Sinless – Lynne Connolly

Like most houses in London, Mother Fleming’s House appeared small from the outside. However, looks were deceiving, as Andrew Graham had reason to know. He recognized features from his own establishment, but he lived half a mile away, and his house did not have the reputation of Mother Fleming’s. The building blazed with the light cast from oil lamps and tallow candles. The upper stories were not far behind. “They’re not expecting us,” the man by Andrew’s side murmured, a self-congratulatory note in his voice. A tavern occupied the ground level. The doors lay open, inviting the passersby to enter. Not that there would be many, since the place stood halfway down a narrow alley off High Holborn. Andrew did not generally concern himself with criminal acts, but General Court had made refusal impossible. Tonight he’d rather be anywhere else, but he had never shied away from his duty. He had no objection to people loving the way they wanted, as long as they caused no trouble to anyone else. However, the general had told him this molly house contained spies. Any loyal subject must concern himself with that. Andrew could not turn his back on treason.

He nodded to Reed, the Bow Street Runner standing at his elbow. “Is everybody in place?” “Aye, sir. Nobody can get away without us knowing. When we go in, stay back. We don’t want you hurt.” Andrew heartily agreed with that particular sentiment. Reed lifted a flaming torch, adding extra drama to the scene, just in case it didn’t have drama enough. Men stepped out from the shadows. Heavily armed men. The Runner glanced at him, the flames lending his face a devilish cast.

“You keep back, sir. People can get hurt.” “I’m fully aware of that.” Andrew had stowed a pair of loaded pistols in the pockets of his coat before he left home this evening. Not well-honed dueling pistols, true, but they’d do the job if required. He didn’t wear a sword, couldn’t use one well, but he had a couple of knives on his person. London taverns were best visited with a knife or two in one’s pocket. A great howl went up, men shouting as they rushed through the front door, causing responding screams of outrage from within. Andrew stood still, the sheer volume shocking his rigidity. Although he’d expected noise, the unholy yell lost him a precious few seconds of time.

Recklessness pushed him on, but never mindlessly. Andrew kept his wits about him at all times. Somebody had to. Andrew waited until the men had charged inside before making his own entrance. By now, most of the occupants of the ground floor were standing against the walls, many bearing expressions of bored disdain. Considering the nature of the place, they appeared disappointingly normal. Most wore scuffed coats, drab colors with tarnished brass buttons or plain steel. Their hats were festooned on the pegs nailed to the wall just inside the main door. The tavern stank, as they always did. An overpowering aroma of beer had sunk into the timbers overhead, combining with the thick smell of tobacco smoke and coal dust.

Over the top, freshly baked meat pies made their presence felt in the nostrils. It smelled like home to Andrew, a native Londoner. He glanced at a youth, huddled against the wall. “You came here, you have to face the consequences,” he murmured. “Green apples aren’t easy to come by at this time of year.” He felt foolish saying it, but according to General Court, that was how he would know the man he needed to meet. Andrew knew his mission, though he didn’t understand the words. Under the commotion of the raid, he needed to collect a paper and return it to General Court. Simple, or so it had appeared when he’d agreed to undertake the mission. It didn’t appear so simple now.

The youth blinked. “You want apples?” Hardening his heart, Andrew moved on. He had no sympathy for the boy, none at all. He must have known the nature of the place upstairs before he came here. Pederasts and sodomites frequented Mother Fleming’s. Such blatant displays deserved punishment. Such people, practicing their perversion in full knowledge that it was wrong, deserved what they would get. Which, at the worst case, would mean hanging. Even as he stiffened his resolve, Andrew knew himself for a hypocrite. Hanging men for a practice they indulged in privately did not seem important when murderers and thieves queued to use the gallows tree.

