Maggie Davis/Katherine Deauxville

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"An absolute snot," the Honorable Hubert Tonsley-Pryce said from the depths of his wing chair in his club, the prestigious Brown's. "Westermere was sent down from Eton, you know. Eton." Here the third son of the Earl of Malmesbury could not repress a shudder at such a hideous happenstance. "Sent down for being impertinent to every master he had. The whole family's insufferable, there isn't a peer in England who doesn't know that about the Westermeres. This insubordinate sprig considered himself better than the entire school, no master was spared his upstart views of the curriculum - in fact, he had the audacity to correct old Clacksmather on one of his pet logarithms - and be right!"


As his audience looked up from their game of whist and the pages of The Tatler, impressed in spite of themselves, the Honorable Hubert nodded vigorously.


"The shock to poor old Clacksmather was irreparable, alas," he went on. "The old boy had been teaching his bag of mossy logarithms for years, and it never occurred to him that one day he'd be called on it. Never recovered, either. From the day young Westermere so rudely confronted him with his error, Clacksmather's body trembled so's he could barely hold a glass of port. Now they tell me he has a permanent tic in his left eye."


The Marquess of Newbury, who seldom followed these club conversations due to disinterest and advanced age, was nevertheless intrigued now by the expressions on the faces of his fellow members. He looked around keenly, then lifted his ear appliance and quavered, "Snob? Did you say snob, Halsey-Rice?"


"Snot," Tonsley-Pryce repeated rather testily as he leaned forward to project the word directly into the marquess's ear horn. "God knows I'd ever condemn a man for mere snobbishness, Percy," he shouted. "A healthy fastidiousness is a necessary part of every gentleman's character - only plebeians term it snobbery. But being an utterly obnoxious little snot, as Westermere was, is quite another thing."


The marquess nodded. "Not that now," he squeaked. "Little snot, I mean. Grown man, ain't he?"


Before Tonsley-Pryce could answer a deep voice from behind The MAIL rumbled, "The Eton thing didn't keep him from going up to Oxford. Quite brilliant there, from all accounts. Took a first in any number of things." The Duke of Carlyle lowered The MAIL and surveyed them all craggily. "Didn't young Westermere start some archaeology club? Or was that theology? Damme if I can remember, they all sound so much alike."


Heads swiveled back to the Honorable Hubert. Who said somewhat thinly, "Archaeology, your grace. You may have read some accounts in the London digests of the excavations young Lord Westermere did in Egypt, repairing Buonaparte's devastation of various ancient tombs."


The duke's eagle eye suddenly bent on the Honorable Hubert and he stared for a long moment, ruminatively. "Filthy little beast, Boney," his lordship said finally, retreating once more behind The MAIL. "Might know we'd have to send an Englishman out to set things right."


The Marquess of Newbury tugged at Hubert's sleeve. "What's the point, Stilsley-Tice?" he squeaked. "Young Westermere sounds solid enough. A good member of Brown's, isn't he?"


Somewhat flushed, the Honorable Hubert leaned into the marquess's ear horn to speak as confidentially as he could at the top of his lungs. "The point is," he bellowed, "Westermere is not only rude and insufferably arrogant, he's much too - eccentric - for Brown's. I tell you, after the outrageous business over that impossible numerical system he developed to win at whist, I believe we should have a committee to look over his membership."


The old marquess gasped outright. The others stirred uncomfortably, and looked around. A committee of inquiry was a drastic step; one could lose one's membership in Brown's as a result. Worse, one's reputation.


"Tut, man, I tried to buy his system from him," the subdeacon of St. Archibald's said, "but Westermere only laughed and said it was an experiment, to see if the laws of probability could be manipulated." He shook his head. "Too bad, too. As far as I know, young Sacheverel's thrown his notes away, destroyed them completely. Damned fine system - it wiped out half the club in only one evening. Charlie Fotheringill stripped himself bare, had to borrow a half a crown from me to get a cab home."


"And the business of his idea of a metropolitan police," Tonsley-Pryce persisted. "Scientific inquiry, indeed! I tell you, in some ways we were better off with Westermere's experiments in gambling, scandalous though they may have been, than these bottles and boxes of decayed specimens, as he labels them - although they're no better than rags and balls of hair and other offal - that he's having the porters store downstairs."


"I say," one of the younger members said, licking his lips nervously, "that is carrying things a bit far, rubbish in the basement and all. I didn't know about that. Bones and rags and hanks of hair, did you say? Perhaps we could have someone speak to him."


