Authors: The Devils Bargain
To the newlyweds,
Susie and Ed,
and all their happily ever afters
He put down his bags, looked around, and smiled. It…
The gentleman was up to his neck in hot water.
Alasdair and the lady spun around to stare at the…
It was a rare spring afternoon that came as a…
“Again!” Lady Swanson asked anxiously. “What was said, how was…
Sir Alasdair and Viscount Leigh presented their cards and then…
Kate waited for her cousin to speak again. She sat…
Lady Swanson insisted Kate couldn’t go out wearing the same…
The word about Sir Alasdair and his latest flirt went…
“So cruel! But so true!” Kate laughed.
I must talk with you,” Kate said as she took…
The private dining parlor at the restaurant was decorated in…
They were coming for him. It was time, but he…
“The servants’ entrance is in back,” the butler said, and slammed…
Leigh cracked open the door and peered inside. Alasdair wasn’t…
Kate was very quiet in the carriage on the way…
Alasdair studied the fading bruise under his eye, in the…
All bad things must come to an end, Kate thought…
“’E’s gone to earth, Sir Alasdair,” the little man protested. “Lolly’s…
The tavern was dark inside, even at midday. The smoke…
Alasdair rode through the storm. It was a late-summer thunderstorm…
Alasdair continued to hold Kate in his arms, but lightly,…
“Are you certain about this?” Lord Swanson asked Kate.
The room was dimly lit, even for night. But it…
“Mama would like the wedding to be at home,” Kate…
Kate’s parents didn’t dislike him, Alasdair realized, or even distrust…
The bride wore a gown the color of old pearls…
The question was, how should she wait for him? Kate…
It was late that night when the butler admitted Lord…
e put down his bags, looked around, and smiled. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. He’d followed a trail that ended where it had started, at home, in England. Not at home, he corrected himself. Home wasn’t anywhere near this crowded coaching stop, home wasn’t London, filled with strangers. Home was in the north, a great house, long, green, sloping lawns. Home was where generations of his family lay, where his youth and hopes and friends had been. All gone now. Only the house and lawns remained, abandoned, empty as his heart. But not for long. Soon he’d know triumph, he’d have his revenge.
He’d worked so long for it.
He’d sacrificed, devoted his life, risked his neck and his name, given up chances for love, rid himself of self-respect, comfort, and peace, all to this end. Now it was almost done. He had all the evidence, all the documents, witnesses, testimony, papers signed, sealed, only yet to be delivered. He could have done that
months ago, he could have ended it then. But he’d held back. His revenge had been his life’s work, and it was, even for what it was, a work of art. There wasn’t a seam in it, not a loophole, not a place for his prey to get out. Even if they killed him now, they wouldn’t escape his vengeance, because his death would release the truth.
He’d spent his years creating a masterwork of vengeance, and so the finishing stroke to it had to be as brilliant as its creation. His triumph had to be respected, relished, appropriate to the enormity of the work and the crime that had begun it. He’d bring them down. He’d exult in it. But for it to be perfect, he had to see their faces when it was done.
They knew he had the evidence. He’d made sure of it, step by step along the way. They’d tried, but couldn’t stop him. Nothing could, then or now. They knew that, and he was sure they also didn’t know why he was waiting. They had come to London, at last, their last home and now their lair. They hid themselves behind closed curtains, afraid to go out into the light. They knew what was coming.
But that was the best part. The waiting. He had time to enjoy it. He had only to find the right moment, the exact weapon, the perfect tool to help him right the wrong that had changed his life forever. As he would change theirs, paying them back for their treachery with public humiliation, disgrace, and exile—if they were lucky.
Something struck his side. He crouched, swerved, spun, a pistol appearing in his hand between one breath and the next. His narrowing vision focused on a white-faced man in front of him, eyes widened in terror. A fattish middle-aged man, pale hands up, wavering fingers trembling in the air.
“Sorry, sorry, excuse me,” the fellow gasped, his
protruding eyes fixed on the pistol. “I was hurrying to meet the family, pardon me, excuse me, didn’t mean to jostle you, sir, sorry…”
The pistol vanished again up the tall, dark, powerfully built gentleman’s sleeve. “No, your pardon, sir,” he said smoothly. “I’ve just returned from traveling in dangerous lands, my reaction was purely reflex.” He bowed. “It will take me time to get used to London again. Please forgive any distress I caused you.”
