An Unexpected Earl (Lords of the Armory #2) - Anna Harrington
Early August, 1816
That dress was pure sin.
Brandon Pearce, Earl of Sandhurst, raked his gaze over the woman standing on the other side of Lord Torrington’s smoke-filled ballroom. No matter that her back was to him, she was still delicious to drink in. Red satin shimmered like brimstone as it draped over her curves, cinched tightly enough at the waist to highlight her full hips and cut low enough in the back to expose a delectable stretch of flesh that was rivaled by her bare shoulders. Only a hint of gauzy straps dropping over her upper arms gave assurance that the dress wouldn’t fall down at any moment of its own wanton volition and reveal every inch of soft flesh beneath.
“Wouldn’t that be a damn shame if it did?” Pearce mumbled against his glass as he lifted it to his lips.
Sweet Lucifer, he wished she’d turn around so he could confirm that the front of her was just as much a creation of the devil as the back.
Her face would be hidden, of course. This was one of Torrington’s infamous masquerades, which meant that all the gentlemen in attendance wore the most expensive finery Bond Street could offer and all the women wore masks. As Torrington had told him when he arrived, “Makes the competition all the more interesting.”
Apparently, that’s what tonight was about. Gentlemen behaving badly. Anything which encouraged their debauched behavior was welcome. Including masked women.
And this masked woman had transformed his otherwise boring evening into something interesting.
After all, he was attending the party only to gain more information about Scepter. Certainly not for the entertainment. Although he’d have to admit that it was certainly not the usual society fare. He slid his gaze across the ballroom to watch a pair of half-naked female acrobats grab each other by the ankles and roll head over heels across the room, while no one else seemed to notice except for a violinist whose bow paused straight up in the air when they went rolling past.
Marking the approaching end to Parliament’s session, Torrington’s annual party was the most anticipated event of season’s end. All of London’s most influential, powerful, and wealthiest men clamored to attend… Well, all the influential, powerful, and wealthy men who wanted to spend the evening at what amounted to little more than a drunken orgy with some gambling tossed in.
Which was how Pearce secured an invitation. As a new earl, he ranked high enough socially to gain Torrington’s notice, and because he was a former brigadier, Torrington was certain he shared the same crude tastes in entertainment.
Torrington was wrong. Tonight, Pearce was here as bait.
Of all the gentlemen at the Armory, he was the only one whom Scepter might approach to bring into their fold. So he had to make himself visible at events like this where he was certain their members would be in attendance.
He watched the acrobats roll back across the floor and blew out a hard breath. Even if events like this irritated the hell out of him.
Marcus Braddock, Duke of Hampton and former general, had gathered together the men who had served with him on the Continent to stop the criminal organization. The men worked out of a renovated armory north of the City, but the old building had also become a sanctuary, a place where they could go when they needed to be around men like themselves—all former soldiers struggling to adapt to postwar life. For some of them, fighting Boney had been easier. Only joining together to stop Scepter had given them a path forward.
What they’d discovered was that Scepter functioned like an octopus, with tentacles reaching from London’s underworld to men at the highest ranks of the aristocracy and into all kinds of criminal activity. Including, most recently, what appeared to be the assassination of several government officials, all made to resemble accidents or suicide. Sir Alfred Wembley, War Office Paymaster, who stepped in front of a speeding carriage. Mr. John Smithson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who drowned by falling drunkenly into the River Avon. Lord Maryworth, Master of the Mint, who shot himself with his own dueling pistol. And Sir Malcolm Donnelly, who died from falling off his horse…and who made the men of the Armory realize that the deaths were more than they seemed. Because Donnelly had never been astride a horse in his entire city-dwelling life.
Twelve deaths of prominent officials, twelve deaths now considered murder. All gentlemen of various backgrounds and positions, with no connection to each other except