Abrick dropped into a reticule was a necessary evil when touring Haymarket Street, Jane Weyland knew, but the drawstring strap was murder on her wrist.
As Jane and her companions - two intrepid cousins and their visiting friend - waited impatiently in queue for admission to the Haymarket warehouse, Jane shifted the bag to her other hand yet again.
Though tonight was by no means their first foray totickle a bit at London's dark underbelly - their decadent haunts included the east-end gaming dens, the racy stereoscopic pictorial shows, the annual Russian Circus Erotisk - the lascivious scene that greeted them gave even Jane pause.
A horde of courtesans fronted the warehouse like a painted, and aggressive, army. Masked, well-dressed patrons, in clothing that screamed stock-exchange funds or old-money tweed and university, perused the wares, physically sampling before deciding which one, or ones, they would sponsor and escort inside.
"Janey, you've never told us what brought about this change of heart about attending," her cousin Claudia said in a light tone, no doubt trying to relax the others. "But I've a theory." She must dread that the others would back out. Raven-haired "Naughty Claudie," tonight sporting a scarlet mask, lived for thrills like this.
"Do tell," said her sister Belinda, a heads-and-tails opposite of Claudia. Belinda was brilliant and serious-minded, here tonight for "research," and not euphemistically. She planned to expose "egregious social inequities," but wanted to write with authority on the subject of, well, the other side of inequity. Already, Jane could tell, Belinda was eyeing the scene in terms of reform from behind her cream-colored mask.
"Did we need a reason to come," asked the mysterious Madeleine Van Rowen, "other than the fact that this is a courtesans' ball?" Maddy was a childhood friend of Claudia's who was visiting for a few weeks. She was English by birth, but now lived in Paris - a seedy Parisian garret, if rumors were to be believed.
Jane suspected that Maddy had journeyed to London to call on an old friendship and see if she could snare Claudia's older brother, Quin. Jane was not at all perturbed by this. If Madeleine could get Quin to settle down and marry, then she deserved him and all his money.
In fact, Jane genuinely liked the girl, who fit in with their set perfectly. Jane, Belinda, and Claudia were three of the Weyland Eight - eight female first cousins notorious for adventures, pranks, and general hijinks - and were the only ones born and bred in London. Like all young Londoners who had coin in their pockets, they spent their days and nights recklessly pursuing all the modern pleasures to be had in this mad city, and all the old sins still on offer, within reason.
Jane and her cousins were moneyed, but not aristocratic. They were gently bred but savvy, ladylike but jaded. Like Jane and her cousins, Maddy knew how to take care of herself and seemed perfectly at ease in the face of this risqu¨¦ masquerade.
As if revealing a great secret, Claudia said, "Jane's finally going to accept that gorgeous Freddie Bidworth's proposal."
Guilt flared, and Jane adjusted her emerald green mask to disguise it. "You've got me all figured out, Claudie." She and Freddie Bidworth were an item of sorts, and everyone assumed Jane would eventually marry Freddie - including him. But Jane had yet to accept the rich, handsome aristocrat.
And she feared she never could.
That conclusion was what had brought about her change of heart tonight concerning the masquerade - she needed something to get her mind off the conundrum she found herself in. At twenty-seven, Janeknew prospects like him would only become more and more scarce. And if she didn't marry Freddie, then whom? Janeknew the train was leaving the station, yet she couldn't board.
She'd told her cousins she wavered because of Freddie's horrid mother and sister. In truth, she'd hesitated because, her upstanding father excepted, she didn't trust men.
Over the last couple of years, Jane had begun to realize she'd been ruined. Not socially ruined. No matter how badly the Weyland Eight behaved, they never could seem to manage that coup, since her unassuming father, a mere businessman, had an inexplicable influence with the aristocracy and powerful government figures. Invitations continued to arrive, even as the cousins shook their baffled heads.
No, a black-haired Scot with a deep, husky voice and intense eyes had ruined Jane - though he had never touched her, never even kissed her, no matter how much she'd teased and tempted him.
Belinda frowned at Jane. "You've come to terms with Bidworth's family?"
"Yes, I believe so," Jane replied carefully. "I've just been moving slowly with something so important." Slowly? Freddie had asked her the first time nearly a year ago.
