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London, February 1844
Standing in the receiving line outside Russell Gordon’s Kensington ballroom, Lord George Albert Westin smiled politely and inclined his head at the other guests, trying not to let his panic show. Given the amount of laudanum he’d drizzled into his tea in anticipation of this outing, he shouldn’t have any panic left to display. But were it not for the telltale sense of floating, of a world carried on clouds and fuzzy around the edges, he would have wondered if he’d remembered to add the opiate at all. The problem, he acknowledged grimly, was not that he’d forgotten. It was that once again he’d acclimated to the dose and would require more to achieve the desired effect.
“Quite a crush,” a lady said beside him.
Wes blinked and glanced surreptitiously to the right. To his surprise, it appeared it was he to whom she spoke. Everyone else was busy removing wraps and handing over canes and hats to footmen, and she was staring directly at him. He scrutinized her face a moment, not recognizing her but thinking perhaps he had only forgotten her, but she seemed too singular to do so. She had a flat American accent, elegant but slightly eclectic dress, and flaming scarlet hair.
She chuckled. “No, you don’t know me, so you can stop trying to recall where we have met. My name is Penelope Brannigan. But you may call me Penny.” She arched an eyebrow. “Go ahead and be appalled at my lack of manners. I’m accustomed to it, and I don’t mind.”
Wes was indeed appalled. First she spoke to him as if they were longtime friends, then she introduced herself, and to seal the outlandishness told him to call her Penny. Unwilling to cut a woman direct, unable to form complete sentences and not knowing what he would say even if he could, Wes simply stared at her.
As the foyer quieted, he realized he wasn’t the only one staring, though people were watching him, not his companion. It had taken the small crowd lingering at the door a few moments to identify him, but they clearly knew him now. Fans and drinks shielded the gossiping tongues, but the eyes followed him as his identity spread like wildfire.
“Daventry, that’s who he is. He’s the Marquis of Daventry’s son!”
“Daventry’s son? Do you mean to tell me that’s the Earl of Vaughn?”
“No. That’s the other one. Lord George Albert. The stammerer.”
The woman regarded Wes with new interest—and a strange empathy.
Wes left. He told himself he was only moving forward in line, that Mrs. Gordon was looking at him expectantly, wanting to perform her hostess duties, but the plain truth was that he’d cut Penelope Barrington. He’d had to. His hands shook slightly, and the panic of so much attention threatened to drag him down. It was all he could do to keep walking as the whispers around him continued.
“Second son. I’ve heard stories about him. Wrong in the head, isn’t he?”
“Didn’t even make it through Eton. Had to be tutored at home.”
“Fixated on plants. He’s in some society about them.”
“Never goes out. No idea why he’s here now.”
Wes drew a deep breath and urged the drug to temper his fragile nerves as the old black fears rolled around him. No one will commit you to Bedlam tonight, no matter what they think of you. No matter how frightened they are of a potential madman in their midst, they’re more afraid of your father.
Mrs. Gordon pasted on her brightest smile as she held out her hand to him. “My dear Lord George. Such a pleasant surprise to see you here today.”
Wes wished he could have swooped in with a smart smile and a breezy retort. “Alas, madam. The Royal Botanical Society received your invitation, but it is with great regret I report that only I was able to attend. But I am delighted to be here with a peer of science. A lady who, according to my sources, is one of the most learned botanists in all of Britain.”
Instead he smiled nervously and said, “It-t is g-good t-to s-s-see you, Mrs. G-G-Gordon.”
Mrs. Gordon’s countenance transformed into pity. “How kind of you to grace our humble gathering—we are honored, my lord. Quite honored.” She looked abruptly eager. “How does the Regent’s Park garden fare? I have heard such wonderful things about it.”
Quite well, quite well. We finally have the piping sorted, and the tropical house is finding its feet. You should see the bromeliads. Nothing finer. Would you care to stop by sometime and see them yourself? I’d be happy to give you a personal tour.
“G-G-Good,” Wes said.
“Wonderful.” Mrs. Gordon fixed her smile a little firmer.
Wes stood there stupidly. This was his moment, he knew. This was where he should make some small talk about her notable skill with plants, of how he longed to see her conservatory, which reportedly rivaled any in London. This was where he said, “I hear you have acquired a strange new orchid, delivered in full bloom, with an unusual shape and oddly colored lip. Could you be persuaded to allow me to see it?”
