Authors: Anne Mallory
Tags: #Romance, #Historical
To N & P, with hugs and love
The flip of a card decided the match.
“Project? Is this how you define the sale of your…
Caroline tiredly dropped her papers onto a curved stone bench…
Tall, powerful oaks and maples lined the drive to Meadowbrook,…
“What the devil is this? This isn’t mine.”
A dozen servants hurried along a path in front of…
The local gentry and Town fashionable had turned out in…
Sebastien stubbed his cheroot into the dirt of the plant,…
Caroline carried her supplies into her yard and stopped abruptly.
Caroline waited like a bell awaiting its death toll. A…
Caroline tapped her finger against her chin, squinting against the…
“The last game before we break is a gentleman’s quest.
Warm spice drifted around her limbs, curling and pulling.
“That was an excellent resolution. Such a taciturn and stern…
A beautiful, dusky pink rose blinked at her from the…
She woke, stretching and smiling—pleasantly sore, invigorated, and free. She…
A log snapped in the glowing hearth. Chalk scratched over…
Parlor tricks, parties, cards, and amusements. The past days of…
The box arrived as Sebastien was tiredly fumbling for a…
Most of the guests would be back in a few…
Sebastien walked away from the cottage, warm and cozy. The…
Sebastien entered the arena for the final game.
Caroline watched the butterflies alight upon the blossoms, wave their…
A figure holding two scrolls rounded the hill. One appointing…
of London, June 1822—
Scritches on parchment. Secret conversations in the shadows. Devilish deeds in dark chambers. Dear Reader, something of magnitude is happening under the cover of darkness in the highest strata of the land. Time will tell what it is…
he flip of a card decided the match.
A round of swearing coursed through the thick smoke and dull chatter in the gilt and leathered men’s club.
“A round to you again, Deville.” Eyes deep with suspicion held his. “That makes it, what, four thousand this night?”
Sebastien raked his winnings with a negligent hand. “Good of you to keep track, Compton.”
“I keep track of far more than that,” Compton said, his gaunt frame pitching forward in order to curl skeletal fingers around a brandy snifter.
“I can’t believe your bloody luck. Unnatural,” the man to his left spit, and tossed his moppish brown hair with an unsteady hand. He’d lost heavily. As usual.
“Before you curse the spirits, Benedict, perhaps you should examine your absence of skill.” Sebastien kept his voice lazy, but stayed aware of the crowd in his periphery. Surrounded by the cream of London society—unfortunately the male half of it—he was an island of disrepute. On paper he was at a distinct social disadvantage in his present position, but that had never stopped him from tempting fate—or making it obey his will.
“Don’t take that tone with me, Deville. I can have
removed from here in the flick of a finger.”
You and your tainted blood
“Of course, Benny. Your
alone is my reason for existing.”
Lord Benedict Alvarest’s color darkened at the wording, and his dull brown eyes flashed with something approaching animation. Unfortunately, intelligence and imagination were infrequent visitors to Benedict. Such a disappointment in an enemy.
The fourth man in the game tapped a perfectly manicured, lily-white finger against the parquet table. “Enough. Are we rubbering up? I, for one, wish to win my money back.”
“Little good it will do you, Everly. Deville obviously has a trick up his sleeve,” Benedict said.
Sebastien flicked his cuffs and reached for his drink. “Or two even, the way you lose. Seem determined to lose everything.”
His drawl produced a shiver of rage in the man, just as he’d hoped.
“At least I have something to lose, Deville.”
The crowd hushed, leaning in on tipped feet.
Sharks scenting for blood, vultures seeking carnage, speaking of him in harsh, delighted whispers, and then inviting him to gatherings in order to provoke more.
“How tired you’ve become,
Benedict.” Benedict’s color turned puce. “Such a
.” Sebastien leaned back languidly and tipped his glass, the smooth edge of the brandy sliding down his throat, temporarily warming his cold stomach—a constant pit of ice these days. “Being merely a third son, it seems so removed to use the title ‘lord’ when referencing you.”
Too enraged to retaliate immediately, Benedict’s hand shook around his clutched cards. Sebastien caught a sliver of movement behind the greedy crowd. An older, mirrored image of himself beckoned imperiously. The echo of Benedict’s rage, though quieter and cooler in nature, slid through Sebastien’s gut at the motion, but he turned back to Benedict and gave a sly smirk to the brother he’d never know outside of their taunts and envy. “Pardon me, gentlemen; it seems you will have to win your money back another day.”
He gathered his winnings among protests and groans and threw a note on the table. Benedict’s eyes were dark with loathing, as he saw both the man beckoning and the direction of Sebastien’s gaze. Sebastien ignored him and walked away from the crowd. Ten steps closer to the hangman’s noose.