The members looked around. All except the Duke of Carlyle, who was muttering to himself behind his paper about some disappointment in the shipping news.


"I've heard Westermere's stood up in the ring with Gentleman Dan and Mr. Simpson, the pugilists," the youngest member said, hesitantly. "They say Westermere's quite good."


After that, they sat in silence for a while, waiting for the voice of the first volunteer for the committee.


A few blocks away the subject of this conversation, Sacheverel de Vries, the twelfth duke of Westermere, was studying a tray he held in his lap. It was divided into plush-lined compartments filled with bits of lint and fibers. As his rather old-fashioned leaf-springed coach rolled through the streets near Convent Garden the vehicle lurched several times to avoid collisions. Which made the duke grab tightly at the box of specimens he was studying, and scowl.


Plainly, it was an effort to concentrate. After one particularly violent jolt the duke extended a muscular arm, picked up his walking stick and banged on the roof of the coach.


"Easy up there, Jack," he shouted to the coachman on the box outside, "or I'll spill all my collection. What the devil's going on?"


The trap door in the roof opened and a broad, hearty face appeared. "Appears to be a demonstration, sorr," the duke's coachman shouted, "in the city market. Women protesting about bread for the poor. But it won't hold us up, your grace, you can be sure of that."


Spoken too soon. For in the next instant the great coach wallowed from side to side like a ship of the line changing course. The door on the duke's right was wrenched open and a body hurtled inside, landing on all fours with an audible "oof."


The body - and it could be seen it was a very young woman - scrambled up into the opposite seat with all haste.


Peering at her through the gloom of the gilt and gray velvet interior, Westermere saw a female, unattractively disheveled, with her bonnet knocked back and hanging by its strings, clad in equally unappealing dun-colored clothing, the sort of apparel worn by impoverished elderly aunts, governesses, and superannuated parlormaids on their day off.


The dreariness ended there, however. For luscious brown and gold ringlets poured out from under the crooked bonnet and the exquisite face was that of a ravishing Helen of Troy. Her complexion was the creamiest silk, her features a marvel of symmetry, and the whole of London's Ton would pay homage to thick-lashed, cobalt-blue eyes if they could but see them.


She was as imposing in size as beauty: half-sprawled on the seat and still gasping from her leap into his coach, she was possessed of the most superbly enticing female figure Westermere had ever seen, even encased in all that depressingly well-patched attire. Tall, with full, sensuous breasts, a tiny waist and legs that could only be guessed at, this vision of loveliness was definitely Junoesque.


For a moment she stared at him, panting, then her eyes dropped to the tray. Sacheverel took a cautious grip on his specimens.


"Lord Westermere?" Her voice held a note of wildness. "You are Lord Westermere?"


When he didn't answer she looked quickly around the coach, then back at him. At his long legs stretched out in Hessian boots, his broad-shouldered body in fawn britches and perfectly-tailored ebony twill jacket topped by the dernier cri of white silk cravats. And finally Westermere's face with its scowling black brows.


The Amazon beauty's eyes widened.


"It is you," she breathed. "I had thought you older and uglier, a monster sinfully withered in age, but no - it is you, I am sure of it!"


As Sacheverel growled some vague denial she hitched herself forward on the seat and, raising a hand to point at a spot just under the duke's ruby-studded gold stickpin, cried in a ringing voice, "Do you know why I have thrown myself in your carriage this way? I am your Nemesis, bold Lord Avarice, you cannot escape me! You are a brutal exploiter - yea, even murderer! I have seen the evidence, wasted bodies of the children who work in your mines, and the gaunt despair of their pitiful mothers."


For a moment Westermere warily eyed the uplifted hand, sure that she meant to strike him. But the blow never fell. Instead, the young woman took a deep breath and went on, "I have come in the name of Christian justice to beseech you to release those suffering women and children you hold prisoner in your mines and vile places of torture called spinning mills, and try to provide care for them and more healthful employment."


Westermere had been studying her lush, rosy lips as she spoke, her admirably white, even teeth. But now he closed up his specimen box with a snap. Whatever her babbling about mines and neglected tenants, this intrusion had gone far enough.


"I assure you," he said, "I am not the proprietor of any mines or other objects of your imagination, mademoiselle. I want you out of my coach this instant. Jack," he shouted, banging again with his stick on the coachman's trap door, "pull up and stop!"