This was his moment, the reason he had drugged himself nearly insensible and braved traffic and the crowd, the reason he’d sifted through the usual pile of discarded cards to find Mrs. Gordon’s carefully penned invitation to her ball. But while the drug could carry him here, it seemed it could not grant him charm, could not even loosen his tongue, and in the end Mrs. Gordon simply made him a curtsey and urged him to enjoy himself.
Wes moved away from the receiving line and into the room, hugging the wall as much as he could as he looked for a safe place to stand. He ended up near an ornate vase filled with flowers and greenery beside a window, an empty space which, by the time he reached it, was noticeably larger because the guests were giving him a wide berth.
He tried to tell himself it was because he was so far above the social station of everyone here, but he doubted that was the truth.
A servant offered a glass of punch to Wes, who accepted it with a nod. He didn’t drink, however, only continued to watch the others in the room. They were nearly all watching him back. He could not hear their conversations now, but he could imagine them.
What is he, thirty? Thirty-one? Does he have his own money?
Thirty-three. And yes, his mother’s father left him five thousand a year. He’s hardly touched it, with his father covering his apartments and his dues at the club, and practically everything else. A girl could be very happy with Lord George. If she could overlook his…problem. One would have to pray, of course, that the damage would not pass on to the children.
Wes curled his lip as he raised his punch to his lips and pretended to sip. Even within the Royal Botanical Society, where he monthly produced papers for others to read in lecture, where no one could claim better knowledge of plants and their care than he—even there he knew they whispered of him. He was a member of all the right clubs, yes, but he got in not because of his merit but because no one dared upset his father. They all talked of him, he knew.
What was wrong with his lordship’s mind? Yes, his papers were brilliant. But why could he not read them aloud himself? Why could he not, most of the time, even be present when they were read, and at best could only stand in the back of the room? Why did he never go out? Why did he always look like a rabbit about to bolt to its den?
Why couldn’t he speak even a single sentence without stammering through every consonant like some simpleton dragged out of a village gutter?
Lowering the punch cup, Wes stared down into the fruit-scented depths. This, his stammer and the public’s reaction to it, was why Wes never went out. This was why it had taken a dangerous amount of Doctor Jacob’s wicked little pills mixed in with his usual laudanum to bear him to the carriage and to this party. And it depressed him beyond measure that even despite this he had broken into a sweat and stammered almost beyond comprehension at the door and had failed so utterly with his hostess.
This was why he should have stayed home tonight as well.
“Whatever fish it is you’re trying to catch here tonight, glaring less will almost certainly help.”
Wes blinked and turned toward the voice. Good Lord. “Penny” stood beside him again, apparently unruffled by his dismissal at the door. She didn’t even regard him at all, in fact. Her eyes were fixed out at the crush of people. They seemed to amuse her.
“It’s not a bad ball, for the Gordons. Though I think Griselda is trying too hard. That is the way of it here in England, though, as far as I can tell. The middle class crushes itself in its desperate attempts to become part of the upper class.” She sighed. “I only wish they’d stop long enough to realize most of the gentry is miserable too, perhaps more so because they have no one to ape, only their wealth and status to maintain.” She paused and glanced at Wes with a wry smile. “This is where you tell me I am mad, or too forward, or say, ‘Why, I never!’”
By God, Wes nearly laughed. “Y-You are.”
Her eyebrow lifted. “Mad? Forward?”
“B-B-Both.” But he was still smiling, which made her return the gesture before she turned her gaze back to the crowd.
“I’m proud to claim both. Though what I need at the moment is a bleeding heart, and one with money at that, as I’m running out of the latter and wearing down my former. That’s why I’ve come here, you see. I need a patron. Someone with money who wants to do good things with it. My uncle was high enough in stature that a connection to him can get me in almost anywhere but the haut ton, but his money dried up long ago. So I’m here to find some for my ‘little project’, as most people call it. I’ve found I do better at the parties of the Mrs. Gordons than the Lady Somesuches. More people hoping their charity will elevate them.” She glanced at him again. “That, my lord, is why I am here. May I press my forwardness enough to ask why it is you are?”
Wes rubbed his thumb against the side of his punch cup as he considered his response. Uncouth as she was, he found himself charmed by Miss Barrington—certainly she must be Miss, not Mrs.—and wanted to answer her. She had heard who he was and had sought him out on purpose. He wasn’t certain this had ever happened before.
