Raising the stakes
As the unacknowledged son of the lecherous Lord Westleigh, John "Rhys" Rhysdale was forced to earn a crust gambling on the streets. Now he owns the most thrilling new gaming establishment in London.
Witnessing polite society's debauchery and excess every night, Rhys prefers to live on its fringes, but a mysterious masked lady tempts him into the throng.
Lady Celia Gale, known only as Madame Fortune, matches Rhys card for card and kiss for stolen kiss. But the stakes are raised when Rhys discovers she's from the very world he despises.
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Rhys and his friend Xavier sat at a table in the dining room of Stephen's Hotel. They had just been served their food when Rhys glanced towards the doorway.
Two men stood there, scanning the dining room.
Rhys knew them. Had known them since childhood. Viscount Neddington, ne William Westleigh, and his brother Hugh, the legitimate sons of Earl Westleigh.
Rhys turned back to his food.
Xavier put down his fork with a clatter. 'What the devil?' He inclined his head towards the doorway. 'Look who is here.'
Rhys glanced up. 'They are looking for someone.'
Stephen's Hotel catered to military men, or former military men like Rhys and Xavier. Not the usual stamping ground of the Westleighs.
Rhys waited for the inevitable moment one of the Westleighs would notice him and slip his gaze away as if Rhys had never existed. Over the years when their paths had crossed, Neddington and Hugh always tried to act as if he'd never existed. Certainly that was their wish.
Ned, the elder, taller brother, turned his head in Rhys's direction. Their eyes locked, but this time Ned did not look away. This time he nudged his brother and the two walked straight for Rhys's table.
'They are headed here,' Rhys told Xavier.
His friend blew out a breath. 'I'll be damned '
Rhys continued to hold Ned's gaze. Rhys always stood his ground with the Westleighs.
They stopped at the table.
'Rhys.' Ned inclined his head in an effort, Rhys supposed, to appear cordial.
'Gentlemen.' Rhys would be damned if he'd greet them by name and pretend an intimacy that had never existed. He gestured towards Xavier. 'My friend, Mr Campion.'
'We are acquainted.' Ned bowed in acknowledgement.
'We are indeed.' Xavier's tone was sarcastic.
Rhys cut another piece of meat. 'Are you merely paying your respects, or do you seek me out?'
'We seek you out,' Hugh replied, his voice taut and anxious.
Xavier glanced from one man to the other, obviously curious as to the purpose of this unusual visit.
Rhys made his expression neutral. Years of card-playing taught him to conceal his thoughts and emotions. He certainly had no intention of revealing anything to a Westleigh. He lifted a piece of beef into his mouth.
'Forgive us for interrupting your dinner.' Ned's tone was conciliatory, if somewhat stiff. 'We need a word with you.'
They needed a word with him? Now this was unique.
Rhys deliberately kept his attention to his plate, but he gestured to the empty chairs at the table. 'Have a seat.'
Hugh, shorter and always more hot-headed, emitted an indignant sound.
'We would prefer to speak in private.' Ned seemed anxious to avoid offending Rhys in any way.
Xavier straightened. If his friend were carrying a sword, Rhys suspected he'd have drawn it.
Rhys gazed at the two men, seeing only the boys they once were. The bitter memory of their first encounter, when Rhys was nine, flashed through his mind. He'd confronted them with what he'd just learnedthat they shared a father.
That moment, like countless others from their childhoods, had resulted in flying fists and bloody noses.
Rhys stared into eyes identical to his. Dark brown, framed by thick eyebrows. Like his, Ned's and Hugh's hair was close-cut and near-black. Rhys might be taller and thicker-muscled, but if he stood side by side with these two men, who could ever deny they were brothers?
He exchanged a glance with Xavier, whose lips thinned in suspicion.
Rhys shrugged. 'Wait for me in the parlour off the hall. I'll come to you as soon as I've finished eating.'
Ned bowed curtly and Hugh glowered, but both turned and walked away.
Xavier watched their retreat. 'I do not trust them. Do you wish me to come with you?'
Rhys shook his head. 'There never was a time I could not take on both Westleighs.'
'Just the same, I dislike the sound of this,' Xavier countered. 'They are up to something.'
Rhys took another bite of his food. 'Oh, they are up to something. On that we agree. But I will see them alone.'
Xavier shot him a sceptical look.
Rhys took his time finishing his meal, although he possessed no more appetite for it. In all likelihood this would be an unpleasant interview. All encounters with Ned and Hugh were unpleasant.
Xavier clapped him on his shoulder before parting from him in the hall. 'Take care, Rhys.'
