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Sinless (The Shaws #1.5)
Author:Lynne Connolly

Sinless (The Shaws #1.5)

Lynne Connolly

Chapter 1

Like most houses in London, Mother Fleming’s House appeared small from the outside. However, looks were deceiving, as Andrew Graham had reason to know. He recognized features from his own establishment, but he lived half a mile away, and his house did not have the reputation of Mother Fleming’s.

The building blazed with the light cast from oil lamps and tallow candles. The upper stories were not far behind.

“They’re not expecting us,” the man by Andrew’s side murmured, a self-congratulatory note in his voice.

A tavern occupied the ground level. The doors lay open, inviting the passersby to enter. Not that there would be many, since the place stood halfway down a narrow alley off High Holborn.

Andrew did not generally concern himself with criminal acts, but General Court had made refusal impossible.

Tonight he’d rather be anywhere else, but he had never shied away from his duty. He had no objection to people loving the way they wanted, as long as they caused no trouble to anyone else. However, the general had told him this molly house contained spies. Any loyal subject must concern himself with that. Andrew could not turn his back on treason.

He nodded to Reed, the Bow Street Runner standing at his elbow. “Is everybody in place?”

“Aye, sir. Nobody can get away without us knowing. When we go in, stay back. We don’t want you hurt.”

Andrew heartily agreed with that particular sentiment.

Reed lifted a flaming torch, adding extra drama to the scene, just in case it didn’t have drama enough. Men stepped out from the shadows. Heavily armed men.

The Runner glanced at him, the flames lending his face a devilish cast. “You keep back, sir. People can get hurt.”

“I’m fully aware of that.” Andrew had stowed a pair of loaded pistols in the pockets of his coat before he left home this evening. Not well-honed dueling pistols, true, but they’d do the job if required. He didn’t wear a sword, couldn’t use one well, but he had a couple of knives on his person. London taverns were best visited with a knife or two in one’s pocket.

A great howl went up, men shouting as they rushed through the front door, causing responding screams of outrage from within.

Andrew stood still, the sheer volume shocking his rigidity. Although he’d expected noise, the unholy yell lost him a precious few seconds of time.

Recklessness pushed him on, but never mindlessly. Andrew kept his wits about him at all times. Somebody had to.

Andrew waited until the men had charged inside before making his own entrance. By now, most of the occupants of the ground floor were standing against the walls, many bearing expressions of bored disdain.

Considering the nature of the place, they appeared disappointingly normal. Most wore scuffed coats, drab colors with tarnished brass buttons or plain steel. Their hats were festooned on the pegs nailed to the wall just inside the main door. The tavern stank, as they always did. An overpowering aroma of beer had sunk into the timbers overhead, combining with the thick smell of tobacco smoke and coal dust. Over the top, freshly baked meat pies made their presence felt in the nostrils.

It smelled like home to Andrew, a native Londoner. He glanced at a youth, huddled against the wall. “You came here, you have to face the consequences,” he murmured. “Green apples aren’t easy to come by at this time of year.” He felt foolish saying it, but according to General Court, that was how he would know the man he needed to meet. Andrew knew his mission, though he didn’t understand the words. Under the commotion of the raid, he needed to collect a paper and return it to General Court. Simple, or so it had appeared when he’d agreed to undertake the mission. It didn’t appear so simple now.

The youth blinked. “You want apples?”

Hardening his heart, Andrew moved on. He had no sympathy for the boy, none at all. He must have known the nature of the place upstairs before he came here. Pederasts and sodomites frequented Mother Fleming’s. Such blatant displays deserved punishment.

Such people, practicing their perversion in full knowledge that it was wrong, deserved what they would get. Which, at the worst case, would mean hanging.

Even as he stiffened his resolve, Andrew knew himself for a hypocrite. Hanging men for a practice they indulged in privately did not seem important when murderers and thieves queued to use the gallows tree.

Andrew quickly assured himself that no spy awaited down here. At the end of the long, narrow space, a set of stairs led up. Reed directed the men, leaving four down here and taking the remainder upstairs before anyone could get away.

When he reached the top of the stairs, several matters made themselves clear. Mother Fleming had a distinguished clientele. On a swift perusal, Andrew spotted several men of note. Two or three politicians, a judge, and a sprinkling of aristocrats at first glance.

A…thing stood on an improvised stage made of two tables pushed together. At first Andrew thought it a woman of the most lascivious kind. But her deeply cut gown revealed no breasts. Instead, a pair of nipples and a strong, hairy masculine torso incongruously peeked over the pink satin and cheap lace. His face was painted white with rosy circles on the cheeks and ruby-red outlining his pair of lips, making Cupid’s bow out of thin masculine flesh. His eyes were circled in lampblack.

No female wore this gown, despite the long fingers delicately holding the ivory sticks of a fine silk fan and the elaborate powdered hairstyle with ringlets falling to caress the bare shoulders.

“My,” said the vision. “We are privileged tonight, my darlings!”

Somehow the person, who could be no less than Madame Fleming, made himself heard over the cacophony. As the tables jolted, he took a wider, more masculine stance and stepped on to one surface. The heavy embroidered gown swayed alarmingly, its hoop larger than current fashion, threatening to reveal all at any moment.

Andrew watched, unable to look away as Madame Fleming ground his hips. The molly thrust forward in a jerk that sent his hoop surging up, affording a glimpse, if anyone cared to look, of the proof of his sex.

“Well, here’s a pretty sight!” The voice emerged high-pitched, but with a masculine tone thrillingly giving the words a backbone. “Methinks you’re on the wrong side, my lord!”

The use of the title Andrew did not warrant amounted to a challenge. He took on the invisible mantle of the lawyer, tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, and added a sardonic slant of his lips. “One of us is, sir.” He spared the creature no more than a glance as he turned his attention to the other occupants of the room.