The fellow looked like he’d excuse him anything if he could only get far enough away from him to do it. He backed off, babbling, “No matter, I quite understand, no offense taken, makes sense, I assure you…” His voice trailed off as he backed away, then turned and hurried from the coach yard.
The tall gentleman smiled again. He was sorry to have startled the poor fellow, but a man who relaxed vigilance often ended up more than relaxed, and forever. Soon, though, if he could find the right moment and method, he could relax again. That would be…strange, he supposed.
His smile faded. There’d be plenty of time for smiling later when he was finally done and could put down a greater burden than these bags he’d carried over the face of Europe and back again. He picked up and strode out of the coaching house.
It was time to begin.
he gentleman was up to his neck in hot water. It seemed to please him very much. He stretched out his long powerful naked body and relaxed. Arms outflung to either side against the rim of the pool, head back, he let the rest of his body float. This seemed to interest the young woman in the gauzy gown who came wading toward him through the long shallow pool. She balanced an urn on one shoulder like a woman on an ancient Greek frieze. Her rounded hips moved to an even more ancient rhythm. The water in the pool came to her upper thighs, making it abundantly clear she was wearing nothing but that gown, the urn, and a smile.
The pool had a mosaic-tiled floor, the theme of which was more Roman than Greek, in that it had more to do with an orgy than a philosophical discussion. The room was white, a domed ceiling soaring overhead. Skylights poked in it showed only the night sky, but flaming torches everywhere made it bright
enough for the bather to see that the young nymph with the urn was as pretty as she was scantily clad. The sheerness of the gown and the dampness in the room made her look bare as any of the many life-size replicas of Greek statues that stood by the pool.
The room made a halfhearted attempt to show Classical Greece in the heart of London Town. No one was there to study history. White marble benches were obviously for the use of bathers to sit before removing their clothing. Removal of it was necessary for more than just bathing. Settees and cots at the side of the room were for fellows who preferred to do their thrashing without splashing. There were private rooms upstairs, but this converted orangerie was a new attraction of one of the most popular brothels in town.
Such baths weren’t new in London. Apart from the ancient Romans, Hummum’s in old Covent Garden had lent its name to them in its day. But everything old is new again, and London doted on anything new.
The gentleman opened his eyes as the young woman with the urn neared him. He smiled at her. But there was nothing but lazy good humor in that slow smile. She looked down at his body and sighed. There was a wondrous lot to see, but all of it as banked and tempered as his smile. None of it offered her any encouragement.
“More hot water, sir?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Thank you, but I’m fine.”
“Should you like anything else, sir?” she asked hopefully. “I mean, anything?”
“Oh, I know very well what you mean, love,” he said in his rich deep voice, “but I’m fine, thank you. Perhaps some other time?”
She nodded, and waded away toward a man who was watching her from the other end of the pool.
“Can’t be feeling fine,” a voice steeped in irony commented. “Not if you turn down the likes of that. You must be ill, Alasdair.”
The reclining gentleman’s eyes opened again, humor sparkling in their midnight depths. He looked up at the man who’d paused at the side of the pool. A slender young gentleman, fully dressed in the height of fashion, gazed down at him.
“If boredom is illness, then behold me dead,” the man in the water said. “Care to resurrect me?”
“My word!” the other man said. “If she can’t do that, then you are dead. Or changed beyond recognition.”
“Or here for other reasons than play. If I wanted steam and hygiene, I’d go to a Turkish bath. This place is full of wenches—and gossip. How have you been, Leigh?” the man in the pool asked. He gathered himself, then stood in one easy motion, looking like Prometheus rising from the waves.
Water sheeted off him. As unconcerned about that as his nakedness, he offered his friend his hand. In truth, he was no more naked than any of the stone fellows standing nearby. His body was a similar masterpiece, only of smooth burnished skin and well-knit muscle. He was a young Hercules rather than an Apollo. His heavily muscled frame was made of massive bones, but altogether well formed, down to the high arches in his narrow, classically molded feet. If it weren’t for the masculine pattern of dark hair on that rock-hard chest and the shield of it below, he might have been the model for one of those statues. Except for that—and his face. It would never have graced any Greek statue. The ancients believed only balance and harmony made for masculine beauty.
Sir Alasdair St. Erth was not remotely beautiful.