"Are these wild oats we're sowing, Jane?" Maddy asked, making Jane wonder how wild any oats would seem to a woman from the not-nice part of Paris. Sometimes on their nightly thrill-seeking adventures, Maddy had appeared...bored. "A last hurrah?"
"Did we need a reason to come," Jane said wryly, repeating Maddy, "other than the fact that this is a courtesans' ball?"
Luckily, they'd reached the bottleneck of the entrance, where a burly attendant with a pig mask and a shining pate accepted the steep admission price, so the subject was dropped. As the four labored to keep their skirts from being dirtied in the crush, Jane tendered a guinea apiece for everyone - mainly to pay for Maddy and not hurt her pride.
Though Maddy was attired in a lavish sapphire gown, Jane had seen the girl's trunks in Claudia's room and knew her stockings and underthings had been mended and remended. Her jewels were paste. Maddy spoke of French mansions and elegant parties, but Jane suspected she was nearly destitute. Sometimes the girl had a back against-the-wall air about her.
Once the attendant waved them through, Jane blithely crossed the threshold with the others close behind. Inside the warehouse, masses of perfumed bodies swarmed around the edges of the central dance floor, or waltzed to the jaunty music of a seven-man band. Legally, this place was termed an "unlicensed dance hall."
Those in the know called it "the Hive."
If the outside of the Hive had been rough and unassuming, the interior was lush. The walls were silk papered, and expensive-smelling incense burned, oozing a flat layer of smoke that floated just over the heads of the crowd. Along the walls were massive murals, hanging from shiny brass chains and painted with nymphs and priapic satyrs in lurid poses. Beneath the murals were Persian rugs with pillows cast about. There, women kissed lechers and fondled them artfully through their breeches - or were fondled in return.
Anything more, Jane surmised, was taken to the rooms lining the back wall.
Happily married Belinda murmured, "Just look at what these women are forced to do to earn their coin."
"Earncoin ?" Claudia breathed, feigning ignorance. "You mean you can...? Ah! And to think I was doing it for free!"
Belinda glared, because twenty-eight-year-old Claudia was, in fact, carrying on a torrid affair with the family's groom. "Claudia, you might try doing itwhile married ."
An exhibit, of sorts, silenced all of them - halting yet another sisterly row.
Men and women with shaven bodies covered in a layer of clay posed as statues, motionless even when admiring patrons cupped and weighed body parts.
"This was so worth attending," Claudia said with a quirked eyebrow, gaze riveted to the well-endowed and muscle-bound men.
Jane had to agree. Nothing like naked, real live statues to distract the mind from thoughts of marriage, ticking clocks, and rumbling-voiced Scotsmen who disappeared without a word.
Their group had little time to admire the scene as the crowd, circling the warehouse like a current, pushed them along. When they passed a table where a half-naked debauchee in a fox mask served punch, they each eagerly swooped up a glass, then made for the wall to get out of the traffic.
Jane drank deeply. "Well. No one told us coverage from the waist up was optional - for both sexes," she observed as another half-clad woman sauntered by, breasts bouncing as she smiled flirtatiously up at her. Jane gave her a saucy wink back, as was polite. "Otherwise," Jane continued dryly, "I might have opted for a lower-cut bodice and a bigger brick."
Maddy sniffed her glass with a discerning expression, then took a hearty drink just as Claudia raised her own and said, "I'm just glad to be at a ball with punchI don't have to spike." Having seen her older brother Quin doing that once and noted the raucous results, Claudia never failed to bring flasks to staid gatherings.
When a middle-aged rou¨¦ exposed himself to the Persian-rug women and they laughed, Belinda harrumphed. She shoved her glass at Jane so she could surreptitiously take notes, like a first-year plebeian might write up boys' school demerits. Jane shrugged, placing her own finished glass on a tray, and started on Belinda's.
She nearly choked on the last sips as she spied a towering man in a long black domino pushing through the crowd, clearly searching for someone. His build, his stride, the aggressive set of his lips just beneath the fluttering veil drop of his mask - everything about him reminded her of Hugh, though she knew it couldn't be him. Hugh wasn't in London.
But what if it had been him? Sooner or later, he would have to return to the city, and they would run into each other. It was possible she might seehim on the carpets, with his knees falling open and eyelids growing heavy as a woman's skilled hand rubbed him. The thought made Jane drain Belinda's cup. "Going for more punch," she mumbled, suddenly longing to be away from the warm throng of bodies.