“Sebastien. Sit.” The man indicated the heavy mahogany chair across from him with a casual wave of his bejeweled hand. “I see you’ve done well at the tables tonight.”
Would that he could believe in the false pride and slippery words of the man across from him—a vision of what he would look like at fifty—rich brown hair edged with silver. Eyes a shade of bluish-green—
, he’d heard the ladies sigh.
Of course, they might sigh and blush, but looks and character hardly mattered in a game where the winners possessed the best titles, the most power, the greatest wealth. Anyone else was merely a diversion. Someone to giggle over as they pushed the boundaries imposed by their guardians. Allowed to look and flirt, but never touch. No, someone like him
just wouldn’t do
for society’s precious charges.
“I saw you with the Plumley chit.”
“Is that censure I see in your eyes, Your Grace?” Your Grace, not Father. Never Father.
“I know better by now, Sebastien, than to think my regard will sway you in any way.”
If only the words were true and the reality false. The man across from him knew exactly how Sebastien had groveled for each kind word from him years ago. The memories made him nauseated. He lit a cheroot, then banished the ghosts with the smoke he exhaled.
“Then what have you to say, Your Grace? Will they revoke my social card for dancing with a debutante?”
“You were very nearly caught on the balcony. You should know by now that there would be no quick marriage. No heiress in your pocket. Plumley would hush it up by marrying her to some
one like Compton.” He waved a hand toward the gaming table where the decrepit man sat. “Then remarry her after the man breathes his last.”
“The Plumley chit is hardly a prize. Why would you think I’d even want her?”
“Is it not your wish to spoil them all? Come now, Sebastien, it is not as if we haven’t had this conversation before.” The duke’s eyes were dark, but there was a glaze there. Pride in his dark son. After all, the duke’s philandering ways bore proof to how Sebastien’s own twice-damned life had come about.
“How little there is to spoil these days. Not a diamond left in the bunch.” He tapped his cheroot, and the duke’s disapproving gaze followed the ash to the expensive Aubusson rug below. “And their guardians grow ever warier, not that I happen to see the twits that often. Little angels wrapped in gossamer bundles only attending the very best parties, of which I am hardly a part.”
Narrowed eyes surveyed him. “Then Browett’s girl—what was that?”
“Merely a game. One in which I won. I always do.” He smiled and breathed in another smoky breath.
He so loved his little games. If
wasn’t good enough, then neither were they. And having them gagging for his every word—when denied other, deeper pleasures—was far too enjoyable a game to play.
“She married Baron Tewks’s youngest son this Saturday last,” the duke said. “The banns hadn’t stopped ringing before the deed was done.”
Sebastien shrugged. “Good match for the
. I daresay no one is disappointed.” He watched the smoke curl from the tip with each movement of his hand as he pulled the cheroot back and forth, just enough to annoy the man across from him.
“Not even you?”
“Come now, Your Grace. I am long past the stage for disappointment.” Now he was simply apathetic.
The duke’s disregard had shattered him with disappointment too many years ago to count. Then Harrow had beaten it right out of him. He wasn’t the only bastard to matriculate through her hallowed halls, but she tended to be unpleasant to boys like him—anyone who was the slightest bit different or lacked sponsorship. But he’d carved his niche. A scathing tongue, clever mind, and bottomless pit of vengeance made for a deadly enemy.
He’d learned to be a right little bastard, and had grown into a much larger one. He smiled. “I hear that Valpage’s youngest darling will be out next year. Should prove entertaining.”
“Valpage will rend you limb from limb.”
Sebastien tipped his head back and blew a tight ring of smoke toward the gilded ceiling. “Then I will have to be very circumspect, won’t I?”
“Come now.” His head tipped forward on a cocked brow. “You didn’t come here to talk about the young flowers. Not with your dear son Benedict glaring holes through us both.”
“No.” The duke’s eyes gleamed as they caught the light from a sconce. “I come to offer a proposition.”
“Oh? Suddenly realize Lord Grint isn’t up to snuff? And that Benny isn’t worth the clothes he wears so poorly?”
The duke’s eyes narrowed. “Be careful, Sebastien. That is my heir and a spare you mock.”
“And yet I do it so effortlessly.” Sebastien watched the duke’s mouth clench and took another careless drag from the rolled cloves between his lips.
“I can limit your monies.”
“That should prove entertaining, Your Grace. Haven’t you realized that I’ve been off your bankroll for years now?”
A perfect eyebrow lifted. “Oh? Then the monthly income that I transfer is useless, is it? It should be stopped?”