Andrew quickly assured himself that no spy awaited down here. At the end of the long, narrow space, a set of stairs led up. Reed directed the men, leaving four down here and taking the remainder upstairs before anyone could get away. When he reached the top of the stairs, several matters made themselves clear. Mother Fleming had a distinguished clientele. On a swift perusal, Andrew spotted several men of note. Two or three politicians, a judge, and a sprinkling of aristocrats at first glance. A…thing stood on an improvised stage made of two tables pushed together. At first Andrew thought it a woman of the most lascivious kind. But her deeply cut gown revealed no breasts.

Instead, a pair of nipples and a strong, hairy masculine torso incongruously peeked over the pink satin and cheap lace. His face was painted white with rosy circles on the cheeks and ruby-red outlining his pair of lips, making Cupid’s bow out of thin masculine flesh. His eyes were circled in lampblack. No female wore this gown, despite the long fingers delicately holding the ivory sticks of a fine silk fan and the elaborate powdered hairstyle with ringlets falling to caress the bare shoulders. “My,” said the vision. “We are privileged tonight, my darlings!” Somehow the person, who could be no less than Madame Fleming, made himself heard over the cacophony. As the tables jolted, he took a wider, more masculine stance and stepped on to one surface. The heavy embroidered gown swayed alarmingly, its hoop larger than current fashion, threatening to reveal all at any moment. Andrew watched, unable to look away as Madame Fleming ground his hips. The molly thrust forward in a jerk that sent his hoop surging up, affording a glimpse, if anyone cared to look, of the proof of his sex.

“Well, here’s a pretty sight!” The voice emerged high-pitched, but with a masculine tone thrillingly giving the words a backbone. “Methinks you’re on the wrong side, my lord!” The use of the title Andrew did not warrant amounted to a challenge. He took on the invisible mantle of the lawyer, tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, and added a sardonic slant of his lips. “One of us is, sir.” He spared the creature no more than a glance as he turned his attention to the other occupants of the room. Chaos wove around him—yells of protest, whines of men begging, and shocked exclamations of dismay. Two of Reed’s men had disappeared into side rooms, no doubt attempting to catch someone in flagrante delicto. After tonight, Madame Fleming’s would be no more. One brave constable grabbed the skirts of Madame’s gown, gathering it around the molly’s legs, attempting to drag him from his improvised stage. Andrew scanned the room.

A young man, slim and elegant, dressed in lemon-yellow and blue caught his eye. All he had to do was pose his nonsensical question. The youth did not know where his contact was coming from, or so the general had told him. About to force his way across the room, his attention snagged on someone else. He remained, staring, all his defenses ripped down in one appalled moment. Standing less than five feet away from him, gazing at him as if only waiting for the moment of recognition, was Lord Darius Shaw, to give him his full formal title. Like the rest of his aristocratic family, Lord Darius wore his glossy brown hair naturally, tied back into a queue. Their enemies called the fashion a sign of their disdain of approved behavior. Andrew was inclined to agree. Lord Darius could have come here straight from a fashionable ball.

The man must be mad, arriving here in the finery of gold and blue brocade. He could be murdered for his clothes alone, and if Andrew was not mistaken, that ring glinting on his finger contained an enormous emerald. He remembered Lord Darius for another reason. Last year Andrew had stood by his twin brother’s side as Lord Valentinian Shaw faced a charge of murder. Any other family would strive to remain in the shadows after that kind of scandal. The trial had played out in the full light of public opprobrium, and the Shaws had gained new enemies in the process. At that time, Andrew had noticed Lord Darius. He noticed him again now. Lord Darius raised a dark brow, the hard line winging up as the corner of his mouth on the opposite side quirked. He must know how attractive that expression made him.

“Well met, sir,” he said. Andrew felt rather than heard the words, as his lordship did not deign to raise his voice over the din. Andrew glared at his lordship, moving closer to make himself heard. “I presume you will wish to engage my services after this disgrace.” “I doubt you offer the kind of services that interest me, dear boy.” A pause ensued. “Or do you?” He heard the voice clearly now, the mellifluous, cultured tones that had kept him awake for several nights in a row. This man was too arrogant, too knowledgeable, too—everything. How dared Shaw add such innuendo to his insulting statement? How had Andrew been so foolish as to give him the opening? Lord Darius always set him on edge, more than his brothers. Andrew did not allow himself to be taken off guard very often, but he was shaking now.

