t even blame Liverpool. The prime minister had no choice but to let him go. His identity as a spy was fast becoming the worst-kept secret in London, at least among the roughs and criminals he targeted. John had, in point of fact, become useless. Another shout went up, and John glared at the men. Insufferable pups. They had the world by the ballocks and didn’t even know it. The club’s footman hurried to his side. “Your carriage is here, my lord.” “Thank you.

” John looked to his coach. Wilberforce sat on the driver’s bench, even though John had told him not to wait up. He gave his stick a twirl. Perhaps Wil would be up for a drink at Simon’s before retiring for the night. With one last glance down the street, John turned for his carriage. And paused. He narrowed his eyes, tracking the small shape that brushed past the group of bucks. The boy’s gait was exceedingly casual as he bumped into one of the men. Too casual. And unfortunately for him, the man he targeted wasn’t nearly as inebriated as his friends.

“You buggering bounder!” The man grabbed the back of the boy’s collar and yanked him to the ground. “Give it back!” John removed his hat and gave it to the footman. “My lord?” he asked. “Give me a moment.” John stole down the pavement towards the fracas, not that stealth was needed. No one was taking any account of him. The boy crab-crawled away, and the loud-mouth grabbed him by the boot and dragged him back. “Please, sir,” the boy cried. “I didn’t do nobody no ‘arm.” “You stole my watch.

” The man roughly went through the boy’s pockets, came up triumphantly with a gold pocket watch. “You’re a thief. A pickpocket.” “Well, no ‘arm’s done. Everything’s back proper.” The boy got his feet under him and made to stand. The larger man planted his boot into the boy’s shoulder and kicked him back down. “Come on, Alfie,” one of the man’s friends said. “Let it be. You have your watch back.

” “I don’t take kindly to someone stealing from me.” Alfie drew his lips back and grabbed the lad by the collar. “This sneak deserves to be taught a lesson.” He shook the boy roughly. A soft ‘eep’ reached John’s ears. John sighed. This was not the excitement he had been looking for. “All right, that’s enough.” He stepped into the light of the gas lamp. Truly, he enjoyed knocking about a thief as much as the next man, but only when the odds were more evenly matched.

The thief in question was short in stature and round in belly, hardly the fiercest opponent. And if he had achieved three and ten years of age, John would be surprised. “You have your watch back. You won’t beat a child over it.” Alfie tossed the boy to the ground and swung around to face John. “Is that right? And who the hell are you?” “The Earl of Summerset,” he said mildly. Sometimes a title was a lovely tool to drop into a conversation. It put the right sort of person in his place. Unfortunately, Alfie wasn’t the right sort of person. “And I’m Viscount Devlin.

The Marquess of Havenbridge is my father. As I see it, I’m doing a public service. If every right-minded person kicks the gutter rats hard enough, perhaps they won’t show their filthy heads anymore.” The gutter rat in question rose to his feet. He held himself with a quiet prepossession, and John raised the estimate on his age. Such things were difficult to determine, however, with dirt streaked across half of the boy’s face. Summerset pulled his silk handkerchief from his pocket, simultaneously sliding his two-inch dagger from his sleeve to his hand. He palmed the blade, using the handkerchief to hide the metal’s sheen. “You can kick up your heels all you want, but do it somewhere else.” He fluttered the bit of lavender fabric at the man.

“Now run along home to daddy. I’d hate for the marquess to receive a bill from a surgeon to patch up his son. I hear his finances aren’t what they used to be.” A low blow to be sure. Havenbridge was in debt to half the ton but it was poor form to publicly acknowledge such a thing. Summerset cared sod all for being polite to arseholes. Alfie’s face went blotchy with anger. He stepped forwards, hands clenched at his sides. “Lord or not, I’ll have your head. I’ll—” A throat was gently cleared behind Summerset.

From the way Alfie fell back a step, Summerset could only assume that his driver and right-hand man, Wilberforce, was pointing his trusty blunderbuss at the lot of them. An antiquated and unwieldy weapon, but effective in shutting men up just the same. Wilberforce moved closer to John, his distinctive tread, one heavy step followed by a slight drag of his left foot, as welcome a sound as any to his ears. “Perhaps it’s time for you and your friends to run along home,” Summerset said. “I believe you’ve had sufficient entertainment for the night.” He crooked his fingers, beckoning the street urchin to stand behind him. The lad didn’t need to be told twice. He darted forward, putting John’s body between himself and Alfie. “Come on.” One of the friends slapped Alfie on the back.

