Chapter 1: The Terrible Tipple
A light rain fell outside, but in the belly of the Beefsteak, Lord John Grey was warm and dry. He sat in the reading room, in an overstuffed armchair, facing out the window. His thoughts were on Isobel and William—how looking after them might fill a bit of the emptiness he felt inside. He was sipping a sherry and still pondering his future when a gasping figure came rushing up behind him. He turned to see his brother, Hal, eyes wild with anger.
“Hal, what is it?”
“Thought I’d find you here. Harry Quarry’s been poisoned.”
Grey rose quickly and laid a hand on Hal’s arm. Quarry was one of his brother’s dearest friends, and John himself was almost equally fond of the man. “Is he alive?”
“Yes, so far. Apparently he’ll be all right if he can last the next few hours. But John…”
“Someone tried to kill him. Are you certain?” Hal nodded, but Grey raised an eyebrow in question. “Could it not have been something he ate? Unintentional food poisoning?”
Hal lowered his voice and steered John by the elbow toward the door. “Let’s talk outside.”
The two men walked a way down the street before stopping. “Harry was at the Beefsteak when it happened.”
“What? Really? Why did no one tell me when I came in?” The Society was known for its discretion and the staff nearly always chose not to repeat whatever gossip they heard from the members, but Lord John and his brother were well known as good friends of Colonel Quarry.
“You expect them to tell you he almost died drinking from a bottle they poured themselves?” Hal shook his head. “Probably waiting for a result before deciding what to say.”
“He fell ill just after drinking from it? He didn’t eat anything first?” As always, Grey’s quick mind grasped for the details.
“Apparently he was having a tipple before dinner. Brandy, it was. Supposed to be the finest in the house.”
“Did he ask for it or was it suggested to him?”
“I’m not sure. I—I didn’t think to ask.”
“From whom did you gather this information? I take it Harry is not capable of conversing at the moment?” John pulled Hal toward the building as a great coach went thundering past.
“No, he’s… just babbling and groaning, when he’s awake at all. They sent for me as soon as it happened, and I spoke to the steward then.” Hal kept a stiff upper lip, but his eyes betrayed his concern.
John attempted to reassure him. “He’ll be all right. He is a soldier, after all.” He stepped back into the street and they headed back inside the club. “Is the man you spoke to still here?”
Hal nodded. “I’ll point you to him. John--” he added, “Thank you for looking into this for me. You’re cleverer than I at this sort of thing, and besides, I’m too busy with my regimental duties. I’ll give you leave to investigate. Someone else can take over your duties with the 46th.”
“Lord Melton, Lord John,” the doorman bowed, moving aside to let the men pass.
Hal strode into the dining room, waving away the head steward impatiently as he came toward them and casting his eyes around the tables. It was early yet, so only a handful of diners were present. He spotted the young server quickly and walked over, John following. “Please be so kind, sir, to answer whatever questions my brother may put to you.” He turned to Grey. “I must hurry back—I want to be there when he… when he recovers.”
“Of course. Do let me know.” John’s mind was on his task now, and he spared his brother no more than a glance before taking the steward by the arm and maneuvering him to a quiet corner. “The brandy you gave to Colonel Quarry. Did he request it?”
The boy’s face flushed crimson. “No, sir, I—I recommended it, you see, because we’d just had a new shipment in and I knew the colonel would enjoy it. That is, I thought…”
Grey felt for the steward, but his need to know what happened overran his compassion. “Did you open the bottle and pour it yourself?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Had it been tampered with?”
The young man’s embarrassment turned to offended disgust. “Of course not, my lord. I would never have served it to him if it hadn’t of looked right.”
“No, of course you wouldn’t. May I see the bottle?” He wanted to examine the evidence for himself, to gather as many facts as possible to store in his mind for sorting out later.
“I—I believe it was gotten rid of, my lord.”
“What? By whom?” Grey’s tone was indignant, but the steward didn’t answer. Clearly, someone higher up the chain than he had made the decision. Lord John sighed in frustration, then changed his tack. “Did you notice any odd smell when you poured the brandy?”
Again, the boy shook his head. “No, sir. It seemed fine to me, and I waited while the colonel took a sip, to be sure it was to his liking.”
“Yes? And was it?”
“He said it was grand, my lord. So I took my leave.”
“Did you leave him the bottle?”
“And how much of it had he drank before he fell ill?”
“About half of it, my lord.” The steward was looking around nervously now. He knew he shouldn’t be talking about it—if the head steward found out, he might lose his position. But a lord was a lord.
“All right, thank you. You may go.”
Grey considered what to do next. Confront the head steward or go higher up? Seeing the elderly steward enter the room, he made his choice. The man refused to admit anything, however, claiming that he had no idea what had become of the bottle. John went next to the kitchen and storeroom, then to the bins behind the club, gingerly poking through the dirty heaps of rubbish with the tip of his dagger. He found several bottles, but none of them brandy. It was time to interrogate the manager.
It turned out that the manager, wanting to protect the reputation of the Beefsteak and being unable to decide how best to do so, had secreted the bottle in the small room he used as his personal study. Grey turned it carefully in his hands. It was a yellowish, hand-blown glass mallet-style bottle with a long neck and a wide base. Next, he asked for the cork, and peered at it closely. His vision was good and after staring at the small lump between his fingers for more than a minute, he could see a small hole. He held the cork out to the manager accusingly. “Someone has punctured it with a needle or some other long, thin implement. Look.”
“I swear I did not do it, my lord.” The white-haired man had lost some of his usual dignified bearing. His hand shook slightly as he took the cork from Grey.
“Do you know who did?”
“No, my lord. I wish I did.”
“When was the delivery made? Who unloaded it? Who has access to the stores?” John’s questions were sharp and fast.
“I—I—don’t--” the man stammered.
“Colonel Quarry may die, sir! I suggest you find your tongue.”
“Several casks and bottles were unloaded at the back door at half-past one o’clock this afternoon. They came from our usual supplier and were brought by a man well known to us. Two of my men carried them into the storeroom. None of them is here now, my lord. I can write you a list of their names. They’ll be in on the morrow. I lock up the room at night and I’m the only one who has the key.” A glance at Grey’s face prompted him to pick up his quill immediately. He scratched out three names onto the back of a used piece of ordinary linen paper and handed it to Grey with a nod.
He folded it quickly, stuck it in the pocket of his waistcoat among an assortment of odds and ends he’d picked up in the course of the day, gave a slight bow, and rushed out of the club. Checking his pocket watch, he saw that the hour was still early enough that a visit to Quarry’s home would not be considered ill mannered. He hailed a coach and gave the driver the address.
A servant took Grey’s hat at the door, but he left his coat on. He inquired politely as to the whereabouts of Mrs. Quarry and was relieved to hear that she was sequestered in her room, taking some much needed rest. He had met Harry’s wife only once, as Harry seemed to prefer to socialize without her—or perhaps she preferred not to go. Either way, such a habit was no doubt quite convenient when he found himself wanting to patronize his favourite brothel before coming home from a gathering.
Grey was shown to the room where Quarry lay in bed, mumbling incoherently. Hal, who was perched on a stool beside him, looked up as his brother walked in.
“How is he?” John asked, in a whisper.
“He’s been in and out. The physician bled him a little but said all we can do now is wait.”
Grey bent over Quarry’s face, giving what he hoped was an inconspicuous sniff. There was no discernibly poisonous smell.
“Johnny? Is that you?” the ill man croaked.
Grey put a hand on Quarry’s arm. His sleeve was soaked through with perspiration. “Yes, Harry. Are you all right?”
“Where is Melton?” Harry tried to sit up but fell back again.
Hal rushed to his side. “I’m here.”
“Hal’s been with you for hours,” John felt compelled to say.
“Yes, good man, Melton.” Harry’s eyes closed and the Grey brothers wondered if he had drifted off again. “That damn brandy. Must’ve been.”
John edged Hal out of the way. “Did you see anyone tamper with the bottle, the cork?”
Quarry shook his head.
Grey looked at Hal, then back at Harry. “Is there anyone who would want to…harm you?”
Harry’s eyes flew open. “You think someone tried to murder me?”
“Well, other bottles of the same shipment were served today, and none of the other members has fallen ill. It seems likely that this one bottle was contaminated. Deliberately.”
