When blackmail turns to murder, Madeline May turns to the notorious Viscount Altea, a man used to dealing with men of ill repute, and a man she despises with every fiber of her being.
From the very moment of their first meeting-and one unforgettable night of passion-Luke Daudet knew she was different. And when he received her fateful entreaty, he knew he would not be able to stay away...
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The matter had come down to an old-fashioned duel, no pistols or swords in sight.
It’s my own damned fault, Luke Daudet, Viscount Altea, acknowledged to himself, because he’d been more reckless and restless than ever lately, with both women and cards. His reputation, it seemed, had preceded him.
And now he was going to pay for his wicked ways.
“Seven thousand is a sum for boys, not men.”
As a challenge, it was made quietly enough, but everyone present seemed to have heard it.
The man across from him smiled. “Let’s make this more interesting, my lord. Shall we? Two cards to go in this hand . . . why not up the stakes a bit? If you’ve the stomach, that is. We play the house, but what about a side bet, you and I, Altea?”
The fire blazing in the opulent marble fireplace was unnecessary, considering the closeness of the shrouded room. Thick velvet draperies contained the smell of cologne, tobacco, and spilled brandy. Silence spread like a graveyard mist, the only sound, the crackle of the lively logs spitting in the background. Even the liveried footmen stopped with their ceaseless rounds of drink trays, arrested figures standing almost absurdly still in the shadows as the scene unfolded.
Damnation. I’ve gotten myself into this.
Was there a politic way out of this untenable situation? He doubted it, since, when he thought about it, the whole event was the inevitable product of his recent slide into concentrated debauchery.
Willing himself to not show even the slightest hint of emotion, Luke simply smiled in negligent acknowledgment. His voice pleasant, he asked politely, “How much more interesting?”
“A lot more interesting. What say you, my lord?”
Estefan, the croupier, waited, long hands unmoving. The cards were suspended above the tattered baize of the table. Dressed all in black, he was usually nothing but a silent observer, as expressionless as a corpse and about as animated, but suddenly there seemed to be a gleam of interest in those flat black eyes. His thin, dark brows elevated in question. There was, of course, no limit at Satan’s. It was infamous for stakes that would make even rich men take pause. In this place, aristocracy mingled with the merchant class with dissolute ease. All it took to get in was money. Luke was a rich man, but then again, he was not alone in that status in this smoky room.
“I’d say I’m curious to know what you consider a sum for men might be, sir.” Luke indolently lifted his shoulders. Somewhere, someone laughed in a nervous outburst.
Well dressed and middle-aged, Albert Cayne nodded abruptly. He was thickly built, with keen, dark eyes set in a fleshy face. Other than a deepened color to his already ruddy complexion, he looked bland and self-assured. He murmured, “My lord, you might be a viscount, but there is something to be said for scraping your way out of the gutter. All my money I made meself, and if I choose to hang a goodly portion on a wager, I will. Let’s say twenty thousand, shall we, on who is the luckier man?”
Twenty thousand? On the turn of a card?
Luke had to admire the man’s nerve, if not his good sense. The table behind them playing rouge et noir had stopped all pretense of interest in their own game, and the entire room seemed to be suddenly filled with low whispers. Walk away.
No. Stay. Where’s your nerve?
With the barest inclination of his head, he acknowledged the bet.
And when word of this swept through London society, he thought grimly as he lifted a hand in a deliberately languid gesture to signal for a card, he would be struck off half the lists of anxious mamas scouring the fashionable crowd for eligible husbands for their young daughters.
Good. Just as well. He wasn’t in the market for a wife. Scandalous, titled, and rich was a fine combination. Subtract rich from the equation and suddenly you became nothing but a rake, and a wastrel at that. Any man so flagrantly willing to toss away such a portion of his worldly goods on a game of chance did not make good husband material. He could afford to lose, but he had to admit the extravagance of it did give him pause, as did his motivations.
Not that he minded the idea of a few less simpering misses fluttering their fans in his direction. He was just . . . well, quite frankly, worried what his mother and sisters might think. And that, he reflected with dry amusement as he picked up the card, glanced at it, and put it back down, was not something to confess when in the blackest gaming hell in all of England.
Cayne also took a card, and the collective hiss of indrawn breath as he idly tucked it into his hand sounded like someone had thrown a pail of water on the fire. The man’s smile was enigmatic, his gaze steady.
One card to go. Outwardly calm, Luke accepted the last offering from the dealer and the strain of not showing his emotions crawled like fire ants along his skin. The other card had been of such little help that there was no choice but to keep this one, and he hardly spared a look before sliding it into place in his hand.
Cayne shook his head, refusing the last card.
There seemed little doubt the man had confidence in the benign blessings of chance.
Luke’s brandy was warm and fragrant, and he swirled it slightly before lifting the glass to his mouth and draining it in one swallow. He was quite impressed that his hand did not tremble even a fraction. The croupier said, “Gentlemen, lay your cards on the table, please.” There was a weighty pause. “The wager is twenty thousand pounds.” With a quick flick of his wrist, Luke tossed his hand on the table. Cayne moved more slowly, carefully laying down each card so that the assembled crowd could view it.
For a moment, no one moved.
“By the devil’s own luck!” The exclamation came from behind Luke’s shoulder, breaking the thick silence. The croupier then gave a grotesque parody of what must have been meant as a smile. He intoned gravely, “The hand to the viscount.”
Ignoring the subtle roar of congratulations, Luke got to his feet and offered a stone-faced Cayne a small bow. The older man leaned back in his chair, inclining his head. “The money will be delivered tomorrow, if that is agreeable.”