“To s-s-see a f-f-flower.” He flushed slightly, embarrassed by his stammer, but the opium made everything soft, and he pushed on. “R-R-Rare orch-ch-chid. M-M-Mrs. G-G-Gordon h-has one.”
She was silent for a moment, and he dared another glance, worried she was appalled at his grossly hesitant speech, but it turned out she appeared only to be considering something carefully. At last she favored him with a wicked smile. “Judging by the fact that you stand here looking frustrated and Mrs. Gordon seems to have no interest in giving you a tour, might I assume you plan to find this rare flower on your own?”
Wes hesitated a moment before nodding.
Miss Barrington smiled at him. “I wish you success. If you need a distraction at a doorway, let me know and I will do my best.” She inclined her head at the crush. “Would you care, my lord, to return the favor, and tell me in which pool of guests I might best find my fish?”
Warmed by her lack of convention and her easy acceptance of his impediment, Wes decided to indulge her. He turned to give the crowd a proper study.
It truly was a gauche attendance. Merchants and bankers, West Indies plantation owners returned—a few Army and Royal Navy gentlemen, though of course none of any quality. But Mrs. Gordon had scored a coup, for a few men of fashion had deigned to attend. They were the lower sort, but they were here. It would lend credence to the Gordons’s social aspirations. “I saw the most charming statue at the Gordons’s party last week. Yes, darling, the Gordons.” And the fops would jockey carefully, riding the line between demeaning themselves by the association and elevating slightly the reputation of someone who didn’t deserve the elevation at all.
In short, London society as usual.
Wes knew none of the attendees personally, though he could guess a few by reputation. He didn’t circulate in society, no, but when one did most of one’s dining at clubs, the most amazing tidbits could be overheard. The short man in the striped trousers had to be Benjamin Bennett, of the Devonshire Bennetts. Yes, it would make sense that he would be here, balanced precariously on the edge of decency, as the rumors were that he’d been left practically at the altar. Given what Wes had heard of Bennett’s gaming debts, the bride-to-be had made a narrow escape. And there was the broad-shouldered gentleman with a bright blue waistcoat and an Osbaldiston knot: that had to be Fredrick Grainville. He’d married Lord Gatley’s daughter and, according to rumor, left her to languish in Scotland while he chased actresses and dancers. But his father had left him a fortune from his time in India, and his brother was an admiral in the Royal Navy, fighting away in China. Plus, he was a notorious charmer. Certainly half the women in the room were swooning over him.
Indeed, Wes could scarcely blame them.
He wasn’t finding anyone for Miss Brannigan, he realized.
Wes was scanning faces in a crowd he thought might be her likeliest bet when he saw the man. He was as much a darling of the crowd as Grainville, but Wes didn’t know a single thing about him. He might have dismissed him, except the man was very charming and exceptionally pretty. Dressed in a long cream coat with tails, he looked like he belonged at a masquerade ball, or perhaps the court of George III. He drifted through the guests with such ease and grace he was almost dancing. His dark blond hair was long, unfashionably so, but on him it was so charming as to reset the fashion itself. Blond tendrils curled artfully against his forehead and cheek, and even his hair, pulled back in a queue, had been set to the iron so that it caressed the lip of his gold-embroidered collar whenever he turned his head. He wore a cravat even more old-fashioned than Wes’s own, tied loosely to offer a tantalizing view of a long, smooth white neck.
The man moved in and out of conversations with the same grace he employed to drift across the ballroom floor. He was a practiced flirt, making his dancing and conversation partners blush while never managing to encourage anyone too much. He flirted, too, Wes noticed, with the men. Older men, especially those well-married and firmly off the mart. Though in truth any man who had set himself aside but smelled of money was approached with wide smiles and shining dark eyes. Laughter too—soft, beguiling laughter that was almost feminine. In fact, everything about the man was a tantalizing mix of male and female. The boldness of a male, the obsequiousness of a female. The frame of a man but the softness of a woman. And pretty. Handsome and pretty at once.
In short, he was the very sort of man Wes preferred.
“No one, my lord?” Miss Brannigan prompted, sounding wistful.