“No, I can’t think of anyone who’d want to kill me.” He was gaining strength, his words coming clearer. Hal poured him some water and he took a sip before continuing. “I’m a bit hard on my men sometimes, but I let them play when it’s time to. They love me. As for anyone else…”
John turned to Hal. “Can you think of anyone?”
“Harry has no enemies that I am aware of. What’s your next step, John?”
“Talk to the men who unloaded the bottles, and talk to everyone Harry knows and everyone he’s come in contact with recently, I suppose.” Grey sighed. He wanted to find Quarry’s poisoner, but he had nothing to go on. Perhaps Harry was not even the intended victim, he thought. How would they ever know?
After seeing that Quarry had apparently turned a corner for the good and that Hal was feeling happier, John excused himself and headed for home. It was a long walk in the dark back to his mother’s house, but he looked forward to it. The rain had lightened to a fine drizzle—just enough to refresh him as he lifted his face to the moon. His boots made a soft clump as he started down the street, lost in thought.
Chapter 2: An Odd Visitor
The next morning, Lord John begins his investigation bright and early.
The young valet rushed into Grey’s room. It was barely dawn, and Lord John was already dressing. “I’m sorry, me lord, I didn’t hear you get up.” Tom held John’s coat out for him.
“That’s quite all right. Tom, I’d like you to help me with something this morning.”
“Of course, me lord.”
“I need to speak to several people today, but time is of the essence. Can you go to the Beefsteak and question the names on this list?” He dug into his waistcoat for the paper, but it wasn’t there.
Byrd lifted it from a nearby dresser, where he had placed it the previous evening. “Yes, me lord. And what should I ask them?”
“I want to know who touched that brandy—from the time it arrived to the time it was served. Find out all you can about each, especially where they were and what they were doing between half past one and six o’clock.”
“Yes, me lord. Will you take some breakfast now, sir?”
Grey shook his head. He’d tied his hair back by himself. Byrd frowned at the few untethered wisps but said nothing. He knew when his master was in a mood. “I’ll see you later, Tom.” He exited the house in a hurry and started down the street, stepping carelessly over the damp cobblestones.
Grey had woken in the dark, his mind filled with questions. Who would want to kill Harry Quarry? Who would have had the opportunity? How did the poison get into the bottle? Was it even poison? He had his own suspicions but needed to talk to an expert to confirm them. He had decided to go to the apothecary first, then return to Harry’s and see if anything had occurred to his friend overnight. John knew many of the same people in Quarry’s social circle, but there were bound to be some acquaintances he was unaware of. The sooner he had those names, the better.
“White arsenic, yes. It does sound quite possible,” the apothecary agreed. “No odour, colour, or taste to speak of. Effects depend on how much was used. Anyone ingesting it would experience stomach cramps, extreme perspiration--”
“That must be it. Do you sell it here?” Lord John looked around at the various oddly shaped bottles and jars on the shelves behind the man.
“I do. Plenty of people buy it, though, and may have kept it for months before using it. It would do no good to tell you who’s bought it recently, and I don’t remember them all anyway.”
Grey sighed. “No guilty-faced villain asking for an undetectable poison, then?” When the apothecary raised his eyebrows, John smiled. “Just a little joke. I thank you for your time, sir. Good day.” He left the shop, closing the door softly behind him.
Had Quarry’s poisoner miscalculated the number of grains that would kill him, or expected him to drink the whole bottle before he fell ill enough to stop?
Harry himself was not much more help. The two men had tea in the front sitting room, sipping the hot liquid as the morning sun streamed in through a thin silk curtain. Slightly revived though his stomach had begun to growl, Lord John pressed Harry for names, but none were a surprise.
“Anyone else you can think of? Acquaintances, officers of other regiments, or anyone you hadn’t seen in a while who suddenly popped into your life again?”
“Now that you mention it…”
“Yes?” Grey leaned forward.
Quarry slurped at his tea. “Last week, I had an odd visitor—man called Bowles.”
John’s heartbeat quickened. He had met the mysterious government agent once and hadn’t enjoyed the meeting. He still wasn’t sure if Bowles had sensitive information on him—private information, gleaned perhaps from a few youthful visits to a particular gentlemen’s house. He kept his voice light. “Oh? What did he want?”
“That’s the odd thing. He didn’t really say.”
“Did he not ask you anything?”
Harry set down his teacup and stroked his chin with one hand. “Come to think of it, he asked me about your brother—if Melton had had any difficulties with anyone lately.”
John was alarmed. “What? Why? Why would he not ask Hal himself?” Harry shrugged. “What did you tell him?”
“I told him no. So far as I know, Melton’s had no problems with anyone. I couldn’t tell you if the man was glad of that, or disappointed. He asked a few more inconsequential things about the regiment, and then he left.”
“Did he come alone?”
“No, he had a young man with him, bit short, fair-haired. He didn’t say a word the whole time, just stood by the door.”
Stapleton, Grey thought. Had to be. Well, well. Perhaps it was time to go and find Mr. Neil Stapleton, a.k.a. Neil the Cunt. John knew just where he’d be.
Chapter 3: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary
John's inquiries lead him to his brother's house and to Lavender House.
Grey spent part of the afternoon with Hal, after his brother made the mistake of returning home for some papers he’d forgotten and they both finally submitted to Minnie’s repeated requests to take dinner with her. Having not eaten all day, he was happy to acquiesce, although Hal was not. He was anxious to get back to his duties and was not in a patient frame of mind when John tried to ask him about Bowles.
“What interest could he have in you, do you suppose?” John essayed.
“I haven’t the slightest idea.” Hal prodded his pudding with a spoon.
“And you have no idea what problems he thought you might have?”
“Not a one. Unless he was referring to my argument with Colonel Huntington, but that was all sorted and I don’t see why he would care.”
“Huntington?” Grey vaguely recalled the name but could not attach a face to it.
“Very stubborn man. Didn’t like taking orders from me, but he did in the end.”
John smirked. “He obviously didn’t know you very well if he thought you’d give in. You’re the most stubborn man I know.”
“Hmph. Next to yourself, perhaps. Anyway, it was quite a minor matter, concerning the behaviour of two of the men under his supervision. Common stuff, really. Other than that, I don’t remember having harsh words with anyone in the past several weeks. Quarry might be getting things muddled. Did he seem all right to you?”
Grey assured his brother that Harry appeared to be on the mend. After the pudding, he politely declined Minnie’s offer of a game of whist and headed home to check in with Tom.
The valet had both good and bad news. He discovered, through discussions with the employees themselves and also with several patrons at the local pub, that the delivery man and the two younger men who had unloaded the brandy at the Beefsteak were well liked and trusted by all. They had been in their current positions for at least five years and had never come under suspicion before. Tom had also learned, however, that when the crates of bottles were taken off the wagon, they were stacked against the wall just inside the back door of the club and left unattended for at least half an hour while the men hauled the larger barrels to the storeroom. Either then or later, when one of the crates was set aside for immediate use, any number of passing staff might have been alone with the brandy.
“I’m afraid I haven’t helped you at all, me lord.” His eyes were downcast.
“You did all you could, Tom. Thank you.” Grey took off his coat and handed it to Byrd. “I’ll be going out this evening, and I don’t want you to follow me.” He eyed the young man narrowly. “Is that quite clear?”
“Yes, me lord.” Tom helped him to change from his uniform into a navy and grey ensemble that hinted at moneyed elegance while still being plain and subtle enough to attract little attention. The valet secretly thought that his lord’s efforts would be in vain, since Grey tended to stand out wherever he went, due to the striking beauty of his face. Both women and men found him endlessly attractive, and Tom was loyal enough to be proud of the fact. Nevertheless, he knew his place, and said nothing.
Upon entering Lavender House, Grey asked to speak to the proprietor. He found his way to Richard Caswell’s room, forcing himself not to shudder as the door opened to reveal the wizened old man.
“Lord John! What a pleasant surprise.” Caswell’s beady eyes swept over Grey. He was not about to ask what brought John there, but he had not seen the nobleman in months and knew he was not a regular patron. His interest was piqued.
“The last time we spoke, I understood that you may know, or have dealings with, a man called Bowles.” Caswell’s face was blank. Grey continued. “If you have any information about why he may be interested in either my brother or Colonel Harry Quarry, I would be much obliged if you would share it with me.”