"Nay!" At his words she jumped to her feet, promptly hitting her head on the upholstered ceiling. "I would be betraying those dear sisters who support me in this purpose and the very memory of our leader, Mary Wollstonecraft, if I stop now. I will save those oppressed souls you hold in poverty and serfdom in your villages, even - " She held up one hand dramatically, and those azure eyes flashed. " - if it means doing so at peril to my own body!"


At the words "Mary Wollstonecraft," the duke of Westermere had straightened in his seat, his eyes narrowing.


By damn, his wild beauty appeared by her own words to be an apostle of that crackbrained prophet of women's equal rights and so-called social justice - the lunatic Wollstonecraft! He should have known what she was about when he first laid eyes on those damnable clothes: they were straight out of a penny-pinching parsonage somewhere or he was a turbaned Turk!


The twelfth duke of Westermere considered himself enlightened, a modern man of science. But he was convinced that institutions such as female academies, and particularly parsonages, fulminated with the subversive machinations of spinsterish females who read all sorts of inflammatory books, mostly from the Continent, that undermined the morals and good sense of English life. Even the drab physical attributes of these unfortunates emphasized all that which was pernicious, contrary and unpleasant in their sex.


In addition, some of these husbandless females were audacious enough to form societies with so-called "social purpose" that did little, actually, in Sacheverel's opinion, but stir up the working class and foster in the women themselves those strident, masculine traits which made them so unnatural.


God rot it, he didn't want the Wollstonecraft apostle in his carriage a moment longer!


He reached over to open the door of the coach, which had come to a stop at the curb in front of the Crown and Scepter Inn, fishing in his vest pocket for a piece of silver to give her for a cab, or food - or whatever she lacked.


But the young woman bent over him, so close that he could feel her warm, excited breath on his face. "Oh no, you're not going to get rid of me, sir," she cried. "until you have agreed in some way to right your terrible wrongs! I need to talk to you. I need your promises, preferably on paper!"


"Blast," Sacheverel said. He slipped the coin back in his pocket. He reached up to take her by both arms and forcibly eject her, just as the two Westermere footmen jumped down from their perch and into the street.


But she managed to slither out of his grip. "I see you do not intend to take our demands seriously, sir!"


"Damned right," Sacheverel said, making another grab for her as she climbed onto the seat cushions opposite.


Outside a crowd had gathered at the front of the Crown and Scepter, among them several young women in coal scuttle bonnets and frayed, unstylish dress. One wore a particularly ugly yellow and black checked traveling cloak.


Perched on the cushions of the seat opposite, the girl cried, "You force me to more drastic tactics, sir!"


The crowd heard her and cheered. She lifted her chin, bravely.


"If you do not agree to close the mines and provide more healthful and prosperous employment for your sick and starving tenants, I swear that I will set up a cry that all outside this coach can hear - and - and - tear my clothes!" At these words those azure eyes met his almost desperately. "With these people looking on as witnesses, I-I will call the authorities and - and -declare you have attempted to rape me!"


It took Sacheveral a moment to digest all this. Then, he realized the situation had an unpleasant, albeit familiar, cast to it. He'd heard about these things. He was being threatened. Blackmailed, actually. The Amazon beauty had leaped into his coach determined to pull off this very stunt!


His next thought was that if he didn't agree to this nonsense she was spouting, she really was going to claim he'd assaulted her.


The duke lost his hold on what was left of his composure. "Attempted to rape you?" he bellowed. "In front of this riffraff? Mademoiselle, I assure you, if such a thought were in my mind I would not indulge in any such feeble, inept exercise! I do not attempt! I do it!"


Temper or not, it was an unwise thing to say. The crowd outside, even the footmen, gasped.


Disgusted, the duke rose from his seat with the intention of throwing her into the arms of his servants waiting outside. He was totally unprepared for the way she launched herself at him, knocking him flat on the floor of the coach.


There wasn't much room to maneuver. Clutching her as she lay sprawled on top of him, Sacheverel heard her breaths close in his ears, felt the enticing softness of her breasts against him, her soft body struggling in his arms. Followed by the distinct sound of fabric ripping.


Instantly alert, he dragged the young woman up into a sitting position. The faces of his coachmen and the crowd filled the open coach door.


She was, Sacheverel had to admit, a sight to behold. He was sitting on the floor of the Westermere state conveyance holding, in a loose embrace, this woman who had somehow managed to rip open the front of her jacket, pull down her under bodice and expose a magnificent pair of creamy, incredibly flawless breasts.