Wes startled and hastily jerked his gaze away from the blond man. He made one last sweep of the room before nodding as casually as he could at a sad-looking gentleman in a worn brown topcoat near the punch table. “Elton,” he managed, after coaxing his open mouth around the “El” for three seconds of preparation. “Welsh b-b-businessman. L-Looks sh-shabby, but h-he’s h-heavy p-pockets. M-M-Misses his w-w-wife. T-Talks c-c-constantly of the n-n-need for f-f-founding h-h-hospitals for w-w-women.”
Miss Brannigan looked immensely pleased. “Thank you very much, my lord. I am quite in your debt.”
Wes inclined his head in her direction. “H-H-Happy to ob-b-blige.”
The expression on her face went briefly enigmatic, and then she lifted her reticule and fished briefly inside of it. “I suspect you won’t like my mentioning it, but I cannot help but notice you possess a rather pronounced stutter, and I would feel remiss if I did not offer this.” She handed him a card. “It bears my name and address, and should you ever wish to look me up, I would be more than happy to share with you the techniques I know to overcome the affliction.”
Wes did not take the card. “I h-h-have s-s-seen d-d-doctors—”
“Oh, I promise you,” Miss Brannigan remarked dryly, “I’m as removed from a doctor as one can be. But as the former owner of a prominent stutter myself, I believe I might be able to help.” When Wes’s mouth fell open in shock, she laughed. “Yes, I know, it’s difficult to believe. But from ages five to eight I said not a single word, and from eight to thirteen every one of them was better butchered than anything you could serve up.” Still smiling, she tucked the card into Wes’s pocket. “Ignore it for now, of course, because I know I am horribly shocking, but please don’t toss the card straightaway. You might change your mind later, and in any event, I won’t be moving from that address.” She made a pretty curtsey and nodded at him. “And now, if you will excuse me, I believe I will take my forward self over to Mr. Elton, the lonely businessman. Good day, my lord. May your quest be profitable.”
Wes watched her go, slightly dizzy. He touched his hand to the pocket where she had tucked her card. She had been a stammerer? As he watched her go, fiery hair and straight spine and forest-green velvet dress with no hoops of any kind swinging freely as she moved—well, he acknowledged, were he a different man, he’d be in love.
Or, he supposed, if she were a man.
The thought made Wes’s eyes slide back to the pretty young gentleman. He didn’t look Wes’s way, but Wes wished he would. Even just a glance. A glance and a small, secretive smile.
Flirt with me too.
He thought of the way Miss Brannigan had approached him, and for a moment he let himself indulge in the fantasy of meeting the pretty blond fop. He imagined himself striding across the room, catching the blond man’s attention with a wry quip and holding it with a seductive smile. He pretended his tongue was light and cunning as air, and he imagined how the man’s flirtations would falter under the assault of his own. As the man blushed, Wes would lean close and ask if he would like to step outside. Though it was cool and had begun to rain, they would go. They would find a dark corner where the young man’s desire would no longer be able to be held back, and he would confess, trembling, how much he wanted Wes.
Smiling, Wes would run a finger down his cheek. “It’s all right,” he would whisper. “Let me take care of you, my lovely. Let me take you back to my rooms. We can sample wine together, and then…”
God help him, and then.
But this, of course, was only a fantasy. The one time the pretty young man glanced Wes’s way, his gaze passed through him as if he were invisible. A pause just long enough to register—and reject.
Wes made himself turn away, forcing his mind back to his true reason for attending the ball.
The room had become full as he stood against the wall. The way to the door was thick with people, and even thinking of pressing through them made him sweat. Even the indomitable Miss Brannigan had been swallowed up.
He began to feel dizzy. Though he’d been warmed by the heat of the room since his arrival, perspiration now ran down the back of his neck in a steady stream. Pressing himself to the wall, Wes fought his uneasy stomach, regretting the punch he’d sipped. He would be sick. He would be sick, and then he would pass out, and once his father found out what a disgrace he’d made of himself, and where, and why, he’d give Wes that long, sober look that made it quite clear that never in the history of the world had a son been more disappointing than he.
Just one more pill.
Wes shut his eyes, trying to push the thought away. He couldn’t take another pill. He’d taken too many already. But the panic was too great, and the thought kept coming back. It was true, he’d taken this many once before. He’d passed out that time, but with as much tolerance as he had now, surely he’d be fine?