The part of Sebastien that used to count his coppers and scrutinize bank statements cringed, but the larger part of him, his pride, tattered edges of cloth coating steel, smiled in satisfaction. “Do as you wish, Your Grace. I have no need of your money.” He flourished a hand above his winnings. “As you can see.”
“Gaming? The cards turn on a man. The dice tumble from the table. The horses buck and fall.”
“Something you should spend a little time preaching to your son, Your Grace.” Your
son. The duke’s lips pinched together in a satisfying manner. “Much of this is, or should I say,
, his.” He swept his cheroot over the bundle again, a line of smoke blessing the top and then floating upward.
“But then money isn’t what you desire, is it,
Sebastien?” Sharp, glittering eyes surveyed him. Predatory mirrors of his own.
“I daresay I desire money as keenly as the next gentleman, Your Grace.”
“Are you considered a gentleman, Sebastien?”
His shoulder muscles tightened. He took another drag and forced the tension out with his breath. He stared at the duke, unwilling to answer and cede anything. No answer would make him the winner.
“The crux, is it not, Sebastien? You could have been like that namby ponce of Dullesfield’s loins. Obsequious and accommodating. Gaining more invitations and a step higher in standing due to his willingness to splay himself before the field.” The duke snapped his fingers for a drink. “Yet you chose to take the other path. To make yourself less of a catch. A reputation blackened and disagreeable—and every penny of it earned.”
“Why, Your Grace, do you even care? I’ve long since known that you do not. I’ve long since ceased to cry in my buttercups.” He purposefully tapped ash onto the rug again.
“If you had been born on the right side, I might. As it is, you still bear a reflection upon me.” A nearly exact reflection, if one needed a looking glass. “I have seen that you are taken care of, after a fashion.”
Yes, school, clothing, entrance to certain levels of society, he had. Nothing would remove the taint though. Nothing would remove the betrayal. And nothing would replace the cold emptiness in his chest.
“You made quite the gentleman of me.”
The duke’s drink appeared before him, a waiter slipping away almost before he was noticed. “A gentleman wouldn’t have had the Plumley chit splayed on the balcony, ready to spread her legs to the heavens.”
The Plumley twit could only wish. “I merely follow your flawless lead, Your Grace.”
The duke’s long fingers tightened around the bowl of the brandy glass. “You are a trial to talk to, Sebastien.”
Sebastien smiled mockingly and stubbed his cheroot before dropping it into his half-empty glass. It gave a hiss before sinking to the bottom. “Why thank you, Your Grace.”
“One of these days you will impregnate some chit, and then what will you do, Sebastien? Knowing you have a little bastard running about?”
If the duke knew him as well as he pretended to, he would know that such was highly unlikely. Debauched the debutantes? Yes. Titillated and teased them? Yes. Introduced them to pleasure? Yes. Caused them to nearly defy their guardians and run away with him? Yes. Deflowered them? No. If he needed to indulge, he went to women who knew how to take care of such things and prevent untoward occurrences.
“Sob into my sherry like you did perhaps.” The duke was the one responsible for his appearance in the club tonight, and he welcomed the largesse from the toads who thought they knew how to play cards, but he suddenly didn’t care that he was jeopardizing his chance to wring another fortune
into his pockets. He had reached his threshold. “After all, you know me
well, Your Grace.”
The duke’s eyes narrowed. “I do know you, Sebastien. Better than you think. I know what you long for.” He took a drink, one edge of his mouth pulling into a smirk as the glass left his lips.
“Power. Respect. A title.”
Sebastien drummed his fingers on the chair’s arm in a bored manner. “Don’t all of us who do not have them? Hardly a deduction.”
“I can give you all three.”
He examined the duke’s face to determine his level of drink. “Last I knew, a title was something not even you could grant me, Your Grace. Such pesky laws concerning entailment, articles of succession. And bastards.” He flashed even, straight teeth, another gift from the duke that hadn’t been passed on to his
“No, but the King can.”
The cold, swirling emptiness in his chest froze for a second, before regaining its aimless movements. “And why would the King grant me anything, least of all a title? I’m not a war hero, a politician, a scientist, or a favored child of England.”
He picked at the edge of the leather chair, the action twofold. It gave his aimless fingers purpose, and he prided himself on leaving unnoticed destruction in his wake whenever possible. He was a guest at the club, not a member. Never a member.
“To get a title, you have to earn it.”
Rage walked a tightrope up his spine. “Or be
born to it—little enough earning there. If that is all, I believe it is time to retire.” He rose. “I grow weary of the company.”
He’d head down to the gaming hells in the east. Places where the men in this club would never go or be welcome. Dens of iniquity just for men like him.
The duke’s steely voice was low, but punctuated each word. For a man who valued emotional control, it was out of character. Sebastien narrowed his eyes and slowly sank back into his chair.