"Bring us back some more," Claudia called.
"A double," Maddy added absently. She was watching the tall man wending through the crowd as well.
As Jane made her way toward the punch table, she recognized that the restless feeling in her belly that she continually battled had grown sharply worse. Ever since she could remember, she'd been plagued by an anxiety, as if she were missing something, as if she were in the wrong place with greener grass calling to her. She felt an urgency about everything.
Now, after regarding the man who was so like Hugh, and imagining Hugh being serviced by another woman, she felt anurgency for fresh air. Else she'd lose her punch.
Once she had glasses in hand, she returned to the group to see if they wouldn't mind going outside -
But Maddy wasn't there.
"I turned around and she was gone," Claudia said, sounding not too concerned. Maddy had a habit of slinking off whenever she felt like it. The more she did it, the more Jane realized Maddy didn't find environments like the Hive threatening.
"Shall we start looking on the dance floor?" Jane asked with a sigh.
The three began maneuvering through the crowd. Unfortunately, Maddy was short and had an uncanny way of blending in. A half an hour passed, and they still hadn't spotted her -
A shrill whistle rent the din; Jane's head jerked up. The band whimpered to a lull.
"Police!"someone yelled just as more whistles sounded all around them. "It's the bloody peelers!"
"No, no, that isn't possible," Jane said. These dance halls always paid off the police! Who in the devil had forgotten the "payment for protection"?
All at once, waves of screaming people clambered toward the back entrance, jostling them. The Hive was suddenly like a bottle turned upside down with the cork pulled out. The entire building seemed to rock as people fled, colliding with Jane and her cousins until a current of bodies separated them.
Jane battled to reach them, but was only forced back. When Belinda pointed to the back door, Jane shook her head emphatically - that way out was choked with people. They would be crushed to death. She'd rather get nicked and have her name printed on the page of shame in theTimes .
When Jane lost sight of her cousins completely, she backed to the wall - stunned to find herself separated and completely alone. The wave of people continued to swell until Jane was engulfed again. Unable to find a clear spot or an empty corner, she felt the world spinning out of control.
Two hands shoved against her back, sending her careening. She whirled around, swinging her reticule. She garnered a split second's worth of room but connected with nothing, and the momentum tore her reticule down and off her wrist. Gone. Her money, her makeshift weapon...
The next push didn't take her by surprise, but someone else was standing on her dress hem. Jane flailed her arms, helpless to stop herself from being pitched to the ground.
At once, she attempted to scramble up, but her skirts had spread out over the floor like the wings of a framed butterfly, pinned there by the stampede. Over and over, she fought to rise, but always new boots trapped her skirts.
Jane darted her hands out between ankles, yanking at the material with desperate strength, struggling to gather her dress about her legs.
She couldn't catch her breath under the press of people. How had this night gone so wrong -
A boot came straight for her head. To dodge it, she rolled toward the wall as far as she could, but then, even over the commotion, she distinctly heard the eerie ping of metal.
Looking up with dread, she saw one of the hanging murals directly above her, swaying wildly. The brass chain holding it had an opened link that was straightening under the massive weight.
Like a shot, the link popped, and the chain lashed out like a whip. The mural came crashing down.
When Davis Grey chased the dragon, he had no dreams.
In that hazy twilight of opium, the pain in his body ebbed; no longer could he see the faces of the men, women, and children he'd killed.
Chasing the dragon, Grey thought with a weary exhalation, staring at the paint chipping across the ceiling of his hidden east London loft. What an appropriate saying to describe the habit - and his life.
In the past, the smoke had quelled the rage in his heart, yet finally his need for revenge had overpowered even opium's sweet pull.
He rose in stages from his sweat-dampened bed, then crossed to the basin to splash water over his face. In the basin mirror, he studied his naked body.
Four crusting bullet wounds riddled his pale chest and torso, a constant reminder of the attempt on his life. Though it had been six months ago since Edward Weyland, for whom Grey had killed faithfully, had sent him to his own destruction, the wounds still hadn't healed completely. Though half a year had passed, Grey could remember perfectly the order in which he'd taken each bullet from a trio of Weyland's hungry, younger killers.