“And how would you repay your obligation to me?” The old man’s crooked smile revealed his darkly stained teeth.
“We can discuss that later. Do you have any information or don’t you?” Grey felt he was wasting his time, but every stone needed to be turned.
Caswell sighed. “All I know is that Bowles and his type like to be informed of what everyone is doing—everyone of any importance.”
“As do you.”
Caswell grinned. “I’m right sorry that I don’t have more to offer you, Lord John. I’m in a mood to collect on debts tonight.”
Grey gave a curt nod, turned, and left, silently thanking God that the twisted little man had had nothing to say.
He made his way to the library then, and spotted his quarry instantly. He was wearing a blue frock and there were circles of bright rouge on his cheeks.
“Hello, Mary,” Stapleton said, batting his eyelashes at Grey.
“We need to talk.” John took him by the elbow and steered him toward the stairs.
“We don’t really need to talk, do we? Only, I could think of much better things to do.”
Grey ignored the remark. He found an empty room and shut the door behind them. “Why do they call you Neil the Cunt?” he asked.
Stapleton laughed. “Why do you think?” He was pitching his voice higher than was natural.
“I mean, is it only the obvious, or are you a cunt?” He glared at Neil, who looked perplexed. “Are you a man of honour? I know you are a spy for Bowles, and I know you would do anything not to be exposed as…” He gestured at Stapleton’s costume. “…this. But do you have any principles at all?”
Lying back on the bed, Neil lifted his dress to his waist and threw his legs wide in the air. “These are the only principles I need.”
John shook his head and sighed. “Fine. We can talk later.” His eyes roamed over Stapleton’s ample scrotum and pert arse, and his hands moved to the buttons of his breeches.
Neil raised an eyebrow. “So the attraction is mutual after all! Why didn’t you say so earlier?”
“I had business to take care of.” Grey loosened his cravat and unfastened his stock.
“Wait, what business?” Stapleton lowered his hem. His voice had changed now. “Why do you want to know about my principles? Is there something I can help you with?” He sat up and laid a hand over John’s. “You can trust me. You know I have no love for Bowles. It’s just an occupation.”
Grey saw no harm in giving him the barest details of Harry’s ordeal. “So you see, I must find the person or persons responsible, and Bowles had visited Quarry recently, for no discernible reason.”
“Hmm,” Neil considered. “Have you consulted the Bow Street Runners about the crime?”
“What for?” John scoffed. “They wouldn’t be able to do anything that I can’t. And they would know less about the members of the Beefsteak than I do.”
“Good point. Well, what do you want from me? You want to know if Bowles said anything in my hearing, about Quarry?”
“Yes. Or my brother, Lord Melton.”
“I once heard him mention a man, the Count of Tenby, Geoffrey Wilkins, in the same breath as Lord Melton, but I couldn’t say why. I accompanied Bowles to see Colonel Quarry, yes, but he didn’t apprise me of his reasons for going. I’m afraid I am in the dark.” Stapleton looked genuinely sorry that he couldn’t help Grey with his mission.
“Tenby? I don’t recall that name. Do you know where he lives?”
“No, but I gather he is known for his dalliances.” Seeing the look on Lord John’s face, Stapleton hurried to correct his misapprehension. “He’s not like us. A frequenter of the city’s best brothels, apparently.” He lay back on the bed. “Anything else I can do for you, Mary?”
Grey stripped to his shirt and joined Neil on the bed. He licked his thumb and rubbed it over the blonde man’s cheek, smudging away the rouge. “I am not a woman, Neil, and neither are you. But,” he added, seeing the hurt look in Stapleton’s eyes, “it’s not my place to tell you how to live your life.”
“I can be whatever you want me to be.” Neil reached a hand out to John’s face and ran a fingertip along his prominent brow. Grey took the hand and closed his mouth over Neil’s finger, sucking hard. Stapleton lifted his dress and John lay on top of him, relishing the feel of the other man’s hard prick against his belly. Neil groped for Grey’s shirt, pulling it off over his head and throwing it on the floor. He lifted his head to lick John’s ear. Grey took Stapleton’s face in his hands and kissed him hard. The shadow of rough stubble over Neil’s lip scraped against him, and he pushed his lengthening cock between the blonde’s thighs. Stapleton’s hand moved down to grasp him. “I’ve wanted this since the first time I saw you,” he said.
John rolled off of Neil and travelled up the bed beside him, kneeling close enough to touch his solid prick to Neil’s lips. Stapleton flicked his tongue out and then opened wide, taking Grey’s cock down the back of his throat. John fucked him gently, tilting his head back in ecstasy as Neil sucked him. Finally, he pulled away and gave the little blonde man a look that said everything.
“I suppose you want to be the man,” Neil said.
“Well, you are the cunt,” John winked.
Stapleton laughed and got up. He removed his frock, revealing a compact, well-toned body, and returned to stand beside the bed, his back turned to Lord John. Grey swung his feet over the side of the bed so that he was sitting on the edge and pulled Neil by the waist toward him. Spreading his arse cheeks wide, he licked up and down Stapleton’s crack, then inserted a thumb, twisting it in slow circles. He pulled Neil down onto his lap, his cock sliding in with no resistance, to the musical sound of Neil’s moan. John held the man with one arm across him as he bounced up and down and used the other hand to stroke Neil’s cock. Stapleton finished first, spurting his seed onto his own stomach, but kept up the pace, slamming hard onto John until Grey’s hips lifted off the bed and jolted against him in mid-air. A groan of satisfaction escaped John’s lips and he sat down again, pulling Neil with him.
Normally, he would dress and leave immediately after an encounter of this sort, but something about the young spy made Grey reluctant to go. Perhaps he could contrive a reason to see him again. “Would you keep an eye out for anything that might help me? In Bowles’ papers, for instance?” His lips trailed down the side of Stapleton’s neck.
“Yes, all right. If you wish it.” Neil was a bit out of breath and still enjoying the feel of John inside him.
“It might be dangerous for you,” Grey felt compelled to mention, as he closed his teeth around Neil’s earlobe and gave it a playful bite.
Stapleton whimpered softly. “More dangerous than you telling him about my private life?”
“Come now. I could hardly question your principles and do a thing like that at the same time. Besides, does he not already know?”
“Probably.” Neil turned his head to face Grey. “And he more than likely knows about you, too. You had better be careful, Lord John.”
“John. Just call me John when we’re alone.” After one more kiss, he rose up, pushing the man off, and walked to the washbasin.
Chapter 4: A Lesson to Be Learned
Lord John visits Harry and decides on his next step.
The next day brought Grey to Hal again, and he wasted no time with his questions.
“Tenby?” Melton said. “Yes, I know him. I’ve seen him at a few parties, and at White’s once. He came as someone’s guest. In fact, remember what I told you about my argument with Huntington? He didn’t want to discipline his men for being away at a brothel while they were supposed to be on duty because apparently Count Tenby was the one who’d invited them there. He has quite a reputation. Why? What’s he got to do with anything?”
John chose his words carefully. “I was given his name in connection with yours, as someone who might be of interest to Bowles. Would Harry know him, do you think?”
“Oh, yes, I’m sure he does. Old Harry does get around a bit, you know.” Hal’s tone was disapproving. He’d be loyal to Quarry to the end, but the man’s philandering was the one thing he did not condone. He never mentioned it to his friend, of course, but had declined Harry’s offers to take him whoring so many times that Quarry had finally stopped asking.
“I will need to ask him about Tenby, then.” Grey was thoughtful.
“None of this makes any sense, John. Why would anyone try to poison Harry because he’s an infrequent acquaintance of that rake?”
“I don’t know. You said that Huntington gave in to your way of thinking—that he did punish those men, after all?” He saw Hal nod. “Maybe word got back to Tenby and he was angry.”
“Why not poison me then? Why Harry?”
John sighed and rubbed his temples. “I’ll go speak to him. Is he still at home?”
“Yes, I told him not to go back to work for a week. He seems perfectly fine, physically, but I thought if he stayed at home, he might prevent whoever tried to kill him from trying it again while we—you—figure it all out.”
Grey took his leave, feeling his neck stiffen with the pressure. What if he couldn’t figure it out?