At this point it was practically an emergency. Because he wasn’t Penelope Brannigan. He was Lord George Albert Westin, stammerer and all-around disappointment. He needed this much opiate just to haul himself to a plant.
The white pill slipped between his lips and slid into his stomach with a large gulp of punch.
Ten minutes later he made his way through the press of people toward the door, mindful of the crowd but uncaring of any of it. Uncaring, in fact, of anything at all. A few people glanced worriedly at him, but he didn’t mind. What did they know? They were all liquid color anyway, nothing but stalks of feathers with eyes, swaying in the breeze. He didn’t need Miss Brannigan’s brass or her tricks. He had his little pills. He would be just fine.
His thoughts were blurry, however, and he had to wrench them back to his purpose. Orchid. He wanted to see Mrs. Gordon’s orchid. “There’s something odd about it,” his source had told him. “Something strange. She paid dear for it, that much is known.” A new, blooming orchid. It would be lovely, far more lovely than any of the women in this ballroom.
Perhaps even more beautiful than the man who had shunned him to flirt with a fat, balding man whose tongue likely never failed him, not even in his cups.
The additional opium had shaken out the dark corners in Wes’s mind, and his disobedient tongue sat soft and tingling in his mouth. I would like to show you my tongue, pretty young man. I would like to thrust it between the cheeks of your round little bottom and into the heat of your hot passage.
Wes let the image possess him for a moment, arresting him on his path to the door. He glanced back into the room, catching sight of the man, and he waited. His breath caught when the blond head turned his way—then continued turning, as if Wes weren’t even there.
Shunned not once but twice.
Oh, how Miss Brannigan would cringe. Likely she’d ask for the return of her card.
Wes let the opium swallow his disappointment as he squared his shoulders and continued to the hall, taking himself deeper into the house. The flower. He’d come for the flower, and once he found it, once he saw it, he would forget all about the indomitable Miss Brannigan and the delightfully delectable blond-haired man.
As the crush of bodies in the northwest corner pushed Sir Joshua closer and the drunken baronet pressed an eager erection into his backside, Michael Vallant repressed a shudder. This was all Rodger’s fault.
And damn if the bastard wasn’t leaving the room, abandoning him to the grubby hands of the baronet. Without his spectacles, the world was as always a thick blur of color and movement, but Michael watched the tall, familiar tailoring and dark hair disappearing into the crush, and his panic rose. Rodger was playing an odd game, weaving unsteadily—playing the drunk? But why?—and heading for the door to the main hallway. What the devil was he about? Punishing Michael for being a fool and not staying home as he’d been ordered? Rodger was a vindictive bastard, but never like this.
Not with Michael.
Sir Joshua’s hand gripped Michael’s backside firmly as he thrust into Michael’s hip again. “I’m going to take you upstairs, boy,” he slurred, “and fuck your backside raw. And you’ll love it, you whore.”
“Be quiet.” Michael glanced around in a panic to make certain no one overheard him. “You’ll get us both arrested, you drunken sot. And I’m not going anywhere with you.”
He winced as Sir Joshua’s grip on his backside tightened. “You’ll go, nancy-boy. You’ll go, and you’ll beg for my cock. I have your fucking coin, and I’m going to buy every hole you have.”
Michael didn’t answer this, unwilling to antagonize the fool into shouting. Instead he held still, swallowing his revulsion and biding his time as the baronet continued to molest him. But when the crush that had allowed Sir Joshua to press him into the darkened corner parted enough that he dared an escape, Michael pushed away.
He darted and wove between clusters of party guests, none of whom, thankfully, had any idea of the molestation which had been going on in the corner. Michael knew Sir Joshua, however, and he kept on moving, across the dance floor and down the hall toward the drawing room where other gentlemen were playing bridge. He scanned for Rodger but saw only unfamiliar blurs. However, he did see a familiar raven-haired beauty in royal blue coming out of one of the retiring rooms.
“Darling!” he breathed, rushing toward her. He grabbed her arm, drew her back inside, and shut the door.
“Michael Vallant!” she scolded him, her carefully cultivated voice slipping back into a rough Cockney. “You can’t come in here, luv! This here’s for ladies!”
“Then you shouldn’t be in here either.” After verifying they were alone, Michael let his forehead fall against the center of her chest with a shuddering sigh. “God help me, Clary, but Sir Joshua is groping me in the bloody ballroom.”