Yet somehow Grey had survived. He'd lost much muscle, but he still possessed a wiry strength - enough to enact his plans.
He ran a finger down his chest, skating around the wounds in fascination. Perhaps Weyland should have sent his best man for the kill. But then Weyland always spared Hugh MacCarrick thealtering jobs, the ones that changed a man forever.
Those tasks should have been split between Grey and Hugh, but Weyland carefully meted out each one. Hugh was dispatched to kill people who were out-and-out evil, dangerous people who often fought for the lives Hugh sought to take. Grey executed the variables, the peripherals. Toward the end, Grey hadn't been very particular if children got in the way.
In dreams, he saw their glassy, sightless eyes.
Weyland, that bloody bastard, didn't even send Hugh to kill me.
That galled Grey more than anything, scalding him inside.
Soon Grey would deliver his retribution. Weyland treasured only one thing in this world - his daughter, Jane. MacCarrick had loved her from afar for years. Take away Jane, and two men would be destroyed, forever.
A little work had ensured that Weyland and his informants knew Grey was stirring. Cunning and two deaths had ensured that they thought Grey was still on the Continent. Weyland would already have sent for his best gunman to protect his precious daughter.
Good. Hugh should be there to see Grey end her life. Both MacCarrick and Weyland should know the searing purity of grief.
There was power innate in having nothing left to lose.
Years ago, Weyland had said that Grey was suited for his occupation because he possessed no mercy, but he'd been wrong then. Years ago, Grey wouldn't have been able to happily slit Jane's pretty throat. Weyland wasn't wrong now.
With a shriek, Jane rolled out of the way just as a corner of the mural hammered into the floor directly beside her. She didn't have time to gape at how close it had been because more charging people overwhelmed her. She couldn't breathe. With a cry, she ducked her head down, raising an arm over her face.
Seconds later, Jane lowered her arm, brows drawn in confusion.
The crowd was parting around her instead of treading over her.
At last, she had room to maneuver, a fighting chance....
She'd be damned if she'd be killed by the very spectacle she'd come to leer at! Finally able to gather her skirts, she made another wobbling attempt to rise, and lurched to her feet. Whirling around, she lunged forward.Free!
No!Brought up short, she dropped to her front with a thud. She crawled on her forearms, but realized she was crawling in place. Something still anchored her. More people coming in a rush -
The middle-aged rou¨¦ she'd seen earlier dropped bodily to the ground beside her, holding his bleeding nose, staring up horrified at something behind them. Before she could even react, another man went flying over her, landing flat on his back.
Suddenly, her skirts were tossed up to the backs of her legs, and a hot, calloused hand clamped onto her thigh. Her eyes went wide in shock. Another hand pawed at her petticoats, ripping them.
"Wh-what are you doing?" she screeched, her head whipping around. With her mask askew and her hair tumbling into her face, she could barely see the man through the shadows of a jungle of legs all around them. "Unhand me this instant!" She jostled the leg he held firmly.
With the back of her hand, she shoved her hair away, and spied another flash of her attacker. Grim lips pulled back from white teeth as if in a snarl. Three gashes ran down his cheek, and his face was dirty.
His eyes held a murderous rage.
The visage disappeared as her attacker bolted to his feet and felled another oncoming patron, before dropping down beside her once more. His fist shot up at intervals as he ripped again at her petticoats.
She realized he'd finally stopped - when he swooped her up onto his shoulder.
"H-how dare you!" she cried, pummeling his broad back. She vaguely noted that this was a bear of a man who'd lifted her with the ease of plucking lint from a lapel. The body she was looped over was massive, the arm over her heavy and unyielding. His fingers were splayed, it seemed, over the entire width of her bottom.
"Don't go this way! Put me down!" she demanded. "How dare you paw at me, ripping at my undergarments!" As soon as she'd said the last, she spotted the remains of her petticoats pinned beneath a mural with a jaunty satyr covering a nymph. Her face flamed.
With his free arm, the man sent patrons careening. "Lass, it's nothing you have no' shown me before."
"What?" Her jaw dropped.Hugh MacCarrick? This murderous-looking fiend was her gentle giant of a Scot?
Returned after ten years.
"You doona remember me?"
Oh, yes, she did. And remembering how she'd fared the last time the Highlander had drifted into her life, she wondered if she mightn't have been better off trampled by a drunken horde.