Quarry, who normally stayed at home only when he was forced to, welcomed John happily into his parlour. “Take a drink with me, Johnny! So good of you to come by. Like a cigar?”
“Thank you, no. I will take a br—sherry, though.” He sat, wincing at his near-mistake.
“Ha ha!” Harry chortled. “That’s right! No more brandy in this house! I’m quite off the stuff. At least until I get back on it again, har har!” He signaled to a servant, who brought them each a small glass and then slunk out of the room.
“Harry, do you remember a man called Tenby? Er…Geoffrey Wilkins, is his name?”
Quarry’s eyes widened. “Wilkins, yes, yes. He’s quite a… I’ve run into him at a couple of establishments.”
Grey cleared his throat delicately. “Um, which ones? If you don’t mind my asking.”
“Well, there’s Mother Bessie’s house, and the old King place, forget who owns it now. Why, Grey? Looking for a little action, are you? I could show you around some of the better places,” he winked.
“Which one would Wilkins be most likely to patronize?”
“Hmm, well I saw him last at Bessie’s. He told me he had a particular girl there, you know.”
“I have a feeling that if he is involved in any way in what happened to you, it has something to do with one of those places. If I could contrive to meet him there by chance, and catch him in his element, as it were, perhaps I might learn something useful.”
Harry chuckled again. “That you would, Johnny my boy! Many a lesson to be learned at Bessie’s! Let’s go tonight.”
Grey hesitated, trying to think of a good reason why he would go to a brothel but not partake in its feminine delights. “You’re still recovering.”
“Nonsense! Fit as a fiddle. Would be good for me. Get the blood pumping, you know. What do you say?” Quarry was refilling their glasses and grinning.
“He probably won’t even be there tonight.”
“If what he said last time is true, no way will he miss a Saturday night with his favourite whore.”
“All right, then.” Grey resolved to find some way—a sudden digestive ailment?--to avoid having to engage the services of a prostitute. Surely, he would be able to meet Tenby and take the pulse of the man, find out his favourite and speak to her privately, all while escaping Harry’s “lessons.”
Chapter 5: When in Rome...
Harry takes John to the brothel, ostensibly in search of Count Tenby and his favourite whore.
As soon as they arrived at Mother Bessie’s house—an unassuming place from the outside--Quarry grabbed Grey’s arm and marched him to the large parlour, where four women in transparent nightgowns and one in nothing but an open banyan lounged on the well-worn furniture. John forced himself to look, feeling Harry’s eyes on him.
“What do you think, Johnny? Not bad, eh? See anything you fancy?” Quarry’s eyes danced in the light from the roaring hearth-fire.
Nothing at all, John thought. “Very tempting. But before I…ah…sample the wares, I should like to see if our friend the count is about.” He started toward the hallway and Harry reluctantly followed.
“You can’t go up the stairs without a girl,” Quarry told him. A beefy man with a beard and hands the size of ham hocks stood at the bottom of the stairway, glaring. “Let me find Bessie and ask her.” He made his way to the hirsute giant. “Where’s Bess?”
Wasting no words, the man angled his head to a small room to the left. Harry walked toward it, gesturing for Grey to follow. He rapped lightly on the door and, upon receiving a curt “Come in,” pushed it open. The two men emerged into Bessie’s space, which was filled almost completely by her girth.
She grinned broadly. “Colonel! Nice to see you again so soon, lovey.”
John discreetly turned his head away as Harry blushed a deep crimson. “Yes, well,” Quarry mumbled, recovering himself, “we’re here partly on business. Do you know if Count Tenby is here?”
Bessie had seen Quarry and Tenby talking on several occasions, sharing a laugh over drinks in the parlour, so she felt no need to feign ignorance. “He was ‘ere not ‘alf an hour ago, but I couldn’t say was he still about.” Seeing both men’s disappointment, she tried another strategy. “Might well still be up there. Lizzie’s his best girl. Got to take your own if you want to go up, though.” She smiled again, displaying a dark hole where two teeth should have been. This was the city's best brothel? John wondered.
Harry turned to Grey and shrugged. “Told you. Games first, inquiries later. Let’s go.” He bowed to Bess and left the room with John trailing behind him.
Only three women were in the parlour now. The red-haired one standing by the fireplace was quite buxom and jolly looking. Quarry made straight for her, grabbing fistfuls of her ample buttocks through the sheer gown. Grey glanced miserably toward the two remaining whores. One was draped across a sofa, showing her curves to good effect. She looked up at him under her eyelashes and beckoned with a forefinger. John ignored her, though, and headed for the opposite side of the room, where a thin, brown-haired girl sat sullenly in a green velvet armchair. He took her hand and she rose, revealing the straight outlines of her coltish body.
Harry, looking back at him, shook his head in wonder, and moved to the hall to make the arrangements with the surly man. The two couples climbed the stairs and at the top, Quarry branched off into one room with his woman and pointed Grey down the hallway. The next room was occupied, door closed against the sounds of vigorous activity, but the third door hung open. Peeking inside, he saw a tall, naked man sitting on the edge of the bed, a blonde whore kneeling in front of him. He glanced at John as she devoured his prick, and smiled.
“Come,” the man said, waving his arms in a welcoming gesture. “The other rooms are full and I don’t mind sharing.”
Grey hesitated in the doorway. One woman was more than enough for him—he certainly didn’t want two. But the sight of the stranger’s hard body had already turned his cock to stone. He turned to the girl behind him and, when she nodded, they entered, shutting the door behind them.
The kneeling whore had stopped what she was doing to look, and now her patron eyed Grey curiously. “Do we know each other? I feel as though I’ve seen you before.” He stood up, completely unembarrassed by his own nudity, and walked closer to John. “I am Geoffrey Wilkins, Count of Tenby. Pleased to make your acquaintance, sir. And you are…?”
“Lord John William Grey. A pleasure.” Feeling ridiculous, he bowed slightly.
“Grey! Of course, that’s it! You must be Melton’s brother—you resemble him somewhat. Yes?”
“Yes, quite.” John was uncomfortable. He’d found the man he’d sought, but he had not expected this. “I thank you for your generous offer, sir, but we can wait in the hall, or the lounge, while you…” He swallowed, trying not to think of the generous cock bobbing just two feet from his own.
“Nonsense, nonsense. I insist you stay. Plenty of room for us all.” He winked. “You may have heard that my habits are a bit scandalous. Nothing illegal, you understand, but I have no issues with the ancient Roman custom of the orgy.” He moved to the far end of the bed and his woman followed.
“Hurry up, Mary, don’t keep the gentleman waiting,” Tenby’s whore chastised her colleague.
“Mind your own business, Lizzie!” Grey’s skinny brunette rushed over to the bed, throwing her flimsy dress up to her neck and lying back against the bottom end of the mattress.
There was no way around it now. If he didn’t swive her, all three of them would protest his seeming lack of manliness. Tenby was standing beside the bed, Lizzie bent forward in front of him. The vision of the count’s perfectly formed arse moving back and forth with each thrust solidified both Grey’s resolve and his desire. It also gave him an excellent idea. Taking hold of Mary—the double irony of that name was not lost on him—John hauled her up off the bed and spun her around.
“Hey, I didn’t agree to anything extra,” she complained, waving her bony arse in the air.
“You don’t need to worry about that,” Grey said, darting another look at Tenby. The man was clearly enjoying himself and did not seem concerned in the least. Nevertheless, John took his prick out of his breeches quickly, reached between Mary’s legs to judge her readiness, and stuffed it in. The spongey wetness of her cunt shocked him and he briefly wondered if he’d be able to do it with Isobel, should he marry her. He’d had prostitutes before, either out of necessity to prove his sameness to his fellow soldiers or to prove to himself that he could, but he hadn’t enjoyed it. This, despite the odd sensation of her moist tunnel around his cock, was actually pleasurable. It was the first time he’d been able to observe another man’s intimate actions close up.
The slender body beneath him jolted forward slightly with each thrust. Grey cast a quick glance at the pair beside him: Tenby was pounding into his whore, his dark-blonde ponytail trailing down his bare, creamy-white back, his slender hands grasping the full hips in front of him. His eyes were closed and both women were facing the wall, so John took his time studying the man’s driving body. A smooth, muscular chest ended at a firm, flat stomach, where a barely visible trail of soft down led from his naval to the dark-blonde hair at his crotch. With each backward movement, the base of his thick cock was revealed, then hidden again in the dewy recesses of the whore’s quim. John found himself matching his rhythm to Tenby’s, watching to see that magnificent cock peek out again and again.