Rhys stepped into the parlour and Ned and Hugh turned to him. They'd remained standing.
He gestured. 'Follow me to my rooms.'
He led them up the two flights of stairs to his set of rooms. The door opened to a sitting room and as soon as Rhys led the men in, his manservant appeared.
'Some brandy for us, MacEvoy.'
MacEvoy's brows rose. MacEvoy, a man with an even rougher history than Rhys, had been his batman during the war. Obviously he recognised Hugh Westleigh from the battlefield.
'Please sit.' Rhys extended his arm to a set of chairs. It gave him a perverse pleasure that his furnishings were of fine quality, even if the items had been payment for various gambling debts. Rhys was doing well, which had not always been true.
MacEvoy served the brandy and left the room.
Rhys took a sip. 'What is this about, that you must speak with me now? You've made such a point of avoiding me all these years.'
Ned glanced away as if ashamed. 'We may not have spoken to you, but we have kept ourselves informed of your whereabouts and actions.'
Ned was speaking false. Rhys would wager his whole fortune that these two had never bothered to discover what had happened to him after his mother had died and their father had refused any further support. The earl had left him penniless and alone, at a mere fourteen years of age.
No use to contest the lie, however. 'I'm flattered,' he said instead.
'You've had a sterling military record,' Ned added. Hugh turned away this time. 'I lived,' Rhys said.
Hugh had also been in the war. The two former officers had come across each other from time to time in Spain, France and finally at Waterloo, although Hugh had been in a prestigious cavalry regiment, the Royal Dragoons. Rhys ultimately rose to major in the 44th Regiment of Foot. After the disastrous cavalry charge at Waterloo, Rhys had pulled Hugh from the mud and saved him from a French sabre. They said not a word to each other then, and Rhys would not speak of it now. The moment had been fleeting and only one of many that horrendous day.
Ned leaned forwards. 'You make your living by playing cards now, is that not correct?'
'Essentially,' Rhys admitted.
He'd learned to play cards at school, like every proper schoolboy, but he'd become a gambler on the streets of London. Gambling had been how he'd survived. It was still how he survived. He had become skilled at it out of necessity, earning enough to purchase his commission. Now that the war was over his winnings fed the foundation of a respectable fortune. Never again would his pockets be empty and his belly aching with hunger. He would be a success at something. He did not know yet precisely what. Manufacturing, perhaps. Creating something useful, something more important than a winning hand of cards.
Hugh huffed in annoyance. 'Get on with it, Ned. Enough of this dancing around.' Hugh had always been the one to throw the first fist.
Ned looked directly into Rhys's eyes. 'We need your help, Rhys. We need your skill.'
'At playing cards?' That seemed unlikely.
'In a manner of speaking.' Ned rubbed his face. 'We have a proposition for you. A business proposition. One we believe will be to your advantage, as well.'
Did they think him a fool? Eons would pass before he'd engage in business with any Westleigh.
Rhys's skin heated with anger. 'I have no need of a business proposition. I've done quite well ' he paused '.since I was left on my own.'
'Enough, Ned.' Hugh's face grew red with emotion. He turned to Rhys. 'Our family is on the brink of disaster'
Ned broke in, his voice calmer, more measured. 'Our father has been reckless in his wagering, his spending'
'He's been reckless in everything!' Hugh threw up his hands. 'We are punting on the River Tick because of him.'
Earl Westleigh in grave debt? Now that was a turn of affairs.
Although aristocrats in severe debt tended to have abundantly more than the poor in the street. Ned and Hugh would never experience what Rhys knew of hunger and loneliness and despair.
He forced away the memory of those days lest he reveal how they nearly killed him.
'What can this have to do with me?' he asked in a mild tone.
'We need moneya great deal of itand as quickly as possible,' Hugh said.
Rhys laughed at the irony. 'Earl Westleigh wishes to borrow money from me?'
'Not borrow money,' Ned clarified. 'Help us make money.'
Hugh made an impatient gesture. 'We want you to set up a gaming house for us. Run the place. Help us make big profits quickly.'
Ned's reasonable tone was grating on Rhys's nerves. On Hugh's, too, Rhys guessed.
Ned continued. 'Our reasoning is thusif our father can lose a fortune in gaming hells, we should be able to recover a fortune by running one.' He opened his palms. 'Only we cannot be seen to be running one, even if we knew how. Which we do not. It would throw too much suspicion on our situation, you see, and that would cause our creditors to become impatient.' He smiled at Rhys. 'Butyou could do it. You have the expertise and and there would not be any negative consequences for you.'
Except risking arrest, Rhys thought.
