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18 May 1817
By God. At long last, Pierce had the poltroon.
Idly grazing his thumb along the lower edges of his playing cards, he raised his gaze to meet Bertram Normand, the twelfth Baron Fairfax’s triumphant stare. Mindful to keep his expression bored, Pierce brushed an indifferent glance over the former soldier. His regard lingered for a fraction on the crescent-shaped scar marring Fairfax’s right hand before he directed his attention once more to his opponent’s flushed face.
“Well, Wainthorpe?” Fairfax wheezed. “Ready to concede defeat?”
The other players, James, the amiable Earl of Pembroke and Alistair, Earl of Benton exchanged a swift glance. Did they sense this was more than a simple game of Loo?
The perspiration beading the baron’s forehead, as well as the repeated darting of his tongue to moisten the corners of his mouth, exposed the older man’s excitement. From the cunning glint in his bloodshot blue eyes, he thought sure he had won this hand.
Newly titled, in debt up to his sly brows, his estates mortgaged to their cornices and corbels, and possessed of an insatiable thirst for spirits, Fairfax needed to win. Was bloody desperate to, actually.
Pierce, on the other hand, was not.
Already an earl and the successor to a duchy, he had also inherited a substantial sum from his East Indian made him rich, and more importantly, powerful. And hell-bent on retribution because of the actions of the man sitting opposite him.
Three pairs of gazes—two congenial, if somewhat glassy from indulging in the expensive cognac Lady Lockhart provided—peered at Pierce expectantly across the table. Teeming with cocky self-confidence, Fairfax believed he had Pierce by the ballocks.
Exactly what Pierce had manipulated him into thinking.
So easy to do, too.
A frustrated frown here. A hefty sigh there. Nervously playing his fingertips atop the table. Even an occasional grimace or biting the corner of his mouth.
Each a sham. All with one purpose. To lure Fairfax into a snare he couldn’t escape from.
Pierce’s blood hummed through his veins in anticipation, a satisfying mantra of long-awaited vindication. He expected to feel more elation, more exhilaration. After all, he’d waited two decades for this moment.
True, for a man accustomed to doing what he wanted, who enjoyed thumbing his nose at the haut ton’s strictures, and whose position and influence made most things possible with an idle flick of his finger, excitement was a rare commodity.
That must be it. He had been bored, restless, discontent for so long, nothing much stirred him anymore. He needed a challenge. Something invigorating. Outrageous. Scandalous even. Anything to shake him from this unfeeling stupor.
An urgent whisper, the voice melodic, yet heavy with censure and distress interrupted the tense silence. A tall, lithe woman had maneuvered her way to stand beside the baron. “Halt this idiocy at once. I insist you come away now.”
Awareness prickled across Pierce’s shoulders and down his backbone.
“Cease your endless harping, gel,” Fairfax snapped, his florid face flaming darker. His vehement head shake sent his mutton-chop adorned jowls to jiggling. Harrumphing his annoyance again, he yanked on his ear while cutting her a rancorous look. “Or I shall send you packing back to Elmswood Parke tonight.”
“Horse feathers and hen’s teeth, Cousin.” Her cute nose scrunching the tiniest bit, she shook her fan at him in much the same way as a cat twitches its tail when piqued. “We both know you’ll do no such thing.”
An overtone of proud defiance tempered her response.
Cutting his hand toward her, Fairfax grumbled into his brandy glass. “Don’ know why I let you talk me into draggin’ you to London.”
“Because, Cousin, doors are open to me that you cannot place your shoes-in-desperate- need-of-a-good-polish anywhere near.” She sounded more matter-of-fact than boastful or sarcastic, and Pierce found himself rather admiring her pluck.
“Your jus’ an extra ‘spense I can ill afford.” The baron eyed the cache atop the table, a distinct lustful glint crinkling the corners of his eyes. Obviously peeved, he scratched his jaw. “And with a tongue sharp enough to curl the bark off a Scotch pine, a constant, aggravating pain in my arse.”
