Ned picked up his port, eyeing it appreciatively before draining the glass and remarking with a lazy a smile. "Not every man is a voluptuary like you, DeVere. I happen to enjoy quiet country living and rustic pursuits—hunting, fishing, tending my estate. Simple taste does not equate to a deficiency in or of life. One man's potion is, indeed, another man's poison and all that." He emphasized his point with a clumsy wave of his hand.
DeVere eyed him pointedly. "Very well then, as a purveyor of such poison, I needs must ask, if you are so blissful in your reclusive rustication, why have you really come to London?"
"I've told you, Ludovic, to find a house for the season."
"You could have easily hired an agent for the task," DeVere countered with a shrewd smile. "No, my friend, I fear you deny the truth. You were bored to distraction and came to town in desperate need of diversion. You sought me out knowing I'm precisely the man to answer that need." DeVere reached into his breast pocket and retrieved an elegantly scribed gold foil invitation, handing it to Ned.
Mrs. Charlotte Hayes presents her most respectful compliments to the Viscount Ludovic DeVere and humbly requests his presence at her establishment at King's Place tomorrow evening for the Otahetian Feast of Venus where under the tuition of Queen Oberea (in which character Mrs. Hayes herself will appear), a dozen exquisitely beautiful and untainted nymphs who breathe health and vitality will perform the celebrated fertility rites as practiced at the exotic Isles of the Antipodes. This most exclusive subscription-only event is offered for the modest sum of two hundred pounds to the first four and twenty guests who respond. RSVP is most humbly requested.
By the by, Ned, before you can make your excuses, you should know I have already responded that I will be accompanied by a dear friend in particular need of entertainment."
"Indeed, I did." Ludovic's eyes held a diabolical gleam. "As I said, my friend, London offers unique delights to those who seek them, and amusement of a unique and titillating kind is precisely what I intend to provide."
"Ned and I have been best of friends since our University days, but then the fool up and leg-shackled only to bury himself in dull domesticity for nigh on fifteen years! When he finally came to town to arrange a house for the season, I was challenged to find a way to crack the boorishly respectable veneer he'd honed to perfection since leaving my sphere of influence. Although he would deny it, the truth is that he was bored to distraction and in desperate need of diversion. Being precisely the man to answer such a need, I avowed to become his savior…from himself!"
"For three years following my wife Annalee's passing, I had lived a perfectly quiet and orderly life in Yorkshire with my daughter, Vesta, but with her 18th year coming I was obligated to think of her come out. That's what actually brought me to London, but then I was dragged to a brothel, at great reluctance on my part, by my exceedingly interfering friend, DeVere. I'm afraid that events after that are a bit of a blur now. What the devil was in that vile Kava drink anyway?"
"I had been struggling for several years to make a name on the stage at Covent Garden Theatre, only to be passed over time and again for all but bit comedic parts. I was eking out the most meager existence by assisting the wardrobe mistress when my big break finally came, but immediately thereafter, the theatre closed for renovation! It was then that I realized my only chance to ever make it would lie in finding a benefactor- a wealthy and powerful gentleman protector. It was with this purpose that I sought out Viscount DeVere at Mrs. Hayes' King's Place, the most notorious brothel in London. It was there I met my darling Ned, all that a true gentleman could be but with no desire to take a mistress. When I asked for an introduction to his best friend, DeVere, I couldn't help feeling my appetite had been whetted for beefsteak only to be served liver instead! "
His heart beating apace, Ned willed himself first to breathe and then to modulate a tone verging on panic. "I was with DeVere last night. Where is DeVere?"
"DeVere is locked safely in the linen closet." She hugged her breasts, her expression suddenly wary. "Don't you remember anything?"
He vigorously shook his pounding head only to bring forth a chaotic kaleidoscope of last night's events. With his eyes glued to the bed, Ned made a mechanical backward retreat to the center of the room where he had a clearer prospect of its crowning glory. His vision rose to the top of the headboard, to the heraldic shield seated betwixt the carved figures of a lion and a unicorn. His gaze slid with dread to the engraved scroll beneath.
‘Dieu Et Mon Droit,' God and my right, the motto of the king.
His chest seized. The room began to spin. He looked to Phoebe, his voice emerging as a strangled sound. "May the same God save me…for I'm going to be hung, drawn, and quartered for spending last night rutting in the King of England's bed!"
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