Clarissa clucked her tongue in empathy and stroked his hair. “Is he out of money?”
Michael snorted. “It’s control he’s lost. He’s off my list, and he’s angry about it. Had I known he’d be here, I wouldn’t have come.”
“We shouldn’t have come at all.” Clarissa lifted Michael’s head with both hands and looked severely down at him. “We should have listened to Rodger and stayed at Dove Street. He’s likely to tan us both when he finds out.”
Michael pursed his lips and pulled away, tugging at his coat. “He’s already here.”
Clarissa’s eyes grew wide. “He isn’t!” She frowned toward the ballroom. “He can’t be here. I didn’t see him.”
“I did. Just now, in the ballroom.”
“Huh.” Clarissa shoved her sleeves up higher on her arms and leaned back against the wall. “What did he say when he found you? And where is he now? Off dealing with Sir Joshua?”
“I don’t know where he is now.” Michael’s jaw was tight with irritation. “Either he didn’t see me, or he left me with Sir Joshua as a punishment.”
Now Clarissa’s eyes narrowed. “That ain’t like Rodger at all. Mikey, you’re blind as a bat. Are you sure it was him you saw? How the devil’d you see Rodger from that far away?”
“It was Rodger, I swear to you. I know the cut of his coat and the spread of his shoulders and the way he moves. He was playing fumbling gentry, from the look of him.”
“Hmm.” Clarissa folded her arms over her chest, but she looked thoughtful, not angry. “Well, perhaps he’s on an assignment of his own. In any event, we must find him.” She paused a moment, and when she spoke again, her voice was soft. “I heard Daventry’s lad is out there too.”
Michael hated the way even the name made him shiver, both now and when he’d heard the whispers on the dance floor. Which was ridiculous. He tried to brush it off with a laugh. “It’s the second son, not Vaughn, according to the gossips. Harmless. A poor stammering simpleton.” Yet even with the dismissal, the idea of encountering any of Daventry’s spawn made Michael’s blood run cold.
“I got a peep at him. Heard him too. Good Lord, but he can barely talk, he stammers so badly.” She shook her head. “I don’t know I could do a man like that. What if he went sixes and sevens on me when he was givin’ me the tickle?”
Michael didn’t want to talk about Daventry or his son. Though his fear shifted focus as another thought occurred to him. “Do you suppose Rodger would do anything to him?”
“Oh no.” Clarissa paused. “Well—likely no. Depends on whether or not Rog was drinking.” She bit her lip. “We’d best find him in case and kiss his arse, though I do long to give him a good chivey for not rescuing you.”
Oh, Michael intended to do more than scold Rodger for this farce. But Clarissa was right. “I suppose we must find him and move on to the next.”
Now Clarissa looked doubtful. “You want more of this? I thought to go home and poke into the Dove Street ball. Might as well make a few pennies in the booth. Rodger was right on more counts than one. I haven’t found a thing here. Everyone’s too desperate for other things to care for a tup.”
Michael waved his hand in irritation. “This is the only party we’ll come into cold. The others will be better.” He grinned and put his hands under her breasts to plump them playfully. “Edgar Almton is said to be at the party I plan to take us to next. Isn’t he one of your favorites?”
Clarissa’s eyes lit up before narrowing along with her dangerous smile. “Him and his deep pockets and great big cock—yes, he’s my very favorite.”
Michael sighed. “So I’ve heard, both about the pockets and the cock. Oh, if only he wanted to play with a pretty boy instead of a pretty girl.”
Clarissa laughed throatily. “Go on, you greedy thing. You’ve got cocks enough, all of them worshipping your pretty bum. Let a girl have some leavings.”
Michael kissed her cheek and took her arm. “Come. Let’s find Rodger, call a carriage and leave this dreary old place.”
They stepped into the hall—and into the path of a red-faced, bleary-eyed Sir Joshua.
“There you are, lad,” the baronet roared, his eyes full of lust as he reached for Michael.
Clarissa shoved him away. “Go on. Dodge him and meet me ’round back. I’ll go find Rodger. Go.”
Michael gave her a brief look of gratitude as she threw herself into Sir Joshua’s arms, and then he did run, right down the hall, which was filling with people as Clarissa, back in her lady form, began to squeal and protest loudly at her assault. Michael moved through the bleary figures, unsure of where he was going, hoping to God he didn’t end up down a dead end.