Slapping his knee, he dissolved into a fit of short-lived laughter.
“That would be your gout paining you from too much meat and drink.” Twin spots of color accenting her high cheekbones, she squared her shoulders, slanted her chin to a regal angle, and with an agile twist of her long fingers, unfurled her fan. “And I might add, your eloquent speech continues to stagger.”
Fairfax’s ready glower checked the titters and chuckles accompanying her retort, but not Pierce’s reluctant smile.
By Jove, she was bloody entertaining.
Another time, Pierce might’ve appreciated the woman’s barbed rejoinders much more. Instead, he only spared her a cursory glance.
Nonetheless, he quite liked what he saw.
He appreciated willowy, feminine forms. Particularly when they were naked and lying across his cherry-red sheets. Milky white, svelte limbs entwined with his olive skin—
With single-minded determination, he slammed the door on his lurid imagination.
From beneath his hooded gaze, he cut her another covert glance. Not a woman easily forgotten or disregarded.
She noticed his perusal, and elevated a winged brow. The tiniest hint of chagrin shadowed the edges of her oval face.
Pierce forced his focus back to the game.
He’d anticipated this opportunity, planned and schemed for this moment for far too many years to entertain pity about Fairfax’s treatment of the chit. Besides, Pierce never—truly never—harbored any sentiment stronger than warm regard toward females. With the exception of his sisters and nieces, that was.
The rustle of fine silks and satins and the rhythmic swishing of ladies’ fans increased. More privileged and jaded guests took note of the high stakes and maneuvered nearer the table to witness the outcome. Their anticipation tangible, they approached, much like hounds closing in on a prey’s fresh scent.
“We are waiting, Wainthorpe. Are you in or out?”
Fairfax played his fingers along the table’s edge. Then, as if realizing his actions exposed his uneasiness, he bent his other hand and casually touched two knuckles to his mouth.
Patience was not the baron’s strong suit, and Pierce intended to use that flaw against him.
“Let’s dispense with tokens, shall we?” Brow and mouth quirked, Pierce shoved the entire stack of notes before him to the table’s center.
Fans swished faster as muffled gasps and one low whistle accompanied his brazen move. Many peers’ fortunes had been reversed with the careless flip of a card or a toss of dice. Doubtless the onlookers thought him a hapless fool or an idiot who’d taken leave of his senses. Those were two of the more polite things London’s upper crust had called him.
Their opinions meant naught, however.
Never had. Never would.
Years ago, when he’d first arrived in England, many of these same people had elevated their noses or pulled their skirts aside when he came near. His half-Munda heritage was a black mark upon him. As if ancestry and lineage molded a person’s character for good or bad. Many of the blue-bloods standing nearby kept secrets well-hidden that were far more objectionable than mixed blood.
So at every opportunity, Pierce tossed their conventions and rules to the wind. More like kicked them to next winter. Only of late, even that ceased producing the usual wry twist of his lips.
Tonight, however, he was intent on one thing.
He trained his full attention on the man across the table from him.
A man he despised with every deceptively calm breath he drew. Since as a small, terrified lad of seven, he bit the then Captain Normand’s hand until the coppery taste of blood filled Pierce’s mouth. Before the cull cudgeled him with the butt of his pistol.
Hours later he awoke, blood blurring his vision, and saw his AamA, his mother…
Pierce bore a scar an inch above his right temple from the blow. A reminder of why he despised Fairfax each time he glanced into a mirror or touched the triangular mark. Jaw clamped until his teeth threatened to crack, Pierce dropped his gaze to the ante. A quick calculation sent his pulse stampeding.
Just under five and seventy thousand pounds.
Since Fairfax inherited the barony and skulked back to England a year ago, Pierce had systematically bought the baron’s debts. Those, along with tonight’s losses would pitch the unconscionable devil’s spawn bulbous nose over fat arse into bankruptcy.