The crowd outside got enough of a view to emit shocked gasps and small screams. As well as a sprinkling of male sounds of awed appreciation.


She made no move to cover herself. Her thoroughly nude bust was the cynosure of all eyes. Sacheverel saw she pointedly did not look at him; her cheeks were blazing.


By God, she's done it! he thought, with something like admiration.


"He attacked me," the beauteous vision croaked to their audience.


"The hell I did! That's a damnable lie."


In the next breath Sacheverel shouted to the coachman to whip up the horses at once. He decided he wasn't going to toss her out onto to the street; she'd undoubtedly raise the rabble out there to a frenzy. But when he tried to haul her up onto the seat his hands encountered warm, tempting flesh, and he jerked back. "Gad, cover yourself!" he barked.


She paid no attention. On the outside, his footmen were struggling to close the door against the fascinated mob. Sacheverel was astounded when her next move was to lunge to the window, one hand flung across her bosom, and cry out to some young women there to be steadfast and not to worry for her. The young girl in the checkered cloak ran alongside, shouting encouragement.


Gnashing his teeth, Sacheverel yanked off his jacket and threw it around her shoulders. It didn't fit across those generous breasts. She promptly tore the jacket off, anyway, and threw it back at him.


The coach leaped ahead. Now that they were alone the girl sat back, both hands clutching her nakedness, glaring at him.


He glowered back, speechless. Angry blood pumped at his temples.


By God, she wanted to flaunt herself! It was part of the scheme to intimidate and blackmail him. He saw her bonnet was lost and that her hair had come tumbling down in a brown-gold shower. With that mesmerizing, naked flesh she looked like a mermaid or a goddess - or a trollop. To her credit her cheeks burned, defiant red flags.


Well, she'd chosen to carry off this fool stunt, he told himself grimly, so there was no need for her to look so confounded shamefaced. He half expected her to rant at him about the poor and downtrodden as the coach careened into a commercial street and headed for the banks of the Thames. But she remained silent.


As they turned into Dabney Court one of the young footmen hung from the roof at the side window and shouted, "Jack presents his compliments, your grace, and wants to know, where we are headed?"


The duke of Westermere flung himself back against the gray velvet tufts of his seat, his expression like granite.


"Brown's," he barked. "Damme, take me to my club! I need a moment to think."


As it turned out, Brown's was a poor choice. It only showed how ragged the duke's temper was.


Old George, the club's ancient head porter, tottered to the duke's carriage just in time to get caught in the melee as Westermere and his two footmen struggled up the steps with a half-naked young woman. To make matters worse, the young woman had begun to denounce the duke at the top of her lungs to anyone who would listen. A small crowd of the curious gathered almost immediately. Old George wrung his hands.


"Your Grace," he wailed as he followed the duke and his footmen and the young woman, who had finally been buried under a hastily-found lap robe, "ah, forgive - I cannot bring myself to mention it but - "


George dodged the club's front door as it was flung open and the bundled figure carried through.


"Your grace, with all due respect allow me to say the rules of Brown's are strict about females being forbidden any part of the premises, under any circumstances!"


"The cloakroom," the harried duke rasped.


Seeing them coming, the cloakroom attendant dove for safety as the three men dumped their burden over the mahogany counter and closed and locked the cloakroom door. After only a second, the lap robe flew through the air, followed by the duke's jacket and one of the footmen's livery coats.


"Covering me up is not going to keep me from denouncing you, sir," the disordered female vision cried. She looked as though she would attempt to vault over the cloakroom's counter at any minute. "Now you have attacking me to add to your sins!"


That was not true at all and she well knew it. The duke of Westermere, furiously resentful of such an arrant attempt to gull him right there in his own club, turned away, so angry he was unable to look at her.


Everyone else did.


The entire membership assembled in Brown's reading room, lounge and game rooms, hearing the noise, trooped out into the downstairs foyer to see what the rumpus was about.


They found themselves staring at a ravishing young woman standing behind Brown's cloakroom counter, hatless and coatless, with long, tangled brown-gold hair come loose from its moorings. The front of her dress was ripped open and although she struggled to hold it together with trembling hands, it was plain she was naked to the waist, with occasional glimpses of delectably heaving breasts.


There was absolute silence for at least - it was agreed upon later by those who were there - two whole minutes.


Then the earl of Stackston and Digby, the membership chairman, said in a hollow voice, "I'm afraid you've done it this time, Westermere. This will never pass the committee."


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