As he rounded the corner, though, he saw a familiar figure heading up the stairs. “Rodger, you devil,” he whispered, and hurried up the stairs after him.
Finding the orchid was more difficult than Wes anticipated.
He had spent the better part of a half hour hunting for it, a search which would have been easier without so much opium. Getting into Mrs. Gordon’s conservatory would have been simple as shy, stuttering Lord George, but with the opium his words slurred, his feet faltered, and he kept wanting to giggle, making him appear either drunk or alarmingly unstable. He decided to sit down on a stool in the hallway and flush some of the drug out with more punch, but even this act was apparently not done with enough innocence, for none other than the hostess herself was brought to him by a worried-looking footman.
“Are you well, my lord?” she asked carefully.
Heavens, no. I’m high as a kite. Wes smiled, trying not to let it appear too dopey. “Just taking a small r-rest, Mrs. G-G-Gordon. Though I was h-hoping I might take a p-p-peek at your cons-servatory.”
She looked at him with surprise at such a lengthy speech, and with barely a stutter. Wes wanted to snort. Surprised to see I’m not quite as stupid as you thought? Ha!
Oh, but he loved opium sometimes. He bit his cheeks to keep back the giggle that threatened.
Her smile was still hesitant, though more confused than worried. “But of course.” She gestured down the hall. “Just through there.”
“Would you c-care to escort me yourself?” His heart pounded as he spoke the words, but the opium carried him onward, and he winked. “F-For the Society.”
Ah, there—there it was, bright hope and eagerness lighting her entire face. Hurrah for opium! “For the Society. Yes, my lord. But of course.” Blushing and beaming, she stood back as he rose, offering her arm carefully, as if to an invalid. Unfortunately, Wes was obliged to take it, overcome by the drug as he was.
She chatted absently as they stepped out the back door, over the flagstones and up to the glass door of the greenhouse, but Wes ignored her, too busy taking foggy inventory of the conservatory itself. Oh, yes, it was a beauty, and he envied every plane of glass and piece of piping. It was one of the larger stovehouses he had seen, twenty by thirty feet, likely thirteen feet high at the apex, and though it couldn’t be but a few years old, it had the smell of a seasoned garden shed. Moss, mold, dirt, peat, all of it heated by stoves and damped by a series of copper pipes set to mist at regular intervals—oh, yes. This was a proper conservatory.
And her plants! Most were tropical, though she had a few fruit trees as well. She had several ferns draped from above, the usual maidenhair and sword, but there were a few he’d thought only the Society had access to: Marsilea and Pyrrosia, and another which he thought might be the Asplenium he’d been struggling with. She had more varieties of begonia than Wes had thought a private collector could have, several cyclamen, a bromeliad—and of course, an entire shelf of orchids, two of them in bloom. Cattleya, laelia—even a paphiopedilum. But not the orchid he had come to find.
“My husband’s ships travel regularly to Brazil,” Mrs. Gordon confessed, smiling as she reached out to stroke the petals of an angel’s trumpet. “He sends along a botanist and has him treat the specimens with great care.”
So that was her secret. Wes wondered how he might bribe his own botanist without losing the prizes. Come to think of it, how did Mrs. Gordon manage that?
“It is a l-l-lovely col-l-lection,” he said.
She sighed. “I have trouble with the orchids. They so rarely survive the voyage, even with great care.” She pointed to the flowers in their glass jars, clinging to their rocks and moss. “These I’ve had for six months, which is a record for me. But you see how the blooms begin to fade?”
Wes reached up to stroke the glass and shook his head. “Shouldn’t be k-kept here. T-T-Too unst-stable.”
She frowned at him. “What do you mean, not here? Not in the conservatory? But—” She stopped, light dawning in her eye. “But yes. Humidity, quite, but the temperature is too variable, isn’t it? Even with my servants stoking the fires regularly through the night. Of course. And that’s why when I keep them in the—”
She stopped abruptly and glanced at Wes.
It was a painful moment. There was indeed a precious new orchid, or a precious something—a flower so beloved it wasn’t kept where a clumsy guest could harm it or a servant accidentally might mangle it. Kept close to be watched, nursed in a private room inside the house, a room where, most likely, the temperature was more even and controlled.