No, this was justice; blast Fairfax’s black soul to perdition.
Pierce’s pulse surged, and his stomach clenched into a gnarled tangle of anticipation, revenge, satisfaction, and yes—a trifling stab of remembered pain. Yet, as was his habit, he arranged his features into passiveness. Something he mastered as a child to buffer the scorn and ridicule often directed toward him by the upper ten thousand.
So close now, AamA.
Would Fairfax take the bait? Would his greed and arrogance plummet him into the gutters where he belonged?
“I’m no fool.” Chuckling and shaking his head, Pembroke laid his cards neatly upon the table, then pushed them away. Relaxing into his chair, he tossed back the last of his cognac while eyeing Pierce and their cohort, Benton over the glass’s rim.
A small pin—the letter W—on their tailored jacket lapels revealed their membership in the exclusive Wicked Earls’ Club. A secret society for unrepentant and wholly irredeemable rakes and rapscallions. No one but the members knew the pins’ significance. If an earl lost all sense of reason and took that fateful step into matrimony, he must still protect the identity of the remaining unshackled peers.
“Aye, neither am I.” Benton too, surrendered his cards. Though the Scot simply tossed his hand, face upward, onto the rosewood card table. He lifted his glass toward Pierce, mischief cavorting in his acute blue eyes. “Who would you lay odds on, Pembroke?” he asked in the King’s clipped English, only the subtlest hint of a brogue flavoring his precise speech.
A grin tugged Pembroke’s mouth upward, and he scratched his eyebrow. “Well, truth be told, Loo has never really been Wainthorpe’s game. Too civilized.”
“True, he’s more of a hazard or racing sort.” Benton gave Pierce a measured nod and picked a piece of lint from his cuff. He sliced Pierce a considering glance. “So hard to read that emotionless expression. Sometimes his eyes reveal a wee bit of something if you look carefully.”
“Always been like that.” Pembroke grasped the etched decanter and raised it, silently asking who wanted another tot. Receiving affirmative nods, he poured a finger’s worth for everyone.
Fairfax immediately quaffed a mouthful.
“Remember at Eton when he broke his arm?” Pembroke jerked his chin toward Pierce. “No tears or caterwauling. Just blinked those obsidian eyes.”
“If you’re going to discuss me, can you at least do it when I’m not present?” For decades those two had tried their utmost to get a reaction from Pierce. All in good-natured ribbing that close chums who’d experienced hard times together are permitted.
The baron stared at Pierce, his lined face crumpling in puzzlement. He narrowed his eyes to discerning slits.
“Are you positive we haven’t played together before, Wainthorpe? I cannot help but think we have met prior to this. You seem slightly familiar.”
He still did not recognize Pierce. But why should he?
The last time Fairfax saw him, Pierce had been a scrawny, shaggy-haired lad.
“I’m certain I have never sat a card table with you.” Truth there. “Are you in or not?” Pierce knew full well the sot didn’t possess a shilling more. He made a point to learn all he could about Fairfax. Probably knew more about his finances and state of affairs than the man himself.
His pretty relative though?
Well, she had been unexpected. And Pierce loathed being on the receiving end of surprises.
His man would be explaining that glaring—lovely—oversight on the morrow.
Pierce had no interest in the baron’s estates, nor in his few head of livestock. Nonetheless, he intended to leave the man with nothing. Not even a pot to piss in, as Pierce’s former sailor-turned-manservant, Popplewell, was wont to quote.
Failure to honor his gambling debts meant complete disgrace for Fairfax. At present, he hovered on Polite Society’s most outer fringes. A scandal would tip him over that fragile edge into ignominy. He would be blacklisted from the beau monde’s elite assemblies he so admired, unable to purchase something as economical as a piece of straw on credit.
Not a qualm or jot of hesitation muddled Pierce’s resolve.