His own whore was moaning in an entirely fake way, breaking the mood. “Ssshhh!” he hissed at her, earning a sideways grin from Wilkins. The count’s toothy smile was an aphrodisiac, and John gripped Mary’s arse tighter, hearing the thwack of his own skin against hers. Tenby was grunting loudly now, the sound drifting around John like a remembered dream. He closed his eyes and imagined he was riding Neil, though his seed finally spilled into wet, womanly flesh. When he opened them again, Tenby was beside him, his gaze lingering on the spot where John’s and Mary’s bodies joined. Grey withdrew quickly and turned away to tuck himself back into his breeches.
“Done so soon?” Wilkins teased. “I’m sure Mary’s still got some life left in her. Should we see what they can get up to together?”
Lizzie moved wordlessly down the bed to the other girl, cupped her hand around one miniature breast, and drew it into her mouth, suckling noisily.
“Lizzie’s a good girl,” Tenby praised, slapping her thigh to emphasize the point. “Ever seen two women do that before?”
Although a part of him was fascinated, John wanted to leave. The count was clearly in his element. He tried to remember why he had wanted to meet Tenby in the first place. “N-no, I… How do you know my brother?” he blurted out as Lizzie slid a finger into Mary’s dripping cunt. He stared as she pulled it out again and licked it, giving John a knowing smirk.
“Ran into him at a club or two, I suppose. Don’t know him very well, but seems like a good chap.” Tenby was distracted. “Just look at that. Does it not make you stiff again? Lizzie, fetch that thing you showed me last time—the Beast.”
“I—uh—I’m afraid I must go. I have a dinner engagement.” John took one last unobtrusive look at the count’s taut body before making for the door.
He waited for Harry in the parlour, nursing a glass of wine and shaking his head until the whores knew to leave him alone. Finally, Quarry appeared, his face rosy with exertion. “That Polly!” he smiled. “Knows just what I like. How was yours? Looked like a boy to me.”
Grey downed the last of his wine in one gulp and stood up. “Fine, um, excellent, yes. Shall we go?”
Once outside, Harry asked, “Did you find Wilkins?”
“I certainly did.”
Quarry raised an eyebrow. “And?”
“And it seems the rumours are true. He did not have much to say about Hal, however, and I had no opportunity to question his whore. Bit of a wasted trip, I’m afraid.”
Harry laughed. “Not at all, my boy! Not wasted at all.”
They walked down the cobblestones together in the moonlight, each man absorbed in heady memories of the evening.
Chapter 6: Buttons and Toes
In which Lord John keeps secrets from Tom and asks too much of Neil.
When John got home, Tom was waiting for him. “Have a nice time, me lord?” he asked, keeping his face politely blank. He knew when his master was hiding something.
“Yes, yes, lovely.” Grey shrugged out of his coat and sat in the nearest chair. “I am famished, though, Tom. Would you mind finding me something in the kitchen?”
“Right away, me lord.” Byrd took the coat, emptying its pockets as he always did. Lord John had a habit of grabbing things that he passed—it was not a compulsion, exactly, more like an absent-minded habit. Tom set several miscellaneous items on the hall table. One was a gleaming brass button, engraved with the letter T. He considered asking about it but decided not to. Given his lord’s mysterious mood, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
After rapidly consuming a thick slice of venison, using a hunk of bread to get it into his mouth faster, Grey retired to his bedroom, telling Tom that he would undress himself. In truth, he had a paranoid fear that he smelled like woman, although of course there would be no harm in that. He also relished the idea of reliving the evening in imagination, substituting himself for Tenby’s whore. This thought made him curse himself, however. He had allowed his physical attraction to the man to cloud his judgement. He would need to find an excuse to speak to Lizzie alone. After a brief wash, he drifted off into a troubled sleep.
Late the next afternoon, Grey found himself at Stapleton’s rooms, waiting for the spy to return home. After a quarter of an hour of wandering up and down the street, he finally spotted the pretty blond and strode up behind him just as he was opening the door. Stapleton gave a startled yelp but relaxed when he saw who it was. They went inside quickly.
“Have you found anything in Bowles’ papers?” Grey asked.
Neil had just removed his hat and hung it on a hook. “What’s happened to your famous manners, Mary? Sorry—John.”
“My apologies. I am quite frustrated by my lack of progress in the matter.” John put a hand on Neil’s arm. “How are you?”
“Now that you ask, I am happy to be alive.” He unbuttoned his coat and sunk down onto a sofa.
Grey sat beside him and lifted Stapleton’s feet onto his lap. “Tell me,” he said, removing the man’s shoes and massaging the soles of his feet with his thumbs.
“Oh,” Neil groaned, “That feels good.” He sighed deeply. “I spent the better part of an hour going through his files, his diary, and everything in his desk, all for nothing. I did not find a scrap of paper that might be of use to you, and Bowles himself walked in just as I was closing the desk drawer. I nearly shrieked when I saw him.”
Grey paused his foot-rub and looked at Neil anxiously. “Did he suspect?”
“I don’t believe so. I told him I was adding an appointment to his diary, which I actually had done earlier.”
“Neil,” John began. He leaned in to study the blond man’s piercing blue eyes. “I should not have asked you to do that.”
“Are you worried about me?” Neil smirked, trying to turn it into a joke.
“I am…fond of you.”
Their heads came together and their lips met, brushing softly. Then Grey put a hand on the back of Neil’s long yellow tresses and tilted the man’s head against his shoulder. He really was worried, and the thought that he might be responsible for Stapleton’s demise rapidly quenched the sexual desire he had felt moments earlier. After a minute, John took Neil’s shoulders in his hands and pulled back to look at him. “I do have one more favour to ask, however. It would not be dangerous. Only…distasteful, perhaps.”
Neil was curious. “What sort of favour?”
“I need to go to a brothel to speak with a prostitute, and I don’t think I can… That is, I’d rather you were there with me, to keep me… company.” The major blushed the colour of his coat.
Stapleton’s eyes widened. “A female prostitute?” Seeing Grey’s nod, he began to shake his head. “Oh, no. No, no, John, you know I would do anything for you. But not that, please. I am not interested in actual women. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised that you are.”
“I am not. I simply need to speak to the woman alone, while Tenby is not there. And to be allowed in a room alone with her, I have to keep up certain pretenses.”
“Well, once you get her in the room, just tell her you don’t want to do it.”
“I’m not sure she would receive that type of rejection without commenting on it to others.”
“So what did you have in mind, then, John? That we would both swive her together, using each other to--?”
“Well, yes. I had considered the possibility. But never mind. I shouldn’t have asked. You are perfectly right to refuse.”
Neil took John’s hand in his. “I truly am sorry. I would help you if I were able, but I really think that I would cause more issues and questions than I would solve.”
“Understood.” Grey took the hand and kissed it, then rose, brushing Neil’s feet off his lap. “I will see you again soon, I hope.” At the door, he turned back. “Thank you.”
Chapter 7: Not up to a Straight Fuck
John and Harry return to the brothel so that John can further question Tenby's whore.
The evening was half over before Grey decided what to do. He could venture to the brothel on his own and try his best to question Lizzie without attracting suspicion. Perhaps he could wait outside for her, and when she came out—but no, she would be there all night of course. She would not come out. He could go with Harry again, and at least have a companion to help him in case of any trouble. Would Harry agree to join him…? No, he would not. Probably not. Even if he did, John would not wish such a thing. Quarry was his friend, nothing more. His presence in the room would only dampen Grey’s resolve. In the end, he called on Harry, finding him unengaged and more than willing to visit Mother Bessie’s again. They drank two glasses of sherry together and then set out.
On the way there, Quarry rambled incessantly about Polly—the amply-curved whore he had apparently been frequenting for months now—while Grey tried his best to block out Harry’s lurid descriptions of her many charms. When they arrived, Harry ascended the stairs with Polly immediately, but John waited for the in-demand Lizzie for half an hour, growing increasingly nervous and out of sorts. Once in the room with her, his anxiety doubled. She was already naked except for a loose robe and began removing his clothing before he could ask a single question. With a firm grip on her wrists, he held her at bay.