“We’ve time for one last drink at The Pidgeon Hole if we hurry.” Alfie looked from John to Wilberforce and back again, his nostrils flaring. “Fine,” he bit out. “The smell of trash is making me sick anyhow.” And with one last glare, he stomped away, his friends trying to cajole him back into good humor. John snaked out a hand and grabbed the boy by the back of his collar as he tried to sneak off. “Not so fast. Isn’t it late for you to be out and about? Where’s your home?” The boy ran the back of his wrist under his nose, inhaling a phlegmy breath. John winced. “Iffen the night’s good enough for yer lot to be out and about, it’s good ‘nuff fer the likes of me.

” The disdain dripped as thick as treacle from his reedy voice. He jutted up his grimy chin, and the light from the gas lamps fell on his face. John’s breath hitched. There was a softness, a roundness, to the child’s face that spoke of youth, but the eyes staring impertinently back at him held no such immaturity. They were striking, a blue so clear that they seemed to glow above the dirty cheeks. Or were they purple? Regardless, intelligence glimmered behind them. Intelligence, and a shrewdness one could only develop through harsh experience. Wilberforce grunted behind him, his version of a laugh, and John tore his gaze from the boy. John twisted the tip of his walking stick into the ground. “I would expect gratitude over attitude, but I’ve always said manners were wasted on the young.

Now, I’m not going to let you roam about getting into ever more trouble.” The boy might think he was the predator, skimming coin from drunken lackwits, but he was but a guppy compared to the sharks that swam through the London streets at night. “I’ll take you home. Just tell my man where to.” The boy remained stubbornly silent. John rolled his head, feeling his neck pop. He could have been home abed by now if he’d left from the club straight off. Saving grubby little street thieves wasn’t in the job description of a spy. His gut hardened. Nothing was in his job description any longer.

His status as spy was on permanent hiatus. “Sir?” Wilberforce shifted. The concern in that one word was obvious, but then Wilberforce always did have a soft spot when it came to strays. If John were to wash his hands of the boy, he would most likely be out of the services of a driver for the next hour or so. The blasted man would follow the child home to ensure a safe arrival. John blew out a breath. He ran a hand up the back of his head, ruffling his locks into a state of charming disarray. He’d practiced the motion so often in his youth it had become second-nature. “Are you hungry?” he asked the boy. He eyed the rounded belly.

The answer was likely a safe bet. The lad must be more successful in his thieving than John thought if it kept him so well-fed. “I’m going to Pierre’s to break my fast. You’re welcome to join me. His plum cake is quite exquisite.” The boy narrowed his eyes. “Wot’s yer game?” “No game. A free meal, some conversation, and then you can go on your way.” When it would be full dawn and Wilberforce wouldn’t feel compelled to watch over the boy like a mother hen. “The coffeehouse is only a couple of blocks away.

We’ll walk.” “And you don’t want nothing in return?” John’s chest tightened. No, the child wasn’t so innocent after all. Someone had taught him a harsh lesson or two. “Nothing. You have my word.” The boy cocked his head and squinted, examining John like a bug under a microscope before nodding. “All right. I’ll let you buy me some ‘o that cake. But no funny business.

” John refrained from looking heavenward. Like the child was doing him a favor. He held out his hand, and was glad of the leather gloves he wore when the filthy hand slipped into his to shake. “Summerset.” “Ned Pickle.” They turned and headed down the block. “Are you really an earl?” The boy looked sideways at him. “Of course. Why do you ask?” “No reason. Didn’t think aristos truly wore ‘eels that ‘igh.

” He pointed at John’s boots, a magnificent pair made of ivory kid-leather with mother-of-pearl buttons. “My da told me yer lot were all fops and dandies, but I didn’t believe ‘im. Till now.” Another muffled chuckle from behind had John swinging around to glare at Wil. This is your fault, he mouthed. Only to save his friend and servant from tiring himself out following the boy had John made such a generous offer. One he was beginning to severely regret. He adjusted his cravat. “I prefer the term coxcomb myself.” The boy snorted.

“Cox-comb. You reckon they meant—” “No.” John ground his back teeth. It was only one breakfast. Half an hour at the most of irritating company, and he would have done his good deed for the year. “Oy, I don’t s’pose a cuppa chocolate comes with this cake?” John closed his eyes. Thirty minutes had never seemed so endless.

.

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