The baron deserved every misfortune directed his way.
What about his cousin, Pritam, my son? She’s done you no harm.
Pierce could almost hear his gentle mother’s musical voice chastising him for his cruelty.
It mattered not. He craved justice.
For the small child who’d held his dying mother in his skinny arms, begging her not to leave him. For his father who’d perished of fever scarcely two short months later, brought on by a broken heart. For his three older half-sisters, also left parentless, though they were well into their late teens and early twenties when Father passed.
Spearing the woman a glance, Pierce’s gaze tangled with hers, entreaty fairly radiating from her unusual umber colored eyes. Eyes a shade lighter than the abundant auburn lashes framing them as well as the shiny tresses pulled back from her forehead and pinned into a rather severe knot for someone so young. Not a traditional beauty; nonetheless, her features were striking, fine-boned, and compelled him to indulge in a lingering look.
Which caused the queerest surge behind his ribs.
It was her almond-shaped, cinnamon eyes.
Steady and assessing, filled with lively intelligence and a hint of something almost exotic. Wild. Untamed even.
Her gown, however, did nothing for her creamy complexion. A revolting hue somewhere between a Pompeian deep red and spoiled salmon, the frock was an ill-fitting travesty of questionable origin. That seamstress ought not to touch a needle again. Ever.
Something very near compassion dared to try to well within his breast. He broke eye contact and soundly mashed the emotion flat as a newssheet whilst laying his cards face down atop the table.
She was Fairfax’s kin.
He’d brought this undoing upon her, not Pierce.
“Am I to assume your hesitation means no, Fairfax?” Pierce angled to sweep the winnings to his side of the small table.
“Hold there. No need for haste.” Fairfax made a curt gesture, a flicker of unease drawing his beetle brows tight. His stubby tongue appeared at the corner of his mouth once again, and he tore his lustful gaze from the ante. “You’ll accept my marker, of course?”
The poorest church’s alms box held more coins than the baron’s shallow pockets.
“Guaranteeing what, precisely? ’Tis well known, you’re already in dun territory.” Idly fingering a token, Pierce’s blasted attention gravitated to the coppery-headed cousin once more.
Her gaze inquisitive, she angled her head, the slightest crease pulling her inner brows together over her little button of a nose.
Slight slip there, mentioning Fairfax’s financial status, and she honed in on it with swift shrewdness. Wouldn’t do to reveal too much. The baron might get suspicious, which could lead to a case of nerves and withdrawing from the game.
The moment passed, and Fairfax didn’t seem to notice, although a troubled frown still lined his cousin’s pretty face.
“Your vowels aren’t worth the foolscap you’ve written them on, Fairfax.” Triumph tunneled through Pierce’s blood as the baron’s countenance flushed claret red, the veins standing out on his nose and forehead, a convoluted map of despair.
The cousin’s expression remained a bland alabaster mask, but she couldn’t silence her gaze. With each slow sweep of her lashes, she denounced Pierce and Fairfax. Something else gleamed in those captivating eyes too.
Pierce shook his head, his smile tight and taunting. “No, I’m afraid I must insist on something more substantial. Something tangible. Something I can lay my hands on other than a slip of useless paper.”
“Fine. Fine then.” With a jerk of his sausage-like finger, Fairfax signaled a footman for foolscap and ink. “I shall make a sport of Elmswood Parke. It’s not entailed.”
Another gasp, this one distraught and feminine, rent the air. The cousin, her hands clasped before her, her face ashen, shook her head. An unexpectedly wild, nutmeg-hued strand sprang loose of its tight confines and teased the delicate hollow where her ear and neck joined.
Unanticipated desire sluiced through Pierce, and he was flabbergasted to realize he envied the jaunty curl. He longed to place his lips atop the sensitive spot and see if her skin was as satiny as it appeared. To discover what intriguing scent she wore, if any.
