Alistair Maclean glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece and realized it had stopped. With an exasperated sigh he drew out his battered pocket watch and studied the scratched glass face. Stepping over the accumulated odds and ends on the floor, he picked up the clock, rewound it, and set the correct time. It was almost three in the morning. He was due at his desk at the Sinners Club at eight sharp.
Where the devil was Harry? He went over to the window, pulled aside the tattered lace curtain, and studied the empty cobbled street. His brother’s lodgings were in a street that bordered the seamier side of East London and he never felt at ease there. If he hadn’t been nursing an old injury, he’d be pacing the tattered hearth rug worrying about what scrape his younger brother had gotten himself into now. And why was he still worrying? At twenty-five, Harry wasn’t a child, even though he sometimes behaved like one.
Alistair built up the fire again using the few remaining lumps of coal in the scuttle and sat back down in one of the wing chairs. A faint sound echoed down the street and grew louder, a chorus of yells and shouts that evolved into hunting cries and catcalls that eventually burst through the door of the house. One of the revelers almost fell into Alistair’s lap. He recognized most of the men—bored younger sons of the aristocracy, accompanied by the upcoming sprigs of new wealth that clung on like a particularly thorny rose.
He rose slowly and stood amidst the shouting and sway of inebriated flesh, which reminded him all too forcibly of being stuck in a pen full of Scottish cattle on market day.
“Good evening, gentlemen. Or should I say good morning?” He registered the blaze of his brother’s red hair amongst the mêlée and bowed. “May I speak to you alone, Harry?”
With a groan, his brother staggered away from his companions. “Devil take it, Alistair, who let you in here?”
One of the other men belched loudly. “Want us to toss him out for you, Harry?”
Alistair turned to the leering drunken fool who’d just spoken. “I beg your pardon?” He’d faced Napoleon’s armies in Spain. A few wild aristocrats didn’t frighten him at all.
The man’s piggish eyes narrowed. “Damn you, sir, I—”
“Don’t start, Foster. When he looks like this, my brother means business, and as he pays my bills, I suppose I’d better listen to him.” Harry grinned at his companions and started to herd them toward the door. “I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
For once the men were willing to behave themselves and leave quietly. Alistair slowly let out his breath. He hadn’t expected it to be so easy to disengage his brother from his drinking cronies. In truth it was becoming harder and harder to have any kind of conversation with Harry at all.
As soon as the door shut, Harry’s easy smile disappeared and he swung around to glare at Alistair.
“What’s wrong with you? Skulking in here, acting like my bloody father, and sending my friends away.”
“They’re hardly your friends, and in certain respects I do stand in place of your father.”
Harry flung himself down into the nearest chair and unbuttoned his waistcoat. “You certainly do your best to control me just like he did.”
Alistair took the seat opposite. “I came to tell you about a change in my circumstances.”
“Let me guess, you’ve decided to petition Parliament to restore our ancient family title, and see if they’re willing to offer us a large annuity to go with it.”
“I was jesting. I know you wouldn’t do anything to draw attention to our family.”
“Why would I bother when you do a perfectly good job of that yourself?” Alistair snapped.
“Oh, for God’s sake, leave me alone.” Harry shoved a hand through his unruly red hair. “You nag like a fishwife.”
Alistair reminded himself that he was too old to rise so easily to his brother’s taunts. “I’ve taken a new position. I thought you should know about it.”
“It’s at the Sinners Club.”
Harry went still. “So what?”
“I’ll be working as the private secretary of Benedict Lord Keyes and Mr. Adam Fisher.”
“As I said, so bloody what?”
“You were … friends with Adam Fisher once.”
“Not anymore.” Harry scowled and ripped off his cravat. “You should do well there. Adam’s almost as prosy an old bore as you are.”
Alistair set his jaw. “I just wanted you to know that if you come looking for me, or take part in any of the activities on the second floor, that you might encounter me or one of my employers.”
“And I said that Adam Fisher means nothing to me and I’m extremely unlikely to come chasing after you at your place of business. I’m not that indiscreet.”
Alistair studied his brother. “Are you quite sure about that? Your current bout of drunkenness and irresponsible behavior began just after you parted company with Mr. Fisher.”
Harry shrugged. “He wanted me to settle down and behave myself, wanted me to—” He stopped speaking and flashed his most charming smile. “It’s none of your business, anyway, is it? Don’t worry. I won’t spoil your precious new job by turning up and starting a fight with Adam. I know how much you like the salary it brings you.” He paused. “Adam doesn’t want to see me again, anyway.”