“I would like to converse with you first.”
“Converse? Oh, la-dee-da! Certainly, my lord, if you wish it!” Laughing, she sat down on the bed. “What would you like to talk about, then, sir?”
“I imagine Count Tenby finds your brashness refreshing, does he?”
“He does. If it is not to your liking, though, I will endeavour—she pronounced this word with an exaggeratedly high-class accent—to keep my trap shut. My lord.” She lowered her head to him in a failed attempt to appear demure.
“What else can you tell me about him? Has he ever mentioned a Lord Melton, or a Colonel Quarry? Or brought one of them here?”
Lizzie raised an eyebrow. “We ain’t supposed to tell tales about the customers, sir.”
Grey glared at her.
“But seeing as how you’re paying for my…conversation, I guess it won’t do no harm. He mentioned a Melton after he brought those boys here—how he’d be angry but there was nought he could do about it.”
“Yes, sir, the soldiers from the 46th.”
“Ah, yes.” He supposed they could be called boys, as they were probably only somewhere between 17 and 20. “Did he say anything else? Mention the name Quarry, perhaps?”
“No, sir. I have heard that name, m’lord, but not from him.”
Grey had been standing beside the bed. Now he sat next to her. “Really? From whom and in what context did you hear the name Quarry?”
Lizzie grinned. “From Polly, sir. She’s right keen on ‘im. Almost ev’ry day, it’s ‘Will ‘arry come tonight?’ or ‘My ‘arry’s such a gentleman.’ Trying to make the rest of us jealous, I’d say, but I’ve got my own regulars, you understand.”
“Yes, of course. Did she say anything of particular interest?”
“No, just more of the same. Gets annoying after a while, to be honest with you.” Considering the discussion to be at an end, she slipped out of her robe and reached for his buttons again. “You don’t want her, do you? I can do whatever she can, and then some.” Her eyes glinted darkly in the candlelight.
Grey rose from the bed. “I—no, that’s…” He looked toward the door.
“You ain’t leavin’ already! Did I say something wrong?” Her brow was creased in a worried frown. Most likely, the brute at the base of the stairs would have words with her if Grey left so soon—words that would be spoken with fists. A light came into her face as she thought of an idea. “You can punish me! If you’re not feeling up to a straight fuck, I mean.” She reached into a battered trunk at the foot of the bed, pulled out a long, leather whip, and handed it to him. Then she bent over in front of him, her hands spread out on the mattress.
John stared at the whip in his hand as though it were a poisonous snake. “Flog a woman? No, thank you, I shall pass.”
“It don’t hurt me. Well, it does, a bit, but only so’s I like it. I’m the only girl ‘ere who will do it.”
“No, I—I really couldn’t.” He set the item down on the bed.
Lizzie was perplexed. She could almost always guess what a man was after without asking. She tried again. “What if I did it to you, then?”
A memory rushed into Grey’s brain and he suddenly felt the sting of the cruel lash on his back. His stepbrother and lover, Percy, had once whipped him. John had wanted to feel what Jamie had felt, when his horrible scars were created. Percy had been gentle at first, playful, but the last few cuts had hurt. If he acted (would it really be acting?) as though such violent games were his penchant, he could probably avoid having carnal knowledge of her body. “Fine,” he agreed, removing the last of his clothes and piling them on a chair.
Lizzie picked up the whip as John bent his lean, graceful body over the bed. She teased him with it, dragging it lightly over his back and buttocks. He squeezed his eyes shut and pictured Percy, but the image blurred when the first lash struck him. Taken by surprise, he gave a yelp, but it was no more than a slap on the arse, and a pleasurable one at that. The whip came down a second time, with slightly more force, and he shuddered.
“You’re a bad lad, aren’t you? Something you feel guilty about? I’ll beat it out of you.” Her voice was a silky smirk.
Grey moaned softly as the third lash fell, jolting his body so hard he felt his balls quiver.
“You like that, don’t you,” Lizzie said. It was not a question. She struck him again several more times, alternating between back and arse, watching as his legs began to tremble. Still, he did not move. His cock was harder than any woman could ever have made it. But he wanted more. After the next lash cut into his lower back, he turned around.
Breathing heavily, he asked, “Might you by any chance still have that implement that Tenby spoke of—the Beast, was it?” His back and his bottom were aching, the shallow lacerations from the lash of the whip stinging acutely in the cool air.
She dug into a drawer beside the bed and produced a huge wooden, phallus-shaped object, brandishing it before his wide eyes. “This what you want?” She started to slide it between her thighs but he stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“No, I meant, for me.” He bit his bottom lip. She grinned, took a jar of something out of the same drawer, and gestured to the bed, which he climbed onto on all fours. He would have been frightened, had a man been wielding this enormous weapon, but her creamy touch on his arse was soft and light. When she started to push the thing against his waiting opening, he gasped. The Beast would not fit easily.
“It’s not going in,” she warned him.
“It will.” He held his breath and braced himself for the worst.
“You’re an odd bugger, ain’t you?” Grey tensed at the word. “Doesn’t matter to me what you like up yer arse. Done it for plenty o’ other men. Some of ‘em want to do it to me, some of ‘em want me to give it to them, and some of ‘em want both. You pay yer coin, you get what you like.” Steadily, she persisted, and the insistent pressure finally gave way to a new sensation.
Stretched beyond comfort by the unyielding toy, Grey groaned. He thought about changing his mind. He would need to be able to walk after this. But he was past the point of no return, so he made up his mind to welcome it. The pain was exquisite as the Beast spread him open. Finally, it was in as far as it would go. He expelled his breath slowly. One rough tap from a strong man could probably kill him now, his insides rupturing from the strain, but Lizzie knew to be careful. Leaving it in him, she wiggled beneath him. “Want me to suck your prick?”
“N-no, thank you. J-just…” His mouth was having trouble forming words. She seemed to understand, though, because she resumed her place behind him and took hold of the Beast, sliding it very gently and slowly in and out of his arse. It was bigger, harder, and colder than any cock he’d ever had inside him. The strange, intrusive fullness of it, overpowering him with brute corporeality, made him feel small and helpless, but today, for some reason, he enjoyed the feeling. He took his own prick in hand and brought himself off to completion, images of a redheaded giant flashing through his beleaguered mind.
When he was done and she pulled the Beast out of him, he momentarily froze, his body numb with residual bliss and agony. Seeing this, Lizzie fetched a cloth from the washbasin and smoothed it lightly over his skin, stinging but finally soothing him. She dried him off with gentle pats and helped him to dress, giving him at last a motherly pat on the shoulder. “All right, m’lord?”
“Yes, thank you.” He inched down the stairs to the parlour, helped himself to a very large whisky, and stood waiting for Harry.
“None of your concern, I tell you!” Harry was speaking sharply to Polly as they descended the stairs.
“Tis my concern when you call me Clara!” she pouted. “Thought you was mine, ‘arry! Who is she? Not your wife.”
Quarry was getting angrier by the second and, though he normally had every confidence in the man’s gentlemanly nature, Grey was afraid Harry may have had so much to drink that he would forget himself. He rushed over to them as Harry was opening his mouth to shout. “Harry! I am very glad you’re here. I have something I wish to discuss with you. May we be on our way?”
Quarry looked at John, then cast a final scowl at Polly. “Next time I see you, IF I do, I expect you will remember that my personal life is not open to inquiry.”
Grey took him by the arm and steered him out of the building.
“Sorry, Johnny. She’s a great girl, but she’s got no right to tell me what I can and cannot do. Clara…”
“Yes?” Grey was curious to know who Clara was, but far too polite to pry.
“Clara is not a whore. She is my mistress, and her name should not cross Polly’s lips.” He frowned, but then the crease between his heavy brows lifted. “I only have myself to blame, though, calling her by the wrong name. Perhaps I was too hard on her, eh?”
John wisely kept silent. He was glad that Harry had not suggested taking a coach, because sitting was, at the moment, quite out of the question. As it was, walking unobtrusively was difficult, but not impossible. His shirt rubbed terribly against the wounds on his back, but he held himself straight and soldiered on. As Quarry prattled on, a thought occurred to him. “Harry, had you mentioned Clara to Polly before this evening?”