Although he could charge for membership. Call it a club, then it would be legal
Rhys stopped himself. He was not going to run a gaming hell for the Westleighs.
'We need you,' Hugh insisted.
Were they mad? They'd scorned him his whole life. Now they expected him to help them?
Rhys drained the contents of his glass and looked from one to the other. 'You need me, but I do not need you.'
Hugh half rose from his chair. 'Our father supported you and your mother. You owe him. He sent you to school. Think of what would have happened if he had not!'
Rhys glared at him, only a year younger than his own thirty years. 'Think of what my mother's life might have been like if the earl had not seduced her.'
She might have married. She might have found respectability and happiness instead of bearing the burden of a child out of wedlock.
She might have lived.
Rhys turned away and pushed down the grief for his mother. It never entirely left him.
Ned persisted. 'Rhys, I do not blame you for despising our father or us, but our welfare is not the main issue. Countless people, some known to you, depend upon our family for their livelihood. The servants. The tenant farmers. The stable workers. The village and all its people in some fashion depend upon the Westleigh estate to be profitable. Too soon we will not be able to meet the expenses of planting. Like a house of cards, everything is in danger of collapsing and it is the people of Westleigh who will suffer the most dire of consequences.'
Rhys curled his fingers into fists. 'Do not place upon my shoulders the damage done by the earl. It has nothing to do with me.'
'You are our last resort,' Hugh implored. 'We've tried leasing the estate, but in these hard times, no one is forthcoming.'
Farming was going through difficult times, that was true. The war left much financial hardship in its wake. There was plenty of unrest and protest around the country about the Corn Laws keeping grain prices high, but, without the laws, more farms would fold.
All the more reason the earl should have exercised prudence instead of profligacy.
'Leave me out of it.'
'We cannot leave you out of it!' Hugh jumped to his feet and paced the room. 'We need you. Do you not hear me? You must do this for us!'
'Hugh, you are not helping.' Ned also rose.
Rhys stood and faced them both. 'Words our father once spoke to me, I will repeat to you. I am under no obligation to do anything for you' He turned away and walked over to the decanter of brandy, pouring himself another glass. 'Our conversation is at an end.'
There was no sound of them moving towards the door. Rhys turned and faced them once again. 'You need to leave me, gentlemen. Go now, or, believe me, I am quite capable of tossing you both out.'
Hugh took a step towards him. 'I should like to see you try!'
Ned pulled him away. 'We are leaving. We are leaving. But I do beg you to reconsider. This could bring you a fortune. We have enough to finance the start of it. All we need is'
Rhys lowered his voice. 'Go.'
Ned dragged his brother to the door. They gathered their hats and gloves and left the rooms.
Rhys stared at the door long after their footsteps faded in the hallway.
MacEvoy appeared. 'Do you need anything, sir?'
Rhys shook his head. 'Nothing, MacEvoy. You do not need to attend me.'
MacEvoy left again and Rhys downed his brandy. He poured himself another glass, breathing as heavy as if he'd run a league.
He almost wished Hugh had swung at him. He'd have relished planting a fist in the man's face, a face too disturbingly similar to his own.
A knock sounded at the door and Rhys strode over and swung it open. 'I told you to be gone!'
'Whoa!' Xavier raised his hands. 'They are gone.'
Rhys stepped aside. 'What were you doing? Lurking in the hallway?'
'Precisely.' Xavier entered the room. 'I could not wait a moment longer to hear what they wanted.'
Rhys poured another glass of brandy and handed it to his friend. 'Have a seat. You will not believe this, I assure you.'
Sending away the Westleighs ought to have been the end of it. Rhys ought to have concentrated on his cards that night rather than observe the workings of the gaming hell on St James's Street. He ought to have slept well without his thoughts racing.
Over the next few days, though, he visited as many gambling establishments as he could, still playing cards, but taking in everything from the arrangements of the tables, the quality of the meals, the apparent profitability of the various games.
'Why this tour of gaming hells?' Xavier asked him as they walked to yet another establishment off of St James's. 'A different one each night? That is not your habit, Rhys. You usually stick to one place long enough for the high-stakes players to ask you to play.'
Rhys lifted his shoulders. 'No special reason. Call it a whim.'
His friend looked doubtful.
Rhys did not wish to admit to himself that he was considering his half-brothers' offer, although all the people who had been kind to his mother in the village kept rising to his memory. He could almost envision their suffering eyes if Westleigh Hall was left in ruins. He could almost feel their hunger.
If he pushed the faces away, thoughts of how much money he could make came to the fore. The Westleighs would be taking the risk, not Rhys. For Rhys it was almost a safe bet.
If only it had been anyone but the Westleighs.