There was an orchid, and she wasn’t going to tell him about it.
Oh, she would have, he knew. That was why she paused. Here was his moment to clear his throat and hint that, should she show him this flower, he could perhaps give her a bit of a leg up into the Royal Botanical Society. Like so many others present, his favorable report could buy whatever he wanted from the Gordons. It was this she waited for.
It was this, Wes acknowledged with thick regret, he could not give, not even with the cleanest tongue. Oh, he was a member of the Society. But his word, no matter how earnestly applied, would get her nowhere.
Mrs. Gordon smiled, the flat, polite smile that made it clear she would be showing him none of her prizes. “Please take your time in the conservatory, my lord. Examine whatever you like. It’s a pleasure to have a member of the Royal Botanical Society present, and I do hope you will share with me any other advice you might have for my plants’ improvement. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to my other guests.”
With a curtsey, she was gone.
For a few minutes, Wes poked about the leaves, hating his stammer, hating Mrs. Gordon, hating life in general. Then he drew a deep breath of loamy air, squared his shoulders and left the greenhouse to explore.
With a much more manageable bit of opium coursing through him, he was able to move about quite easily, peering into rooms and closets. He’d meant to look further on the ground floor, but there was a sudden hubbub in the hallway towards the ballroom, and so he escaped quickly up the stairs.
And it was good he did, for in the very first room he came upon the orchid, whereupon he let himself inside and shut the door behind him.
It was not an area, he was sure, Mrs. Gordon intended guests to be. It was just off a bedroom which appeared only partly remodeled, with a door joining the two rooms directly. Likely at one point this had been a servant’s room. Now, from the look of what was scattered throughout, this was the lady of the house’s working retreat. The table was piled high with the detritus of a true botanist: clippers, bags of stones, jugs of soil and moss, pots, jars, and containers of every type and size.
There in the center of it all, he saw it: the orchid. It was indeed everything he had heard it described to be. The flower was kept inside a tall glass jar. Its lid was in place but kept from a perfect seal by a small twig, which Wes took care to place on the table where he could find it again as he opened the jar to full air.
Most sailors and sea captains simply stowed the orchids they found wherever they could manage, and as a result many of them were so mangled by the time they arrived in the London docks that it took great care to nurture them back into glory. Not this orchid. Especially given how far it had travelled, it was pristine—which made it all the more tragic that it was also clearly dying. That was the trouble with taking orchids in full flower, why he told his procurers to take only plants not in bloom. At the slightest sign of stress, the flower was wont to put all its effort into seed, sacrificing itself for the sake of the next generation. A noble flower indeed. But even in its danse macabre, this one was breathtaking.
Wes didn’t know how to classify it. It appeared to be a cattleya, but…no, not quite. The color was wrong, as was the shape. He’d seen plenty of two-toned orchids, but never one colored only on the lip. And such a vivid, dark purple—even faded, it was striking. The leaves were straplike, but the pseudobulbs weren’t nearly as pronounced as others he’d seen.
Wes stood, pressing his hands together and lifting them before his lips. He was shaking, though not from fear or opium but excitement. This was new. This was a new orchid. Unnamed. Unknown.
And dying. No care would save this one now. But Wes had seen it. The hell and humiliation of the night had been worth it.
Pulling his notebook out of his pocket, he blinked a few times to try and clear his head enough to work. A great deal of the drug had left him, yes, but he was still somewhat groggy. His notes would be rough, alas, though it could accurately be argued that without the opium, he’d have no notes at all. He wondered if he dared linger a little longer to allow the narcotic to wear off entirely—ah, no, he dared not linger and let himself be discovered by a servant who would come in vain to nurse the doomed favorite of the mistress of the house.
Still, he thought, shuffling to the window, a bit of cold air would do him good, and it wouldn’t matter to the dying plant. He threw open the casement and leaned on the sill, staring out at the sea of houses below. The windows had been opened in the ballroom, letting the din spill out into the night. From here it was a noise that almost soothed, and he shut his eyes and took deep draughts of cool night air, willing it to sharpen his opium-muddled mind. The wind rippled his hair. The mist dampened his face.
A warm, firm hand took bold and possessive hold of his backside.
“No more hiding. I’ve found you, darling,” a soft, sensuous voice said from behind him. “And thank goodness, for I am in the most desperate need of a rescuer.”