“Hmm. Might have. Can’t recall. Think I will take a break from Bessie’s for a few days, John. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, of course not. Not at all. I don’t usually…”
“No you don’t, do you? Yet you’re willing enough when duty calls, eh? What did you want to discuss, by the way? Did you find out anything from Tenby’s girl?”
Grey thought about telling Harry how Polly was speaking of him to the other women, but decided it would do no good. “No, nothing really. I wanted to thank you for coming with me, though.”
“Wouldn’t miss it!” Quarry clapped him on the shoulder so hard it sent vibrations of pain down John’s body. He replied with a smile that was closer to a grimace.
Chapter 8: A Miracle of Nature
Instead of continuing his investigation, Lord John finds himself gravitating toward Neil Stapleton again.
Lord John sat on Neil Stapleton’s sofa, his profile silhouetted by the fading light that filtered through the window.
“You really are incredibly beautiful,” Neil said. He traced Grey’s face with his eyes as an artist might do with the stroke of a fine brush. Physically, John was a perfect mixture of the pillowy, pouty lips and high cheekbones of the world’s most beautiful women and the strong, straight brow and chiseled jawline of the most masculine of men.
Unaccustomed to such direct flattery from a man, Grey said nothing, but turned to Neil, cupping his bristled chin tenderly, and kissed him. The kiss was slow and deep and seemed to go on forever—at least, John wished it would. Finally, he broke away with a sigh.
He should have been at his brother’s house right now, reporting his progress in the case, or at Harry Quarry’s, or at the Beefsteak, re-interviewing the staff. But he had spent the day nursing his willingly- inflicted wounds, hiding from both Tom and his mother, and wondering what he was doing with his life. Perhaps he should get married after all, settle down. Would Neil share him with Isobel? Would John have room in his heart for either of them, knowing the size of his love for Jamie? One thing was for certain: he was never going to Bessie’s brothel again.
“What’s wrong, John?” Neil was serious and sensitive when not in the company of his fellow mollies at Lavender House, and he felt an urgency in Grey’s kiss tonight. “Are you worried about not finding the culprit?”
“I am. Hal and Harry have entrusted me with the responsibility, and I feel I am failing them. Maybe I’m doomed to fail everyone.” He lowered his eyes.
Neil was surprised and concerned. Normally, John was quite confident in his ability to fulfil his duties. “You’ve never failed a soul, I’ll bet. You give yourself to everyone who needs you. Don’t you, John?” He tilted Grey’s chin up again with a gentle thumb and forefinger.
“Not always,” John whispered.
“Come with me, then. Let me give myself to you, if you have nothing to give.” Neil rose, dragging John up by the hand. Then he wrapped his arms around Grey tightly, feeling the arousing press of their hard bodies through their clothes. He held John to him for several seconds before letting go and leading him to the bedroom. There, Neil undressed, his chest gleaming bronze in the orange glow of the firelight, as Grey watched. Next, he stood naked in front of John and unbuttoned his clothing. For the first time since they’d met, the major was not in charge. He stayed submissively silent and still until he too was naked, as exposed physically as he felt emotionally. Stapleton stood on his toes to touch his lips to Grey’s closed eyelids, feeling the flutter of his long, dark eyelashes, then ran a finger lightly over one ear. “You are a miracle of nature.”
John made a dismissive sound in the back of his throat, but he was secretly pleased. He had only ever thought of nature as having played a cruel joke on him, in making him lust after men. His lashes were wet when he opened his eyes to see Neil spread out face down on the bed.
“Your servant, sir,” Neil smiled, his head turned to watch as John sat on the bed beside him. “Look in the nightstand.”
Grey opened the tiny wooden drawer and drew out a diminutive bottle. He popped off the cork and breathed deeply. Almond oil. He leaned over and kissed Neil soundly between the shoulder blades, then dribbled a little of the fragrant oil onto his fingertips. “Where would you like me to put this?” he joked.
“Anywhere you like, m’lord. Your pleasure is my pleasure.”
Neil’s arse was warm and inviting when John slid his long, slender fingers in. He trailed his lips down the spy’s smooth back and firm buttocks until he reached his own hand, where he added his tongue to the sensations that were now making Neil squirm with delight. Stapleton was overcome by a desire to demand that Grey hurry up and take him, but he bit his lip, buried his face in the pillow, and forced himself to wait. John spent the next two minutes rubbing his erection against Neil’s arse without entering him, driving them both insane. If he was to be a failure as an investigator and as a husband, he would at least succeed at this. He added a few drops of oil to his palm and greased himself until his cock was slick and shining, sliding easily between the lightly furred cheeks. Neil pressed his hips up in response and finally grasped John with his glutes, trapping him there. “Please.”
“All right,” Grey laughed. “Let me go.” The blond spy relaxed into the mattress and John entered him tenderly, exhaling in relief. This was where he was meant to be—not with a woman, nor a thing, but a beautiful, warm, muscular man, moving under him like a powerful wave on an ocean, strong but flexible. He had meant to last as long as possible, for Neil’s sake, but the feeling was so pleasant and reassuring that he soon needed to pause. He held himself over Neil’s body, breathing heavily.
“Why did you stop? Don’t stop,” Neil murmured. “Go ahead. I want you to.”
Moments later, John spilled all the week’s frustrations out with his seed. Panting, he sought Neil’s face and kissed him, thanking him with his tongue. Then he rolled off and lay beside his lover, resting a hand on Neil’s arm. “Allow me to reciprocate,” he said, moving down the bed and taking the man’s cock into his mouth.
Once he had satisfied Neil, John lay on his back, silently studying the ceiling.
“Are you working it out?” Neil asked. He genuinely admired Grey’s logical brain as much he admired his intense emotions and his captivating looks.
“Mmm. Just wondering…”
“What if Bowles had nothing to do with what happened to Harry?”
Stapleton considered. “Well, if he did want the colonel dead for some reason, I think I would have known about it. But if it wasn’t Bowles, then who? A member of the Beefsteak, perhaps?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps I have been thinking about the attempt on his life in exactly the wrong way.”
Neil propped himself up on an elbow to look at John. “Wrong how?”
A fire came into Grey’s eyes and he sat up suddenly. “I’ve been assuming that the attack must have been politically motivated, but what if it wasn’t? What if it was actually quite personal?”
Neil smiled. “I knew you could do it.” He eyed John’s muscular thighs as Grey swung his legs off the bed and started to dress, throwing items of clothing on in a haphazard, absent-minded way. Averting his gaze from the shallow cuts on John’s back, Neil followed him up and helped with the buttons. “Will you come back when you’re done, and spend the night with me?”
John took his face between both hands and kissed him again. “I will.”
Chapter 9: Choices
After experiencing a moment of epiphany at Neil's, Lord John goes out to follow up on the thought that Harry's poisoner may have been someone quite unexpected.
It was late, but the Beefsteak was crowded and noisy. Grey pushed through a huddled group of men near the door and walked straight to the kitchen.
“Oh, sir—I mean, my lord! Are you waiting for something? I’ll fetch it for you,” the steward said, anxiously.
“I wish to speak with any women you have working here.”
“My lord?” Being a gentlemen’s club, the Beefsteak employed few women, and none who would be seen by the members.
Grey was in the kitchen now, looking past two young, surprised helpers to the only female in the room. She was probably no more than twenty but looked older with the steam from the pots swirling around her head, a wisp of limp brown hair escaping from her plain white cap. Without waiting for a reply from the steward, he strode straight to the woman. “Excuse me, miss. A word, if you please.”
She turned to him with wide eyes. “Yes, sir?”
“Do you know a woman called Polly?” Grey studied her reaction carefully. She looked away, twisting her apron in her reddened hands, then darted a look at the steward.
“I—I—who? No, I don’t think so, sir…”
“You nearly murdered a man. Now is not the time to lie.” His voice was steel.
“Sh-she never said nothing about anyone dying! It was only a warning…” The girl was frantic now, falling onto her knees and clasping his ankles. “Please, sir, please don’t let them hang me! I didn’t know, I swear I didn’t! She made me do it!”
Lord John bent and gently pried her hand away. He pulled her to her feet and gestured to the steward to bring a chair. “Polly made you put the poison in the bottle meant for Colonel Quarry?” Sitting, she nodded. “Why? And how did she compel you?”
