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THE WHITE SWAN AFFAIR by Elyse Mady
After the tragic death of her beloved, Hester Aspinall vowed never to be ruled by her passions again. Still, she is drawn to her landlord, handsome adventurer Thomas Ramsay–but she doesn’t fool herself that a man of his station would look twice at a poor tailor’s sister.
With the sea for a mistress, Thomas has no intention of entering into matrimony. And yet, he can’t get the plain-spoken and desirable Hester out of his mind, even though she’s never tried to secure his attentions as other women do.
Everything changes the night Hester’s brother is arrested during a raid on a gay brothel, the infamous White Swan. With no one else to turn to, and terrified Robert will hang for his crime, Hester accepts Thomas’s offer to bear the cost of the defense. A true gentleman, Thomas expects nothing in return–but Hester can no longer deny her own desires…
She may offer her body eagerly, but can she protect her heart?
Thomas Ramsay sat across from her, sipping his own cup of tea as they awaited news of her brother. It was impossible, even in an office as airy and comfortably appointed as this, to avoid meeting his eye. Try as she might, again and again, Hester found herself drawn to her host’s face, tracing the strong lines of his face, so different from the features of her lost love. The morning sun filled the office with a clear, unflinching light. It revealed a thin, white scar across his temple and a few scattered grey hairs amongst the otherwise dark brown strands. These flaws did not detract from his person, merely acted to temper what would have been an overwhelming masculine beauty too perfect for anything but a Vauxhall fresco.
He did not look up and she continued to study him, even as she berated herself for her forward behaviour. She wondered if, in time, Jamie would have come to look like this man too, marks of character and travel distinguishing his visage? Once upon a time, she had been unable to close her eyes at night without seeing Jamie, but now his ghostly features were grown worryingly indistinct, as though they could not compete with the heady vitality of the man sitting opposite her.
As if finally sensing her interest, Ramsey’s eyes met hers and for a long moment, the air between them seemed to heat to a degree that should have been impossible given the already sweltering temperatures.
She blushed fiercely and lowered her eyes, watching the small motes of tea as they shifted and sank towards the bottom of the thin china cup. A knock distracted her from her recriminations. A tall, stooped man stood at the door, a curious expression on his face, and an unaccountablesense of impending disaster stole over her body at the sight of him.
“Mr. Ramsay, sir?”
“Mr. Larkin. Is Abbott returned then? Had he any information at the Strouds?”
“No. But I found something in today’s paper that might shed some light on the man you’re seeking. His name was Aspinall, wasn’t it? He’s a tenant of the firm, is he not?”
With difficulty, Hester maintained her seat. “You have news?”
The clerk unfolded a broadsheet which he had tucked beneath his arm.
“After a fashion, miss.”
This time there was no denying his abruptness. Thomas frowned at his clerk’s intransigence and the man seemed to recollect himself, schooling his pale features into something approaching civility. Hester held out a trembling hand but Larkin ignored her, handing the paper to his employer before pointing out a small article on the front page.
As Thomas scanned the paper, his face darkened and his hands clenched but beyond a terse utterance of disbelief, he said nothing for quite some time. Finally, he finished the article and sat back in his chair, his eyes wary, his face troubled.
“What? What news have you? Good or bad, I must know,” Hester cried, darting to stand beside the desk.
“Please, Miss Aspinall, you must calm yourself,” he began, rising to take her hand solicitously. Larkin scowled at the gesture and Thomas’s voice was icy at the slight. “Thank you, Mr. Larkin. That will be all for now.”
Fairly bristling with ill-will, the clerk made his way to the door.
“And I would ask that you keep the contents of the article—and your feelings—to yourself for now. Do you understand?”
“I don’t hold with—”
Thomas’s tone bit with the crack of a whip. “What you hold or do not hold with is of no account to me. My only concerns at present are Miss Aspinall’s peace of mind and her brother’s welfare. If you disagree, you are free to take your services and your employment elsewhere. Do I make myself understood?”
