Authors: Christine Merrill
To Recapture a
A Hephaestus Club
© 2014 by Christine Merrill
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To Lani Diane Rich
for a fabulous cover, to William Bruce
for the Latin Translation, and to Rachel Berens-VanHeest for everything.
The Earl of Blackthorne was a rake. How could
he help but be? His title stood as an overly dramatic warning. To those that
had never been there, Blackthorne Tor brought to mind sharp points and dark
deeds. Its master would have to be a man with equally wicked secrets.
In truth, it was a lesser and disappointing
holding where crops would not grow and sheep eked out a meager existence on the
gorse between the rocks. When one was gifted with so little, one did what one
could with it. On coming into the title, Vincent Wilmont sought the best advice
he could find on agrarian matters, invested the profits carefully and took no
risk with the principal.
Once that was done, there was still that
abominable name to live up to, and he did his best. The
Lord Edenvale to be a bit too holy for his own good, and Lord Overset to be
somewhat unsteady on his feet. But a Blackthorne should stick in the side of
society, living for pleasure and mocking the false morals of the majority.
When in London, Vincent cultivated scandal as
carefully as any of the crops on his property. His tastes were lavish, though
they stopped a hair’s breadth from what others might call excessive. He drank
often but was never inebriated. He dined well but was not a glutton. When he gambled,
the stakes were high. But never so high that he suffered from the loss. And
though the women he seduced were the envy of all the men in London. He had
dueled but once. And of course, he had won.
Though few truly
the Earl of Blackthorne, and females responded accordingly. He was used
to the awed whispers of young ladies when he entered a room, the hiss of
warning from their mothers, like so many plump adders behind them, and the
admiring glances of a certain type of older, and more interesting woman.
What he was not used to was snickering. Or,
for that matter, rolled eyes, belly laughs, exasperation, disappointment, and
the sight of feminine attention turning, quite obviously, to other more
Today, he glared out of the carriage window
at any who noticed him, daring them to respond without the usual awe.
London accepted the dare and mocked him.
He was become a laughing stock.
His friend, Robert Tripp, broke off giving
instruction to the driver and smiled sympathetically in his direction. “It will
be all right. You will see. I have just the place for you.”
Bob Tripp had no title and thus no
expectations placed upon his behavior. It made his pity all the more annoying.
“I do not need another club,” he said, tapping his stick on the floor of the
carriage to demonstrate his annoyance. What he needed was to go back to
Caroline Sydney and set things straight. The part of him that had once been
Vincent Wilmont recommended flowers and an apology. If needed, he should go
down on his knees before her, begging to know how he had wronged her. Artifice
and distain could be saved for the rest of the
nothing but truth.
But Blackthorne argued that this weak part of
his character had caused the trouble in the first place. Better to take up with
another, even more beautiful woman, to show that he was unhurt.
His inner Vincent responded morosely that
there was no woman more beautiful than Caro Sydney, and Blackthorne grudgingly
agreed. Her figure was flawless, as was her complexion. Though she nearly
matched him in height, she was not too thin. Her soft curves made holding her a
delight. Her brown hair reminded him of dark honey in daylight but, turned
coppery when lit by candles. But he had always thought her eyes were her best
feature. They were a warm brown, and their faintly almond shape gave her
expression a hint of mystery.
Perhaps a manly show of temper was in order.
He would go to her house, kick her door down and demand an explanation.
, he reminded himself. Though he had given her the deed in a moment of
passion, he was the one who had bought her the house and its contents, as well.
He had paid for every stick of furniture, every gown in the boudoir and every
jewel around her pretty neck. He’d paid plenty for the right to come and go as
he pleased, and not to have the door slammed in his face.
Once he was on the other side of that door
again, he would overtake her with a single, passionate kiss, causing her to
forget whatever problem she’d had with him, the other day. They would make
love, right there in the hallway. When they were through, he would cosset and
pet and pamper until she was a contented creature again and her door was as
open as her heart, her arms, and God help him, her alabaster thighs.
Things would be back to normal.
But this afternoon, he was to be trapped in
the company of men. What could they offer him, compared to a day spent with the
incomparable Caro Sydney?
Tripp noticed his distraction. “You might not
need another club,” Bob announced, spoiling the beginnings of a lurid fantasy
and dragging his mind back to the carriage. “But the club most certainly needs
you. It shall be the talk of the day, gaining you as a member. We have been
waiting for this for years.” His friend seemed to think that the reflected
glory of it would go to his own credit. Perhaps he was right. If this club
thought him a prize to be collected, who was he to argue? And it would be good
to be viewed as a wolf amidst sheep again, instead of a castrated ram.
They pulled to a stop in front of a green,
wood door on Jermyn Street and Bob was out of the carriage without bothering
for help, hopping to the ground, gesturing that he follow.
Blackthorne stared at the building. It was
unassuming, with no brass plate on the brick to announce what might lie inside.
When the porter opened for them, the interior was not so different than any of
the other clubs he had been in. The high ceilinged foyer was paneled in solid,
dark wood to match the banisters of the sweeping stairways on either side. The
tables and benches along the wall were heavy and, if it was possible to ascribe
a gender to furniture, very male. They were sturdy and devoid of ornament, a
perfect place for a blue-deviled gentleman to compose himself, while awaiting a
cab to take him home. The only gilt in the space was saved for the motto carved
deep into the oak lintel above the next door:
melioribus sodaliciis hoc expulsus sum
He stared at the phrase for a moment, translating
in his mind. He glanced at Tripp, who passed under the archway as though there
was no need of explanation. He opened the door in front of them, then turned
and waved an arm in an expansive gesture of greeting. “Welcome, Lord
Blackthorne, to the Hephaestus Club. You will find it not so loud as White’s,
but more liberal minded than Boodles. But it is just as fashionable as either
of them. We share membership with both of them, and many others besides.”