Tears were streaming down the kitchen maid’s pink face. John handed her his handkerchief and waited patiently while she sniffled. “She’s in love with ‘im, and she said he’d been seeing some other woman, and she didn’t like that. I had no choice! She said she would tell…” She looked to the steward and stopped short.
“Would you fetch me paper and ink, please?” Grey directed the man, who nodded curtly and turned on his heel. John watched until he was gone, then faced the girl again. “You worked at Mother Bessie’s then, before you started here?” he asked softly.
“Y-yes, sir. They’d be like to want rid of me if they knew.”
“Where did the arsenic come from?”
“The poison that you put in the bottle.”
“Oh, Polly gave me that. She stopped me outside before work one morning, said she wanted to play a little joke on her man-friend, to teach ‘im a lesson, like. A few drops should do it, she said, just to make ‘im a bit sick. Told me he would ask for brandy, so I put some in one of the new bottles and when I saw he’d finished his dinner, I set it out for the server to take.” She clutched her hands together and the tears began afresh. “I had no choice, sir, please believe me. She said, ‘If no one hears about this, then no one hears about your whoring.’ I had no choice!”
Grey sniffed. “Of course you did. You put your own welfare ahead of the life of one of my dearest friends, and you shall answer for that. But I shall ask the magistrate to go easy on you.”
“Oh, thank you, sir!” she sobbed.
Grey sent word to Constable Magruder to apprehend Polly at Mother Bessie’s, then set out for Harry’s. He found his friend in an uncharacteristically somber mood.
“Johnny! What brings you this time of night? Not wanting me to join you for another visit to the brothel so soon, are you?” For once, he looked as though such a prospect would not be welcome.
“No, no. I have some good news.”
Harry’s face brightened. “Oh?”
“I know who poisoned you, and why.”
Quarry threw his arms around Grey and administered a resounding slap on the back. “I knew you’d do it!”
Startled, John pulled himself away. “I am exceedingly grateful for your high estimation of my abilities, Harry, but I must admit I was not certain that I would ever find the guilty party.”
Harry smiled. “I’ll give you three good reasons why I knew you’d figure it out: you’re smart, you’re stubborn, and you’re a man who does his duty. Once Hal went to you, it was only a matter of time.” His grin turned to a grimace. “So who was it? What bastard wanted me dead?”
Over a disgustingly sweet glass of sherry, Grey explained the whole story, ending with, “I suppose that is what you get for being so irresistible to women.”
Quarry laughed heartily. “That’s what I get for being too free with my prick, you mean! Ho, ho. This little adventure has given me some ideas to put into the book, though.”
“You mean your collection of scandalous poems?”
“That’s the one!” Harry reached for the decanter beside him. “Like another glass?”
John rose from his chair and bowed his apology. “I’m afraid I must be going. I have another engagement.”
“At this hour?” Quarry raised his eyebrows. “I believe I’ve created a monster! You really can’t get enough, can you?”
“Apparently not.” Grey took his leave and hurried back out into the night.
Chapter 10: Coda
In this bonus chapter, Lord John keeps his promise and then some.
Grey tapped lightly at the door, and it opened almost immediately. He set down his hat, took off his coat, and enclosed Neil in his arms, kissing him soundly. The tension of the last few days drained from his body as he poured his relief into Neil with the touch of his cool fingers on Stapleton’s stubbly cheek and the resounding smack of their lips against each other. Neil fumbled with John’s stock and neck cloth, then dug his hands under Grey’s shirt, sliding them up over his chest and hardening John’s nipples with the caress of his palms. Grey backed the blond man up to the wall and pushed against him with all his tightly packed power.
“Hallo John,” Neil breathed, his fingers unbuttoning Grey’s flies. “Did the case end successfully, then?”
“Yes. And now I want you as my prize.” He grabbed both of Neil’s wrists in one long hand and raised the man’s arms over his head. “No touching. Not yet.” He sucked Neil’s right earlobe into his mouth and smiled at the squealing sound he made.
Pressing the captured wrists roughly against the wall, he used his other hand to pull open Neil’s breeches and reach inside. “I will have you. When I’m ready.” The words were soft in Stapleton’s ear. He could feel John’s hot breath against his neck.
Neil pushed hard into Grey’s hand. He couldn’t speak—wouldn’t—but needed to urge him on. John was teasing him now, lightly stroking, then letting go. Then the major dropped to his knees, releasing Neil’s wrists, and touched his tongue to the wet tip of Neil’s stiff cock. Neil’s hands went to John’s head, untying the ribbon and digging his fingers into the thick masses of Grey’s hair.
After a minute, John stood up, removed the last of his clothing, and sat down on a nearby straight-backed chair. His blue eyes were dark with desire and demand, pulling Neil to him wordlessly. Neil stood in front of him, facing away, and Grey parted the blonde’s arse with both hands. He licked long and hard and then turned Neil around abruptly. Stapleton straddled his lap, took hold of John’s cock, and aimed it where it needed to go. With one strong thrust, John was inside him, his hands on Neil’s narrow hips as their bodies moved together. Their eyes locked. Neil pushed against the floor with his feet, raising himself up and down in a quickening rhythm. He grasped his own member in one hand, but suddenly Grey pushed him off.
The lord was restless tonight. He wanted to have Neil from every possible angle, and he didn’t want to explain himself. He took Stapleton’s hand and walked to the bedroom, tumbled onto the still-rumpled sheets, and pulled Neil with him. They were on their sides now, and Grey turned his prey until he fit neatly in front of him, like a puzzle piece needing to be slotted home. He entered Neil again, keeping one hand on the man’s bicep and one hand on his hip. John’s mouth sought skin. His wet lips found Neil’s shoulder and his teeth nipped at it as he moved inside him, relishing the sound of Neil’s moans. Stapleton was stroking himself again, faster now, panting with urgency.
“Not yet.” John stilled him with a firm hand. He rolled onto his back, pulling Stapleton with him. The weight of the spy on top of him made him breathless until Neil sat up, spreading his thighs over Grey’s hips. The beauty of the young man’s back filled John’s sight as Neil rode his cock, groaning in bliss. Grey lifted his shoulders off the bed to touch him, letting his fingertips fall down over Neil’s back like soft raindrops. “Now,” he whispered, and Neil took hold of himself again. John grunted as they both finally erupted with pleasure. He wrapped his arms around Neil’s muscular chest and squeezed him gently, then lay back on the mattress. “Thank you.”
Neil’s lips curved in a cynical smile. “You’re welcome. Is that all you came here for, then?” Not expecting an answer, he got up and poured them each a glass of wine. He handed one to Grey, who savoured the liquid, rolling it around in his mouth before swallowing.
“No, that isn’t all.” He sat up with his back against the wall and patted the bed beside him. Stapleton sat, a brow raised in question. John set his own glass on the bedside table, then took Neil’s and did the same. “I wanted to be with someone who…understood me…” He shook his head at the insufficiency of the statement. “I wanted to be with you.” He leaned forward, traced the blond’s bottom lip with a forefinger, then pressed his open mouth to Neil’s. Their tongues met, tasting of cherries and pepper.
They kissed until their lips were sore and Neil opened his eyes to look at John’s, watery and bloodshot from the strain of the day. “You’re tired.”
He left the room but returned minutes later, carrying a washbasin, which he set beside the bed, and a large flannel, which he spread over the bedclothes. “Come,” he prompted, and John stretched out on his stomach, resting his head in his folded arms. Neil reached into the basin and pulled out a wet cloth, wringing the excess water from it with two hands before smoothing the warmth over Grey’s back. He repeated the process until John’s skin was warm and damp, then reached into the basin again, producing a bar of soap that he rubbed onto the cloth. He washed John tenderly all over, and the comforting scent of honey filled the air. Grey felt his tense, aching muscles relax. The healing marks from his brothel adventure stung no more and he felt himself drift off under Neil’s soothing touch.
He woke a few hours later, now covered by a thick, soft blanket, and turned his head. Neil was beside him, breathing deeply, his golden locks falling over one cheek. Dawn was creeping in through cracks in the shutters, but Lord John was too sleepy and satisfied to care. Inching closer, he draped an arm across Neil’s bare shoulder and pulled him close. Neil’s eyelids fluttered without opening and he smiled. Huddled together, they slept in warmth and comfort, unconscious of the sun as it rose fully to herald the new day.