Only his mouth was well shaped, deceptively ten
der. His face was a collection of plateaus and planes, his forehead too broad, jaw too pronounced, chin too large. His nose arched at the bridge and turned down at the end like a bird of prey’s, ruining any chance it had for beauty. Much that mattered. What he had was too irresistibly human to translate to marble.
Surprisingly luxuriant lashes softened that angular face. The eyes gleamed like starlight on shards of coal at midnight, his teeth were even and white. His dripping hair was stygian black, and would be even when it dried. The occasional melting look that came into the fathomless eyes was beguiling, as dangerous as an undertow. The man was dark as a thundercloud and slick as oil on water, and devilishly attractive in all his imperfections. And the devil knew it, they said. A great deal was said about him. His close friends knew there was more that wise men only hinted at.
“I was going to come round to see you tomorrow,” Alasdair said, running a hand back over his sopping hair. “Yes, I’m back. As for tonight, this is just a way of letting the world know it. As for the other? I never was much of a one for public spectacle,” he said with the merest expression of distaste as he twitched one shoulder toward the woman he’d rejected. She’d put down her urn, bent her head, and was vigorously attending to the chap floating belly up in bliss at the other end of the pool.
“But you, Leigh,” he asked his friend, “are you coming? Or planning to? By which I mean, are you coming or going now?”
It could only have been the play of torchlight on the other man’s cheeks that looked like a faint blush. Few things made Lawrence Fane, Lord Leigh, show any emotion he didn’t want to. “I’m leaving,” he said with a faint smile. “And you?”
“Oh, I’ve made my appearance. That’s the only reason I came here. And for the hot bath, so soothing. Now I’m off to the Swansons’ ball. Care to join me?”
“Swansons’! Lord. You
changed. Talk about public spectacles! Throwing yourself to the lions would be more pleasant, I’d think, and the Coliseum less crowded—and more exclusive. The Swansons hold balls as often as other Londoners have hot dinners. No.” He paused in thought, then went on: “Too many Londoners don’t have hot dinners that often. But then I suppose the Romans wouldn’t have given house room to daughters like that. They’d have thrown
to the lions. Now that would have drawn a crowd.”
“Unkind,” Alasdair said, as he scooped up a towel from a bench and began drying himself. “A family with many marriageable daughters, one less attractive than the other, must do what it can. Their daughters may look like draft horses and have conversation almost as lively, but you only have to dance with each once. And mind, so far as I know, at last count there were only three left unwed. A small price to pay for good food, tolerable music, and all the fresh, hot gossip you can ladle up. Most of London, at least anyone at loose ends tonight, will be there. So will I. Not for long, but long enough to let everyone behold the magnificence of me again.”
“And let anyone who cares to make certain things known to you know that you’re there to pay for them again,” Leigh mused. “Alasdair, I wonder if you’d heard. The War with France is over.”
one. Yes,” his friend said blandly.
“Oh. I see,” Leigh said thoughtfully. “I’d forgotten yours. Fine, to the Swansons’ then. Why not?”
“So you’re at loose ends?”
“My dear Alasdair. I always am.”
Swanson House was a grand one in a good part of town. It was packed to confusion with people, which meant tonight’s ball was a success. The host and hostess were beaming, because they’d snared some fascinating guests.
They even beamed at Sir Alasdair. If they’d heard the rumors about their unexpected guest, nothing in their glad welcome showed it. St. Erth had a pedigree as noble as any man’s, after all. Wealth, too. Of course there were those rumors about him, and tales of his misspent youth. Still, he wasn’t a youth anymore. Yet he had only thirty-some years in his cup. A man could change. At least, they fervently believed a rich, titled bachelor could. So whatever his past, he was welcome here in the present, with hope for the future. And he’d brought an elusive gentleman with him, Viscount Leigh. They always welcomed marriageable gentlemen.
There might be a cloud over St. Erth’s name, but Viscount Leigh was eminently eligible, from a fine old family with a fine fat fortune. The fellow also had excellent manners and quiet good looks. He was known to be a scholar and amateur scientist. Known to those few fast friends he had, that was. Because he wasn’t a social animal, not shy at all, but seldom seen at society’s events. He occupied himself in libraries and political clubs, as well as the more raffish places single gentlemen visited, and was said to have a keen sense of humor and a questing intellect. He might be here tonight for curiosity’s sake, he might actually be looking for a wife at last. The Swansons eyed him with ris
ing hope. If they eyed St. Erth with less hope, they were no less interested in him.