“I’m quite happy to visit you here if you need me, Harry.” Alistair rose to his feet. “And your scorn for my having an occupation is hardly merited seeing as it is my income that puts a roof over your head, and supports our mother and sisters.”
“And damn you for having to remind me of that every time I see you!”
Alistair met his brother’s furious blue gaze. “Why does it offend you to be reminded of your current lifestyle, brother? From all accounts you don’t just live off me, but off your aristocratic friends. Does it truly make you happy to be a parasite?”
“Go to the devil. What I do is no concern of yours.”
Beneath Harry’s hard-edged scorn lurked that touch of pain and self-derision that stopped Alistair from washing his hands of his brother and walking away. He took a steadying breath and unclenched his fists.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t come here to fight with you. I simply wanted you to be aware of my new position before someone else told you about it, and that became my fault too.” He bowed and turned to the door, kicking Harry’s discarded boots out of his way.
“You’re the one who should be worried.”
“And why is that?”
“Because when Adam discovers you are my brother, he’ll kick you out on your arse in an instant.”
Alistair opened the door and looked back over at Harry, who remained sprawled in the chair, his eyes already half-closed. “Actually, you are completely wrong on all accounts. Who do you think recommended me to Lord Keyes for the position in the first place?”
He had the momentary joy of seeing Harry’s face frozen in shock before he closed the door and let himself out into the street. His brother wasn’t the only person who’d been surprised at the recommendation. After a great deal of thought, Alistair had ended up asking both his new employers if they knew his brother. Both of them had confirmed they did and that it didn’t affect their decision to employ him in the slightest.
A cold wind hurried down the center of the street and Alistair picked up his pace, his slightly uneven gait making his right leg drag slightly. He doubted Adam Fisher had meant what he’d said. There had been too much pain and sadness in the man’s eyes to believe he hadn’t been affected by Harry’s desertion and subsequent relationship with a man old enough to be his father … but then perhaps that was what Harry thought he needed—a father.
Sometimes he hated his brother’s ability to breeze through life like a summer storm with his good looks and charm leaving devastation in his wake. He seemed incapable of deciding who to love, and left broken hearts everywhere. Alistair had wanted to tell Adam he’d had a lucky escape and that he should be thankful Harry’s roving eye had moved on to someone else. Except this time, it felt different. Harry seemed more out of control than ever, as if he was trying to prove he was the wildest, most sexually provocative being in the whole of London.
And he needed to be careful. By law a man who was accused of sodomy could still be flogged and put in the stocks, or even worse imprisoned, tried, and executed. He might find Harry exasperating, but he wouldn’t wish that fate on someone he loved. It was a shame that every time they talked, Harry tried to shock him, and he ended up acting like the prosy old bore his brother insisted he’d become. They’d been close once, back in Scotland when their father was alive. They’d roamed the countryside together pretending to be border lords who vanquished the English in every battle….
Alistair turned onto the main thoroughfare and saw an empty hackney cab standing at the corner. Waving a hand at the driver, he gave in to the temptation to get back to the Sinners as fast as possible and at least attempt to get some sleep before his day started. As he reached the cab, a woman came around the opposite corner and almost knocked him over. He instinctively grabbed for her elbows to steady them both.
“Oh my goodness! Thank you, sir.”
Her voice was low and she sounded far too cultivated to be out alone at this time of night in this sort of neighborhood. She wore a bonnet with a veil and such a deep brim that he could barely make out the outline of her pale face.
“Ma’am.” He bowed. “I must apologize. I almost knocked you down.”
“I’m so sorry. It was my fault. I didn’t see you there, sir.” She kept her hand on his arm. “I was too busy trying to attract the hackney driver’s attention before he left me stranded here.”
With a mental sigh, Alistair stepped back. “It seems as if we were on the same errand, but please, be my guest.”
She accepted his help and went up into the body of the vehicle and then turned back to him. “Perhaps we could share the ride, sir? In which direction are you headed?”
“To Mayfair, ma’am.”
“I am going to Barrington Square, myself.”
“Then our destinations are quite close.”
She held out her gloved hand. “Please, join me.”
Ordinarily, Alistair wouldn’t have complied with her polite request, but his hip was paining him, and he really couldn’t see the harm in accepting her offer.
“That’s very kind of you, ma’am.”
He managed to lever himself up into the small interior and settled on the seat opposite her. He’d damaged his hip thirteen years earlier fighting the French. Most of the time it behaved itself, but occasionally when it was damp and cold, or he was stupid enough to fall off his horse, it caused him some pain.