So it appeared. He recognized many familiar faces
in the room before him from his own club, and Parliament, as well. But there
seemed to be no common denominator amongst the members here. In the comfortable
chairs by the fire, he saw an equal number of Whigs and Tories. Card tables
were shared by graduates of Oxford and Cambridge. At the sideboard, his Grace
the Duke of Lockland was pouring a brandy for Mr. Steven Massey, a man of no
fortune or title, known far and wide for his inflammatory political articles in
. As if this random group was not enough to pique his
curiosity, he glanced down and found an even greater wonder.
At his feet, a large, brown
chewed absently on the fringe of an expensive Persian
up at him as he approached, and
paused as though assessing a threat. Then it took one half-hearted hop away and
returned to chewing. His companion made no attempt to halt the destruction,
behaving as though there was nothing unusual about a rabbit in a gentleman’s
Blackthorne nudged the animal gently with the
toe of his boot.
Of a sudden, the rabbit let out a hiss,
reared to its hind legs, and landed a series of jabs to the calf of his boot.
Then it settled back to ruining the rug as though nothing had happened.
Tripp laughed. “That’s Gentleman John, for
you. He’s a better pugilist than half the members, even though he is only here
as a guest.”
“Pets are allowed in the common areas.”
Blackthorne said, intrigued.
We’d have all manner of animals milling
about, if that was so. In this space, the last thing we need is a parrot with
an opinion.” Tripp stared down at the hare. “John is here for Ajax, who is a
member in good standing.” He gestured to a nearby sofa, at a greyhound.
The dog eyed the rabbit warily until he was
certain that it meant no further aggression, and then burrowed so deep beneath
the cushions that he was practically invisible.
“You have a dog as a member?”
“He has earned his place here, just as you
have. There is no need to stand for admittance, no troublesome voting, and no
black ball to deny you. If you meet the criteria of membership, then your
acceptance is assured.”
Blackthorne gave his friend a dark look. “It
does not sound very selective.”
“My dear sir, it is the most selective
membership in London.” The response came from Lockland, who did not seem to
find it odd for a duke to share a club with a dog. The peer continued. “The
Gods themselves choose our fellows. When fortune spits in one’s eye, this is
the place to come. And you, my dear fellow, are the talk of the town.” Lockland
addressed the assembled. “Who knows his story?”
Blackthorne winced. Was it too much to hope
that he might be free of it, even for an afternoon?
“Who in London does not?” announced Massey.
“You were turned into the street by your mistress, naked as the day you were
“And seen with your wedding tackle out by a
pack of nuns,” added another.
“I do not think nuns are counted in packs,”
said a third. “I think it is herds. Besides, I heard it was not nuns, but
“Schools of nuns,” said yet another, “Like
“It was not nuns at all,” Blackthorne
snapped. “It was Lady Jersey.”
There were whistles of approval from the
Tripp silenced the crowd. “I submit that
Blackthorne has more right to be here than any of us. Not only was he banned
from his lover’s bed, he has been excommunicated from Almack’s.”
This brought a polite round of applause from
the assembled, and pats on the back from those standing nearest.
“Now see here,” Blackthorne began. But there
was really nothing to add, for what they were saying was perfectly true. He was
not sure, even a week later, what he had done to deserve it.
In his opinion, the day had been one of the
most delightful they’d spent together. They had taken their luncheon under a
tree in her garden. While she had sipped her wine, he’d read poetry to her.
With passions inflamed by Byron, they had adjourned to her bedroom, where he
had brought her to fulfillment not once but twice. He had loved her with his
body and his words, proclaiming her the most perfect creature on earth, the
only woman who could ever satisfy him.
Then, with no warning at all, she had run him
out of the house, not even allowing him time to grab his boots.
The news had spread like wildfire. If her
object had been to render him unmarriageable, she could not have done a better
job. He winced. To be so publically humiliated that it was known to his entire
set was bad enough. But the laughter was even worse.
“Welcome to the club,” Lockland exclaimed.
“I fail to see how my recent problems qualify
me for membership in any club.”
“Perhaps you did not read the inscription
above the door,” his friend Tripp said, turning to point towards the hall.
He pondered over the Latin for only a moment.
“I have been…
“Thrown out of better places than this,” the
others in the room completed, raising their glasses to him.
Tripp continued. “Each member of this
happy little group has been asked to leave or somehow rendered ineligible from
another place, often in the most embarrassing circumstances imaginable. If you
have been sent down from Oxford, banned from White’s or declared totally
unclubbable, then this is the place for you. Our membership includes some of the
best and brightest of London’s society.”
“Since you are under two forms of interdict,
you would qualify as an officer of some sort, should we have them,” Lockland
said, with a slight bow.
“Which we do not,” Tripp added. “Nor do we
discuss the club in public, or any of the things that happen here. The
Hephaestus is the only place in London where a man will not be upbraided for
his mistakes. Anonymity is our only rule. Once you have talked to others here,
you will find that your recent problem is not the most embarrassing story we
When stated thus it was almost comforting.
Blackthorne glanced at the couch. “And you said the dog is a member?”