Those unwarranted ponderings earned her a speculative look.
Innocents did not typically appeal to him. Redheads didn’t usually either.
“Bertram. Please, you cannot stake my—our home,” she beseeched, touching his shoulder and revealing the neatly mended tips of her worn gloves. “If you should lose…”
She had experienced want and deprivation. Pierce would bet his prized, matched bays on it. Yet she fairly glowed with poise, not a hint of inferiority bowing her head or shoulders as she implored the baron.
Pierce felt acute mortification on her behalf. A first for him, and by thunder, he didn’t like it by half.
With a half-oath, half-growl, Fairfax rounded on her, his protruding belly jostling the table. “I can, and I shall. Know your place, Bianca Salisbury.”
“I assure you, I am well aware of my station.” Her fisted clasp upon her fan suggested she fought the urge to thwack her cousin upon his balding pate. “And if I were not, your almost daily admonitions would ensure that I did not ever forget.”
Another wave of empathy for her plight engulfed Pierce.
“Impudent chit. I can turn you out. Just like that, poor relation or not.” Fairfax snapped his fingers, and she crimped her mouth tighter, though her eyes railed her outrage.
Monumental arse, airing Miss Salisbury’s reduced status publically like that.
“And do not think I shan’t,” Fairfax said before seizing his brandy glass and gulping the remains.
Pembroke swore beneath his breath and gave the girl a compassionate smile. He adored nothing better than rescuing a damsel in distress. Well, truth to tell, he liked bedding them more, but not proper young women of station. They expected marriage and Pembroke had an aversion to the state.
A movement behind the baron drew Pierce’s attention.
Arms crossed, and leaning one shoulder against the silk covered wall, Victor, the Duke of Sutcliffe scowled his displeasure. Because of Vic’s raven hair, swarthy coloring, and unusual height, people often mistook him and Pierce as relatives.
Connected to Pierce’s three older half-sisters—the darling, meddlesome trio—on their mother’s side, Vic was the closest thing to a brother Pierce could claim. Besides the brethren of the earls’ club, of course.
A few short pen-strokes later, Fairfax placed the still damp I.O.U. in the middle of the table.
Her face a composed mask of porcelain perfection and her pretty mouth a narrow, disapproving rose-tinted ribbon, Miss Salisbury glared daggers at Pierce. Gone was the supplication, replaced by accusation and condemnation.
What did she expect him to do?
Cede to Fairfax?
It wasn’t done. Surely she understood that.
Chin notched higher yet, and shoulders rigid enough to crack bricks on, she stepped away from her cousin. With majestic grace—and a slight limp?—she retreated to a gold brocade upholstered bench along the wall a few feet from Vic. As if she could not abide watching the game played out, but couldn’t bear to leave either. Spine sword-straight and every bit as inflexible, she sank gracefully onto the cushion and presented her profile.
Again, that dastardly tender feeling bubbled behind Pierce’s ribs, and once more he squelched it. He couldn’t harbor empathy for her and still purpose to crush Fairfax. Such double-mindedness would not do at all.
She complicated matters, and Pierce did not like complications.
Drumming his fingertips atop his cards, he cocked his head, as if considering Fairfax’s offer, then reached inside his coat and withdrew a stack of notes.
“I’ll raise you another twenty thousand.”
Except for the purplish veins lacing his nose, the color drained from Fairfax’s face, leaving him pallid as death. Fumbling about, he fished his less than pristine handkerchief from his pocket, then mopped his forehead and upper lip. His frenzied gaze swung around the room, sweeping past his cousin, and then jerked back to rest upon her.
His bulgy eyes rounded farther and farther, until they dominated his face.
The candlelight accenting her russet hair, she met his gaze head-on, denunciation fairly sparking in her luminous eyes.
Cunning deepened the grooves bracketing Fairfax’s mouth.
“By Jove.” He flailed his soiled kerchief. “I shall wager the gel, too.”
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