John left his two ladies with a firm promise of future puppy ownership and arrived home a comfortable distance from the dinner hour. He tried to be productive by getting through some of his correspondence, but it was no use. He was feeling it again, his mind and body at war. And as the sun set and darkness fell over London, his distraction only got worse.
It was too soon. It had only been three months since he had last indulged, and before that, he had gone more than eight months before admitting defeat. The rush of blood to the surface of his skin made him long to be touched, and the blood rushing to other places made him long to bury himself deep inside—
He let out a frustrated groan and tried to force the thoughts from his mind, preferably before they showed themselves against the fall of his trousers. But there was no hope of relief tonight, anyway.
As soon as he had made up his mind that three months had been long enough, his valet had reminded him of his previous engagements. It had been like a fist to his gut. He had already been soothing himself with images of the whore he would hire that night when his valet had innocently asked which waistcoat he preferred to wear to the concert.
What bloody concert? Damn the man’s memory!
Thus, there he was, waiting with the other guests for a respectable concert being put on by a band of thoroughly respectable ladies in his grandmother’s respectable parlor. He felt like his skin was going to crawl off his bones.
“Darnish. Waiting with bated breath for the concert?” Lord Richard Avery said as he stopped before their group. John stood with his aunt and one of his younger female cousins, both of whom had beseeched him to attend the event weeks ago.
“How could I not?” he said, rolling his eyes a little. The ladies pursed their lips disapprovingly, especially his aunt.
“Remember your manners, John. And you too, Lord Richard. I know gentlemen don’t prefer such simple entertainments, but it might do both of you some good to just sit still for a while.” The older woman finished with a haughty, raised chin, as if to say there was no questioning her.
John gave Richard a commiserating look, which he returned with an understanding shrug.
“No need to worry, Aunt. I’m sure we will be asleep after too long, and then we will be quite still,” John said with a smile. Seeing that she was about to launch into another lecture, he took his little cousin’s hand and said quickly, “Where are my manners, Rich? Allow me to introduce you to my cousin Jane. This is her first foray to London. Jane, Lord Richard Avery.”
“Good evening, my lord,” the poor girl managed to squeak out as Richard leveled a devastating smile at her. He took her hand and raised it halfway to his lips, as every gentleman was trained to do. A quick glance at Jane’s flushed cheeks told John that she was already overwhelmed.
And why not? Richard cut quite an impressive figure, especially when he was decked out in all his evening finery. And John had seen the man stripped to the waist at Jackson’s boxing saloon more times than he could count. John raised his champagne glass to his lips, using it to cover his sigh.
“Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.”
John was about to ask, discreetly, how long the concert was expected to last, when Lord Brenleigh appeared at Richard’s side, and John conducted another round of introductions. Jane, the poor little innocent, appeared just as breathless over the sight of Brenleigh as she had over Richard. It set curious thoughts running through John’s mind. Only a few months ago, when Richard and Henry had suddenly become thick as thieves after the scandal with Richard’s sister, John had thought that maybe the two of them were closer than friends.
Don’t be foolish.
Perhaps after too long, starving men such as himself began to imagine they saw food everywhere.
“Ah, there she is,” Aunt Eloise exclaimed, rising on her slippered toes to look over the crowd. She waved her fan, and John looked to see who she was summoning.
He could not recall the middle-aged lady’s name, but he immediately recognized the man escorting her. It was Sir Samuel Shaw. He wore buff knee breeches and a tailed black evening coat over a rather plain, conservatively tied cravat. The image would have been decidedly dull but for the vibrant green silk waistcoat, embroidered around the buttons and edges with glistening gold thread. The ensemble was a little dated and outside the current fashion, yet oddly appealing.
Is that waistcoat the same color as his eyes?
“Eloise, hello,” the woman said as she joined them, all but pulling Shaw with her. It wasn’t until they were almost upon John and his group that he noticed the third person with Shaw, a young lady, likely just out of the schoolroom, who appeared to find the tops of her shoes fascinating.
“Kat.” Aunt Eloise nodded to her old friend. “And Sir Samuel. John, of course you know Lady Katherine Crowl and her brother Sir Samuel. Good evening, sir. Ah, and this must be Miss Shaw. You did tell me that you were bringing your sister out this season, didn’t you?”
“Yes, of course. My sister Florence, this is her first season.”
“Ma’am,” Shaw said, nodding to Eloise. She made the introductions, and this time John could not help but notice that his cousin Jane didn’t appear half as flustered when Shaw bowed over her hand, a fact that left John curiously annoyed.
“How are you finding London, my dear?” Aunt Eloise said to Florence.
The girl finally looked up, and when she did, John could swear he was looking at Shaw’s twin in female form. She was shorter than the other young ladies, with a solid, stocky figure that John’s aunt would have politely called unfortunate. Her raven-black hair was done up in a ridiculous chaos of sausage curls, and her deep green eyes squinted in the candlelight as if she required spectacles but was not currently wearing them.