The cab driver clicked to his horse and they set off, the only sound the clip clop of hooves on the cobblestones. Alistair leaned back against the seat and briefly closed his eyes. Dealing with Harry always sapped his energy, and he already had a busy day ahead of him. Both of his employers were present at the Sinners, which meant twice as much work for him. It was also rumored that Lady Benedict Keyes had accompanied her husband to London this time. She might have social arrangements he would need to see to as well….
He liked his new job, but the unconventional nature of his employer’s occupations wasn’t quite what he was used to. Stately judges and government officials in Whitehall never behaved quite so spontaneously. He constantly struggled both to impose order on the chaos of their irregular working lives and on the inner mechanisms of the club itself. The place wasn’t quite as he’d envisioned it. The Sinners was not simply a gentlemen’s club. It allowed female members, which was shocking enough, and other activities within its walls, more reminiscent of the Delornay pleasure house than a private club.
But while he might be expected to arrange some of those salacious activities on the second floor, he would never take part in them. It wouldn’t be fitting. He had a reputation to maintain. Even as he framed the thought, he imagined Harry laughing at him.
He caught a yawn discreetly behind his gloved hand and stared out into the night as the ramshackle streets became wider and more prosperous. He desperately needed to down a large glass of whisky and go to sleep. At least his small apartment in the Sinners came rent-free and had a door he could lock. He raised his voice so that the hackney driver could hear him.
“Please stop in Barrington Square, and let the lady out first.”
“Right you are, sir.”
He turned his attention to his silent companion, who had her head down and was searching for something in her reticule. A hint of lavender soap teased his senses as she snapped the bag shut.
“We’re almost there, ma’am.”
“I realize that, Mr. Maclean.” She looked up. He blinked as the newly installed gas lamp on the corner of Barrington Square illuminated the barrel of the small dueling pistol she held in her hand. “Please don’t move.”
Alistair slowly raised his hands and considered his options. “I don’t have any money to give you.”
“This isn’t a robbery.”
“Then why are you holding a pistol on me?”
“To get your attention. I have a message for you from a client of mine.”
“And what might that be?”
“My client wishes you to know that if you do not control your brother, my client will.”
“That’s a rather ridiculous statement. My brother is an adult. I am not responsible for his actions.”
“My client doesn’t believe that’s true. If you don’t rein him in, the consequences will be dire for your brother, and possibly ruinous for your career.”
Alistair smiled as anger pushed aside his surprise and shock. “Indeed. Perhaps you might care to tell your client that unless he is willing to stop hiding behind a woman and speak to me directly, I will take no heed of his words.” He leaned forward and she jerked the pistol up until it was an inch from his face. “And you, ma’am, are a fool to allow yourself to be part of such a cowardly attempt at intimidation.”
She laughed. “I’ve been paid well to deliver this message. That’s all I care about.” The carriage stopped and she drew back from him. “Good night, Mr. Maclean.”
He waited until she got out of the carriage and then asked the driver to move on until they’d cleared the corner of the square again. Stepping out of the cab, he paid the fee and turned back to the large houses. There were few lights on in any of them and all was quiet. In less than an hour the maids would be up lighting fires and boiling cans of hot water for the household. He retraced his steps to where the woman had alighted and considered the steps up to the two front doors of the large stone-terraced mansions.
As far as he remembered, one of the houses was vacant. The other he recognized immediately. He’d wager his monthly stipend that the woman had entered a world he knew all too well. Not many of the patrons of the house of pleasure realized that the mansion they visited extended into the building behind it. Which happened to be the very one he was standing in front of on Barrington Square.
Not only did he know how to get into the house, but he also, courtesy of Jack Lennox, another Sinner, had a key. Sleep forgotten, he strode forward, went down the basement steps, and unlocked the door. The scent of lavender lured him on as he passed through the deserted scullery, out into the passageway that connected the two houses underground, and into the main kitchens of the pleasure house.
A footman stopped to wish him a pleasant evening and Alistair paused.
“Did you see a woman pass through here about a minute ago? She was dressed in black and wearing a bonnet.”
“No, sir. I haven’t seen anyone in the last half hour, but then I’ve just come up from the cellars, so I might have missed them.”
“Mr. Delornay is in the kitchen if you want to ask him, sir. I’ll also inquire of the other staff.”
“Thank you.” Alistair forced a smile and went through into the homely kitchen, where several members of staff sat eating and drinking around the large pine table.
“Mr. Maclean.” An elegantly dressed blond man stood up and inclined his head. “Were you looking for me?”
“Good morning, Mr. Delornay.” Alistair bowed. “I was looking for a woman who just came in through the Barrington Square entrance.”
Christian Delornay frowned. “Through the Barrington house? That shouldn’t be possible.” He came around the table to Alistair’s side. “Do you know who it was?”