He whipped his head around to give his lordship the kind of glare that had plaintiffs quailing. Needless to say, the tactic didn’t work. Lord Darius’s eyes were a brighter, harder shade of blue than his twin’s, and his mouth thinner, giving him a more ascetic, almost delicate look. At least it would be, but for the honed, hardened body beneath the fine silk and brocade. The Shaw twins were the second and third sons of the Marquess of Strenshall. They boasted at least one more marquess and a duke as relatives. As a whole, the family were known as the Emperors of London—notorious, wealthy and influential. Few dared cross them. Andrew did. He would see his duty done.

While his heart sank at the notion of putting a Shaw into this mess, he would do it. Lord Darius had brought this on himself by coming here in the first place. “Your taste in evening entertainment has not improved since we last met,” he remarked. “The lady is most talented.” His lordship flicked a gaze up to the impromptu stage, where the person in question was being hauled down and taken into custody. Jeers and boos accompanied the act, together with chants of “Keep going!” to Mother Fleming. Taunts were flung Andrew’s way. Andrew ignored them all. “I have no desire to discover his talents.” “At one point she would have graced the greatest stages in the city,” his lordship continued smoothly.

“All performers were once male, did you know? I would have enjoyed watching Romeo court Juliet on her balcony in that era.” Andrew sucked in a harsh breath. “My lord, the implications do you no favors. Pray be circumspect.” He felt obliged to give the advice, having acted for the family before. However, in this instance he doubted Lord Darius would wish to retain him. Since his lordship had only been watching the show, was fully dressed, and showed no signs of lasciviousness, the magistrates would be inclined to dismiss him without charge. If he were brought up before them, which Andrew doubted. “Your father will most likely stop your allowance,” Andrew remarked, allowing a sneer of his own. Lord Darius was a useless aristocrat, living off his wealthy family.

“You think I’m my father’s pensioner?” “Most younger sons are.” That was true enough, if they did not choose a profession. “You are not an army officer, and you show no inclination to take Holy Orders. I presume you do not owe every tailor in London for your fine suits of clothes.” Or that expensive perfume that maddeningly teased Andrew’s nostrils. Lord Darius reminded him of the forbidden. Unlike any man Andrew had ever met, this man conjured up visions he should not, could not, afford to think. They stood in their island of solitude while Reed’s men set about the business of arresting every other person in this crowded room. They could have been standing in a fashionable drawing room, exchanging the time of day for all the notice people took of them. “Many younger sons have their own source of income.

Some even work for a living.” That quirk of the lips teased Andrew, dared him to ask. He refused. Would he receive an answer he did not want? One that would compromise his integrity or his mission here tonight? In short, was Lord Darius the spy? Andrew hardly dared voice the words he needed to speak. A flash of yellow attracted Andrew’s attention. Dragging his gaze away from the sumptuous green and gold of his lordship, he noticed the young man standing behind him. Very close behind him, in truth. A slender youth with a receding chin, wide eyes, and a narrow face garbed in yellow and blue stared back at him. With a remarkably steady tone, Andrew said, “Green apples aren’t easy to come by.” The youth opened his mouth.

“They are exceedingly fine when the wind is in the east.” Andrew stepped forward, hand outstretched to receive the unassuming piece of paper the young man held out to him. But before he could, a hard barrier stepped between them. Andrew’s nostrils flared, the scent of his lordship filling them, his gaze full of the gorgeousness of Darius Shaw. “You seem obsessed with this person,” his lordship murmured. “Try me instead.” Before Andrew knew what he was about, his lordship had bent his head and covered Andrew’s lips with his. The taste and scent made Andrew moan. His lordship swallowed the involuntary sound as his arms went to Andrew’s forearms, holding him in a shockingly powerful grip. The lips covering Andrew’s froze and then Darius assaulted him with new purpose, pressing into him.