“I find it more frustrating than anything else,” Florence replied with a very unladylike shrug.
Aunt Eloise huffed through her nose while Jane giggled behind her fan.
Shaw did not react at all.
“Sam,” Brenleigh cut in with a welcoming smile. “How is your hand faring?”
It was the briefest thing, little more than half a second, yet John saw it. Shaw’s jaw clenched and his whole body stiffened. His smooth face contorted into a flash of hostility.
“Perfectly fine. Nothing worth concern,” Shaw muttered.
John glanced at Brenleigh, wondering if he too had noticed Shaw’s visceral reaction. It was impossible to know, but Brenleigh did appear quite…disappointed? John was not typically one for gossip, but he found himself suddenly, irrationally interested.
The tinkling of bells announced that the musical entertainment was soon to begin. Shaw released an audible breath and turned away, taking his sisters’ arms as he fled. The man looked positively relieved to escape the group. Lady Crowl made a rushed farewell over her shoulder as her brother all but dragged her away. The remaining ladies exchanged inquiring looks, but John turned his attention back to Brenleigh. He whispered something intently to Richard while Richard scowled.
John raised his brow and reminded himself that if curiosity killed the cat, the cat probably went to his death satisfied. Something was amiss between Brenleigh and Shaw, perhaps including Richard too. As John took his aunt and cousin on either arm and led them to their seats, he shrugged much of his interest away. It was probably just about some business venture. Hadn’t Michael said that Shaw was vicious in business circles, a veritable hawk? John would make subtle inquiries later. He was not above dabbling in gossip when his interest was piqued.
After seeing to the ladies, John took his seat and made the mistake of sighing like a disgruntled old man.
Aunt Eloise gave him a narrow look. “Don’t be disagreeable,” she said, tapping his arm with her fan. “I know for a fact you enjoy music.”
“I enjoy music
, Aunt. I do not enjoy listening to amateurs butcher notes, no matter how lovely and well-meaning they may be.”
He was telling the truth, but only by half. The fact of the matter was that he had every intention of feigning boredom and disinterest regardless of the caliber of music involved. It was expected of him. Sportish Corinthians who raced their curricles to Brighton at breakneck speed and spent summers tearing across the countryside on horseback did not
get absorbed in music. It simply wasn’t the thing.
“Shows what you know,” Jane whispered. “Henrietta and Constance are far from amateurs.”
John rolled his eyes. The sound of tuning instruments was the final warning for the audience to go silent. He waited for the onslaught of scraping strings and pounded piano keys, but was treated to a superb crescendo into one of the lesser-known Mozart sonatas. His surprise must have shown on his face, for he heard a distinct humph of satisfaction from his aunt just as she tapped his arm again.
The evening was not going to be a total loss after all, he decided as he settled into the beautiful music. Still, he listened and watched with his face a blank mask of disinterest. It was obvious by the time the musicians faded into the sonata’s second movement that most of the men in the audience were following his example of apathy. Either that, or they were genuinely bored.
But not Shaw.
As John looked around the room, observing the audience in the great ton tradition, his gaze fell on Shaw and he was struck still. The man sat in the same row on the other side of the center aisle, giving John a perfect view of his profile. His attention was fixed forward in a determined sort of way, but there was no hiding the watery sheen over his eyes. He blinked slowly, purposefully, and his chest rose and fell with the deep, conscious breaths of a man trying to hold himself together.
My God, he’s weeping.
John, usually so careful of his behavior, continued to stare. He was not certain why, for at any other time he would have looked away from something so private. But he could not seem to look away. Shaw was…
. His mind spat out the word like a challenge. Shaw was shorter than average, five foot eight or nine at most. His figure, while obviously strong and compact, had that mild softness that suggested a persistent layer of baby fat, and that same trait reached to his face. His features were soft and smooth. They were…kind? And compared to the rows of dismal, bored men surrounding him, Shaw looked absolutely—
Dark green eyes fixed on John’s, and he panicked. John flinched like a pickpocket caught in the act just as Shaw’s eyes flared and his cheeks turned crimson. Yes, even in the wavering candlelight, John saw the flush crawl over Shaw’s face.
John turned his head forward with a snap, causing his aunt to frown at him. He had not meant to stare, and he had certainly not meant to embarrass the man by catching him in a forgetful moment. But it was just music, after all. Wasn’t it a bit much to become so overwrought over some well-played notes?
Something in John’s stomach twisted. He hadn’t always thought like that. When had he become so jaded?
Sitting through the rest of the Mozart piece was a unique kind of torture as he struggled not to glance at Shaw. Instead, he managed to give himself a headache trying to examine him in his peripheral vision. Finally, he gave up and focused his eyes on the musicians. When the piece ended, to genuine applause and people rising for the relief of an intermission, John looked across the center aisle.
Shaw and his sisters were gone.