They weren’t the only ones. A clutch of fashionable young men who’d been idly noting arrivals, straightened when they saw who had just come in.
One gasped. “
After all this time? That devil’s back in London?”
“He’s back, can’t mistake him for anyone else,” another commented. “What’s the matter? You look terrible. Oh, good God! You haven’t offended him, have you?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” his friend snapped. “If I had, I’d be out of here and halfway to the docks by now. The man has a bad reputation—or rather, a good one—with sword, pistol, and fivers. No, it just means my plans for success this Season are in jeopardy. If he just glances at a female, she’s his.”
“Not likely. I mean, that’s true, but it won’t mean a thing to you. Said you was looking for a wife, right? Well, he ain’t in the market for one, unless she’s someone else’s. And come to think of it, he’d probably look for two. The man”—he paused, lowered his voice, and said enviously—“is
, they say.”
heard two isn’t enough, and that he goes to orgies for even more,” another young gentleman whispered in scandalized delight.
“How’d you know?” the second man sneered, “You never even been to the Continent. That’s where he’s been all this time. Fighting duels, too, and winning every one.”
“I heard a fellow could die of a wound from one of his cutting remarks.”
“Well, but I never heard of him slicing up anyone what didn’t deserve it. Though what he thinks is deserving is what worries me.”
“He left England poor,” one man mused. “Now he’s rich as a nabob, they say.”
“They say, they say,” another man mocked. “What’s the fellow actually done?”
“People he don’t like have disappeared. Women he does like run to him. The man gets what he wants, and you’d better take care he wants nothing to do with you.”
“I wonder what he’s doing here,” the first gentleman mused after an awkward silence. “Surprised he was invited.”
“Why not? He was asked everywhere on the Continent. With royals, even. Even though he was seen hanging about in low places, gambling hells, dens of thieves, and with all sorts of rogues, doing who knows what…. Aye—less said the better. But he was seen doing we know what at every kind of house of assignation, too. And as for orgies! He openly attended infamous ones, I heard.”
“Some one saw him
it?” a very young gentleman asked in thrilled horror. “I mean, doing
? Right in front of everyone?”
“Him? No. But he was often seen at them.”
“What’s that to say to anything? I’d go to one if someone asked me.”
“Point is,” the second young gentleman said patiently, “he knows where to go. And what to do when he gets there.”
They thought about that, and every other dark rumor they’d heard about the notorious St. Erth.
“Well,” one of them finally said sadly, “see how much any of that matters. Just look at them.”
They turned to where their friend was looking. And saw all the ladies staring at St. Erth.
Sir Alasdair didn’t seem to notice. He made his way
to the punch bowl and soon stood talking and laughing with other gentlemen. He might not be acceptable to the highest sticklers in the
, his past had too many shadows for that. But many men liked him even so. Many females loved him especially so.
It was hard to ignore him. Even if one were mad enough to want to. For one thing, he was too tall to overlook. For another, he was too pleasing to watch and listen to.
This afternoon, he’d looked like a gladiator in his own skin. Tonight he wore correct evening dress and looked every inch the fashionable gent, although every stitch he had on was corbeau black except for his white linen. But with that regal bearing, whatever he wore would seem correct. Sir Alasdair commanded the eye and delighted the ear. The most delicious part was that he obviously didn’t give a tinker’s damn if he did.
Some women whispered about him, others dreamed. One did more. A regal lady in a silver gown stood by a back wall, gazing at Sir Alasdair. She stopped talking with the man at her side. She smiled. “Yes,” she said with satisfaction, “I’ll have him.”
The gentleman nodded, turned on his heel, and strode away. The lady continued watching the baronet.
So did everyone else, to see whom he’d dance with. Would it be one of his host’s ill-favored daughters? Maybe some well-bred tart? A dewy young thing? Or the wife of a friend, to prevent gossip? As if he could. They waited. They’d have to wait longer.
A footman wound through the crowd and delivered a note to him. He opened it, scanned it. A brief flicker of disquiet crossed his face before he wore his usual blandly serene expression again.
“Bad news?” Leigh asked.
Alasdair folded the note. “No. I’ve no idea what it is, actually.”