Luke moved with apparent nonchalance toward where a table draped in red velvet held a row of bottles, some in cooling buckets.
Inside, he was still tightly wound from the game, both the tension and the results.
If having a carefully cultivated reputation as one of London’s most debauched gentlemen meant more challenges such as this, he was going to have to liquidate more funds in case the hand didn’t go his way next time. Picking up a decanter, he sloshed more liquor into his glass and lifted it to his mouth.
He turned and saw one of the liveried footmen, the young man’s pockmarked face carefully dusted with powder, the tray in his hand balanced perfectly. Luke said, “Yes?”
“I’ve a message for you, delivered to the door just a minute ago. It’s urgent, or so I was told.”
Luke accepted the envelope and glanced at the seal. “Thank you.”
Minutes later he was outside, where a thin drizzle persistently fell from a black sky. His driver, hunched under a slouch cap and cloak, merely nodded when given the address. After he clambered into the carriage, Luke shook out his damp hair and reread the missive. Quickly scanning the scrawled words, he felt a trepidation that had escaped him back in the gaming room when he faced Cayne with a small fortune hanging in the balance.
It really must be urgent, for the sender, last he knew, wasn’t even speaking to him.
Why would Madeline write to him, and, more puzzling, why did she need him at once?
She was in trouble.
Madeline May, Lady Brewer, paced across the confines of her drawing room, oblivious to what usually gave her pleasure. The Oriental vase on the small table by the window, which had been a wedding gift, the pale yellow satin on the walls, the portrait of her husband’s grandfather that hung over the mantel, the subject’s dashing smile and dark hair under his plumed hat achingly familiar . . .
It was dark outside. She hadn’t eaten all day, and the way her stomach churned, maybe it was just as well. The glass of port she’d downed in a very unladylike gulp made her head swim a little, but at least it had stopped her hands from shaking. She eyed the decanter with longing, but decided a second drink would be a bad idea all around and do her empty stomach no favors, so instead she just jerked back the fine lace curtain once again to stare at the street. It was empty, with no sign of life, not even the rattle of a passing hired hack.
Where the devil was the infernal, irritating man?
Don’t panic. Stay calm.
A carriage finally rumbled by, but it wasn’t his, and she worried her bottom lip and tapped her fingers on the sill. The clock in the corner mocked her with each solemn tick.
“To what do I owe the honor of your imperial summons?”
The sound of the deep voice coming from the doorway made her jump and let out a gasp. Madeline whirled around to see Luke Daudet in the doorway, one broad shoulder propped against the doorjamb; his negligent pose belied by the intensity of his gray eyes. As usual, Lord Altea was almost too handsome in black, immaculately tailored evening clothes, his cravat pristine and embellished by a diamond stickpin, his dark blond hair a shade longer than fashion, the elegance of his masculine features shadowed because she had only one lamp burning. He held his gloves in one long-fingered hand.
“How did you get in?” Madeline demanded. “I didn’t see your carriage arrive.”
Arched brows went up a fraction at the shrill edge to her question. “My dear Madge, the tone of your note gave me pause about simply rolling up to your door, especially at this hour. I’d like to think I am gentleman enough to at least consider your reputation, so I had my driver park a block or so away and walked. The servant’s entrance was quite convenient and the lock simple.”
“You picked the lock?”
He jingled something in his jacket pocket. “Perhaps.”
If the circumstances were different, she would be more outraged by his presumption, but then again, she’d sent for him and needed his help. She’d address the issue of the poor security of the house another time, if she managed to not spend the rest of her life in Newgate Prison.
To her disbelief, as if courtesy was applicable to the current situation, she heard herself say, “Would you like a drink, my lord?”
Luke’s eyes narrowed. “I doubt you asked me here for a social glass of wine, and I can best describe your face as well beyond pale, and maybe even ashen. Why don’t you sit down, take a deep breath, and explain to me why you need my help? I thought we were not on cordial terms.”
“We aren’t.” She usually managed marginal ice-cold courtesy in public, but she detested the notorious Viscount Altea with every fiber of her being. Yet, as mortifying as it was to admit it, he was the one man she knew who could help her, and never had she needed help more.
“Ah . . . well, then, I am perishing with curiosity as to why you sent a servant running around London looking for me.” Maybe he was right. She was decidedly light-headed, and sitting down was probably a good idea. The humiliation of fainting in front of him was not something she wanted to suffer. She chose a delicate silk-covered Louis Quatorze chair and sank down, telling herself fiercely that if there was one thing that was not going to happen, it was crying. Absolutely not, and especially not in front of Luke Daudet.
It was difficult to summon up her composure, but she managed to lock her hands together as he dropped into an opposite chair and stared at her in open question. “Madge?”
“I hate that nickname.” To her alarm, her voice was nearly unrecognizable, and her eyes stung despite her resolve. “I know.” His smile had nothing to do with humor. “Why do you think I use it? I can only imagine what you call me when I am not around. Nothing flattering, I presume. Now, then, all that aside, I have to admit I am becoming alarmed. You are usually the epitome of the poised, sophisticated aristocratic lady of the ton, but quite frankly, darling, this evening you seem about to go into a fit of hysterics, which I prefer to avoid. Most men hate displays of female emotion, myself included. It will be easier if you just tell me what’s wrong, and we can go from there.”
Though she reminded herself on a daily basis how much she loathed the incredibly attractive but notoriously fickle Altea, his matter-of-fact tone did help her hold on to at least a modicum of her dignity. She fought a small sob, won the battle, and then told him the awful truth. “This evening I killed someone.”