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The Bride Price
The Times 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 . . .
The 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 you removed from here in the flick of a finger."
You and your tainted blood.
"Ofcourse, Benny. Your grace 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, Lord Benedict." Benedict's color turned puce. "Such a disappointment." 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—aquamarine, 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 someone 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.The Bride Price. Copyright © by Anne Mallory. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.