The rasp of stubble, so deliciously unlike the feel of a woman’s skin, made Andrew near to fainting. Shameful craving, hard and needy, rose to meet a similar strength contained within his lordship’s satin breeches. Desire, strong and unassailable, swamped Andrew in a fever of need, wiping away memory, thought, and reason. Just this, this meant everything. He had denied himself for so long. Surely this taste of paradise could not be wrong? He could admit, if only to himself, that he had dreamed of this man’s arms around him, drawing him into the world of love and true fulfillment. Darius curled his hand around Andrew’s neck, holding him in a firm but tender grip. He moved his thumb in circles as he pushed his tongue against Andrew’s lips, demanding permission to enter. Andrew shivered, the gentle strokes on the hair at the nape of his neck as seductive as anything he had ever known. He opened, admitting the glorious taste of Darius Shaw into his mouth and his being.

He caressed the invader and pressed closer, bringing their shafts into alignment. He had come home, where he belonged. What was he doing? Andrew jerked back. At the first sign of resistance, Lord Darius let him go. He gazed into Andrew’s eyes, his own wide and shocked, as much as Andrew’s must have been. No sign of the sardonic amusement he’d affected remained. Only a realization, a recognition of something Andrew had fought against all his life. Something that could never be. He drew a deep breath and firmed his lips. “I knew it,” his lordship said in a voice barely more than a sigh.

“You desire me.” Lost for words, Andrew gaped. Glancing around, he was relieved to discover that nobody had seen his lapse of judgment. Hardly surprising in this small, crowded place where confusion reigned supreme. “You do want me, don’t you?” The mordant expression returned, shielding the desperate vulnerability Andrew was still not sure he had seen. “Your protestations will not work, sir. I have seen your true colors.” The pause dropped between them. “I tasted them. You have the brightest shades in the rainbow inside you, and I’m the man to unlock them from their prison.

I can set you free.” Andrew could not pretend he did not know what Lord Darius meant. Anger seethed through him. He had not come this far, fought this hard, for his future to be ripped away from him, for this scion of aristocracy to disdainfully destroy everything he had. However unwittingly. “You made a mistake.” His steadiness of tone shocked him, but he persevered, his confidence increasing. “You appear anxious to shield the youth I wished to speak to.” Lord Darius’s eyes narrowed. “You want another man?” Finally, Andrew returned his attention to the room.

It was fast emptying. The officers had removed the occupants with startling efficiency. No doubt they would let some go, those they had no charges against. Furious at losing his quarry, Andrew faced Lord Darius head-on. “Sodomy is punishable by death, my lord, as well you know.” “But an innocent kiss between friends?” Andrew sneered. “That was no friendly salute.” Lord Darius lowered his head. “No, it wasn’t, was it?” His voice became unbearably intimate, making Andrew flinch at the truth of what he was saying. “I’d call that a lewd act.

” Reed’s presence broke into the conversation. “You’ll oblige me by coming along with me.” Raising his head, Lord Darius gave the Runner a glacial stare. “Locking me up, are you?” “If you please.” “I do not.” “Or if you don’t please. I’m locking you up anyway.” Andrew, frozen with guilt and horror, forced himself to move. He stepped back and mustered what dignity he could. “You have sealed your own doom, sir.

” Lord Darius smiled, weariness in the curve of his mouth. “I did that a long time ago.” Andrew turned his head and spotted one of Reed’s men. Jerking his chin, he said, “Take him,” and turned. At least Lord Darius Shaw could get a taste of the jail for a night. Unless, as was more than probable, he sent for a relative to get him out, or dropped a few guineas into the Runner’s outstretched hand before they got to the prison gates.

.

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