Guildford, Surrey, October 1814
It is often said: when you live your truth, all things fall into place.
The Honorable Clayton Irving paused in the middle of his hostess Lady Portia Butler’s lavish gold parlor and scowled. If he could find the bacon-brain who had spouted such horseshit, he’d ensure they enjoyed a courtesy bath in the Thames. Wearing a full suit of armor.
In his experience, living your truth led to nothing but frustration and misery.
Like when he’d taken a stand against his viscount father and informed him in no uncertain measures that his third son would not be a vicar. The evidence was plain to see; he’d been tossed out of Cambridge’s school of divinity studies three times, and his favorite activities were fucking, drinking, and gambling. Instead, he would be an artist, utilizing an uncanny skill for sensual portraits that had even been compared to the great Holbein. His father had responded by cutting off his allowance until he ‘came to his senses’. Ha. While society might romanticize the starving painter and claim the art would be created in its purest form, untainted by the mercenary…there was nothing romantic about living in cramped bachelor’s quarters on the fourth floor of a rickety building, complete with suspiciously rustling walls, the stench of damp and cooking, and a beady-eyed landlord.
Or the frustration and misery of finally accepting that he was attracted to both women and men and wanted to live and love as a ménage, no matter how much the church and society rejected it…only to fall head over heels for the couple least likely to return his feelings: Lord Joseph and Lady Susanna Fenton. The recently elevated young baron and baroness were obscenely wealthy merchants, favorites of Prinny and his cronies for their exquisite fabrics and lace, and perhaps the most reserved and proper people in England. And yet he couldn’t suppress the equal parts admiration and lust he felt. The Fentons were whip-smart, yet honest in business and possessed a determination and work ethic that had taken them from the Wapping docks to a warm welcome at Carlton House. They had an eye for colors and textures that as an artist he could only applaud. And both husband and wife were sinfully good looking; Joseph with his black-Irish dark hair and eyes, hard thighs and broad shoulders, and Susanna a petite, blue-eyed brunette with slender curves and a lush backside.
Exactly created to tempt and torment in equal measure.
Indeed, there was no worse advice than to live your truth. If it weren’t for the Surrey Sexual Freedom Society, a close-knit group comprising of his six closest friends, Lady Portia Butler, Captain Randall Denham, Lady Madeline Dare, Lord Ethan Dare, Miss Amelia Tilton and Clayton’s second cousin Miss Beatrice Irving, he didn’t know where he’d be. The gloriously fun, entirely non-judgmental, and thoroughly scandalous monthly meetings on all matters erotic, had been his salvation and joy for a long time now.
“I’m wondering what that potted plant has done to deserve such a scowl, Irving.”
Startled from his musings, Clayton turned to Denham, the retired soldier who acted as Lady Portia’s personal bodyguard, and forced a grin. “Lost at cards and owes me money. Next time it’s going to lose a stalk.”
Denham nodded solemnly as he stacked another carved wooden chair. “You can only give shrubbery so many warnings.”
“Precisely. I also note the plant is failing to help you move the furniture back, so thought I would assist.”
“Good of you. Lady Portia does like it all just so.”
Clayton’s grin became genuine. He cherished their Society chairwoman like a beloved older sister, but Lady Portia was a five-feet-four-inch tempest who lived by her own rules and had terrorized Polite Society for all her thirty-eight years. If he’d been her bodyguard, he probably would have lost his mind in hours, but the calm and stoic captain seemed to take it all in his stride. “That she does. One of the many reasons we love her.”
Denham snorted, yet the older man’s gaze softened as he looked over to where Lady Portia stood talking to Ethan, Maddy, Amelia, and Bea. “Interesting talk today. Dare is quite a scholar.”
“Indeed he is,” said Clayton, helping to lift an embroidered chaise that appeared fragile and weighed a bloody ton. “I mean, you hear tales about the Ancient Egyptians, but they were a great deal more fun when it came to fucking than I gave them credit for. So innovative. Lucky for Maddy that her new husband studies a topic so fascinating. Imagine if he examined tree bark, or chronicled the mating habits of sea slugs.”
Denham’s lips twitched. “Reckon she’d still have wed him. Nothing to be done once the heart has settled on its mate. Miss Beatrice was the same, was she not, with Miss Amelia?”
“Quite,” he said fondly. Bea was the only Irving he kept in close contact with—his own family were awful—and the fact his cousin was equally unconventional in her love for another woman, only made him adore her more. “Despite the fuss. That’s how you know, I think.”
“And now I think you’ve found your mates. However there are issues. Obstacles.”
Clayton’s gaze flew to the older man’s in surprise. Then his shoulders slumped. “Alas, you are correct.”
“What is Denham correct about?” asked Lady Portia, as she arrived in a flurry of ruby-red skirts, her sharply intelligent gaze inquisitive.
“Irving found his couple,” said the captain, folding his brawny arms. “And now resides in limbo hell.”
“Good gracious. Did you give our fallen angel some advice, given you have twenty years more experience in the world?”
“No,” said Denham, surprisingly curt. “Not when I’m a resident of limbo hell myself. Excuse me. I’m going to move the baroque chairs.”
Lady Portia glared at the captain’s retreating back. “That man. I’ve offered to intercede on his behalf with the mystery lady on countless occasions, but he always refuses. Just snaps like a bear woken from hibernation.”
Clayton laughed. “Perhaps the lady is you.”
“Hardly,” said his hostess, even as faint color washed across her cheekbones. “I’m a salty spinster and far too set in my ways. Besides. You know my thoughts on the lackluster and male-benefitting institution of marriage.”
“The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” Clayton teased.
Lady Portia arched one imperious eyebrow. “Fustian. Now, far more importantly, are you ready for the meeting in London with Lady Fenton tomorrow? That will be a most lucrative and beneficial commission if you can agree to terms, because the rest of the ton will then fall at your feet. Susanna is the current darling; they all madly covet her fabrics and laces, and her husband is devilishly clever, from what I gather he has improved the business finances from an already healthy position. I quite like them both. Generous and charitable, even if they are far too stuffy.”
His heart sank. He certainly didn’t need reminding that Susanna and Joseph would never be his. No matter how many invitations he’d accepted in London, just for a glimpse of them. No matter how many times he’d woken up in the night, hard and aching after wickedly explicit dreams of fucking them both. No matter how many gushing newspaper articles he’d pored over, or inadequate sketches of their eyes and lips he’d thrown into the fire.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”