The manager looked shaken, as though his employer’s threat was a departure so extraordinary as to instil real fear. “I beg your pardon, miss, for anything I might have said out of turn.”
“I accept your apology on Miss Aspinall’s behalf, Mr. Larkin. Now, I would have you send a note to the livery to ready my horses and carriage. I have immediate need of them.”
Throughout the volatile exchange, Hester stood rooted to the spot. It was impossible, even at this proximity, to read the paper beneath Thomas’s solidly planted hand. The small print blurred before her eyes, as she strained to pick out a word that might give her some clue.
Was Robert dead? What else could occasion such a precipitous reaction? For surely if he had met with an accident, it would not merit mention on the front page of a Fleet Street daily. The door closed and at last they were alone.
“Please. Tell me what has happened.”
“Your brother has been taken into custody.”
Whatever ill-fate she had imagined befalling Robert, it was not this.
“I beg your pardon?” The room seemed to darken momentarily, and she found herself swaying dangerously. A warm touch steadied her and led her to a nearby chair. He knelt beside her, taking her chilled hands between his own.
“He was taken into the custody of the Bow Street police last night. It has been reported that the group—”
“The group? So he was not alone?”
Something about the nature of her question seemed to discompose Thomas. His hands clenched around hers momentarily and then he stood and strode to the windows.
“No, he was not alone when the arrest took place. The group were taken to the watchhouse in St. Clement Danes last night and then removed early this morning to Bow Street under the protection of a large number of the constabulary.”
“The police are involved?” Hester’s mind was reeling, trying to make sense of these impossible facts.
“Yes. I’m afraid they are. According to the details recounted in the notice Mr. Larkin found, he has been brought to the bar before the magistrate at the Bow Street court. His name has been recorded and charges laid.”
A cry of dismay escaped her lips and when she lifted a hand to stay the sound, she was surprised to find it was trembling.
“What was the charge?” she asked through strangely numb lips.
Thomas turned towards her, concern marking every feature of his handsome face. “I do not think you would wish to know.”
His flat tone terrified her. What had her brother done to elicit such a reaction, first from Larkin, now from Thomas Ramsay? Murder? Highway robbery? An assault? She made her way across the fine oriental carpet to stand before him.
“Tell me. What did he do, Thomas?”
So fraught with panic was she, his given name slipped from her lips without conscious thought. He did not seem to notice her lapse and continued to stare at her, his eyes troubled, his thick brows caught in a deep frown. His shoulders sank and she knew she had won.
He held out the paper and she snatched it from him. She scanned it, ignoring the ink staining her glovetips, until she found the article she sought.
The existence of a Club, or Society, for a purpose so detestable and repugnant to the common feelings of our nature, that by no word can it be described without committing an outrage upon decency, has for some time been suspected by the Magistrates of Bow-street; who, cautiously concealing the odious secret, abstained from taking any steps on the information they had received, until an opportunity should offer of surprising the whole gang. About 11 o’clock last Sunday evening, three separate parties of the patrole, attended by constables, were detached from Bow-street upon this service; and such was the secrecy observed, that the object of their pursuit was unknown, even at that moment, to all but the confidential agents of Mr. Read, who headed the respective parties. The enterprize was completely successful.—We regret most deeply, that the information given at the office was found to be so accurate, that the Officers felt themselves justified in seizing no fewer than 23 individuals, at a public-house, called the White Swan, in Vere-Street, Clare-market.
The report then listed all of the men who had been detained. She could scarcely decipher the small print, it wavered so before her eyes, but she could not miss seeing Robert’s name amongst them. Just as Thomas had said.
Impetuously, she tore the paper in half and threw it down. “This is insupportable. Nonsense. What has he done that is so bad it cannot be printed in a paper? They have printed everything else, it seems. His name. His address and trade.”
Thomas’s face was grim. “He has been charged with the crime of sodomy, Hester. Do you know what that is?”
She shook her head and he sighed, his reluctance to illuminate her obvious. He hesitated for a long while, as though weighing his words. “It is a carnal act between…between men. Robert was discovered having relations with a man. That’s why he has been arrested.”