Benedict wore a mask of confidence as he stepped across the threshold into the great Dunchester ballroom. And why shouldn’t I be confident? he asked himself, trying to steady his thundering heartbeat.
Indeed, the only son of the Duke of Preston and bearing the title of Marquess of Elebury in his own right, Benedict Carlton had all the qualities one could expect in a young man of London society. Though only being twenty years of age, barely out of his boyhood, Benedict had already forged a reputation for himself in the ton for intelligence, sobriety, and all-around good character. Apart from his sterling personality and behaviour, Benedict’s appearance also had never failed to draw admiring attention from eligible young ladies. His sandy blonde hair, piercing blue eyes, and strong figure of a natural athlete were much remarked upon.
Yet for as much as he had in his favour, beneath his mask of poise, Benedict felt himself coming to pieces. All the positive traits in the world would not protect him from what awaited him in this place, he knew.
A glittering smile came to Benedict’s lips as a welcome diversion from his fate presented itself in the shape of Lady Emilia Crane. It had been some months since he had made the charming young lady’s acquaintance, and he recalled that their banter had been as entertaining as it was flirtatious. Seeing Lady Emilia passing his way as she exited the ballroom at the side of another woman, Benedict leapt on this opportunity to put off what was yet to come.
“My dear Lady Emilia,” he said, bowing grandly. “What a pleasure to run into you. I am most happy to see that the ton has grown no less pretty in my absence, even if the fashions have blossomed into ever more obscenely grand permutations.”
He reached out a hand to take hers and kiss it in a stately manoeuvre, but as he did so, the two ladies walked right past him in a flurry of whispers and muffled laughter. Benedict blinked in confusion—had his legendary charm grown dull and ineffectual in his absence from society? Or was it that his family’s reputation had suffered even worse than he had imagined?
Perhaps the ton has simply grown more rude, he thought grimly. Or more hard of hearing.
He swallowed, his tongue feeling like ashes in his mouth, and made himself continue into the ballroom even as he wished he could be anywhere else in the world.
“The Most Honourable, Marquess of Elebury!” cried the footman at Benedict’s side. He fought the impulse to jump at the volume of the man’s announcement, and he felt a trickle of sweat that threatened to turn into a torrent as all eyes in the room turned in his direction.
Benedict swallowed again, lifting his chin and forcing his unruffled expression all the harder. Come on, lad, he told himself with determination. Father is counting on you. These people are your friends—or were once, at least. Don’t let a few odd looks chase you away from the task at hand. After all, who’s going to claw the family back to respectability if not you? Go greet your host, drink some wine, have a dance…enjoy yourself, for God’s sake! It’s just a ball, not the bloody Spanish Inquisition!
But he could not dismiss the outrageous reception he was greeted with as easily as that. As he walked into the great, high-ceilinged room beneath extravagant crystal chandeliers, from all sides, he heard the stirrings of a symphony of gossip, the hushed laughter and twittering of the predatory gentry that spied fresh meat.
“—told you, Dunlop. That’s him, poor devil!”
“I simply cannot believe Her Grace would do such a thing to her family! But then, she was always a weak sort, God rest her—”
“—say such corruption carries through the family, you know. I can’t even believe Dunchester invited such a pathetic figure to this ball. I know I certainly wouldn’t bring such scandal into our house!”
“—expect it shall not be long before his father goes the same as the mother, the way I hear he drinks these days. Terrible thing to happen to such an esteemed—”
Each word that was spoken about him struck Benedict like a knife in the back. His pace slowed, his posture stiffened as he fought like a demon not to turn on these wicked whisperers and let loose his rage in their direction. It was all he could do to mechanically force one foot in front of the other, gritting his teeth and repeating to himself, Father is counting on you. The family needs you.
But when Benedict had at last crossed the polished marble floor to the cluster of hangers-on who surrounded the host of this affair, the rosy-cheeked Duke of Dunchester, the hush that fell over the gaggle of lords and ladies as he approached was entirely too much for him.
These were friendly faces, once. In the crowd on the peripheries of Dunchester, Benedict recognised a dozen esteemed gentlemen and vibrant young ladies whom he had danced with at balls in the past. Now, though, they had been changed into strangers by his absence from society for the previous months. Worse than strangers, really; the knowing smiles and the laughter that sparkled in their eyes bespoke a cruel awareness of the heights to which Benedict had once been raised and the pitiful low to which he had now descended.
Hang Father, he thought. Hang the bloody family. I won’t be made the fool just because Mother had an illicit liaison with some damnable Frenchman. If anyone’s going to suffer these indignities in a vain attempt to salvage the unsalvageable, it won’t be me. With a burst of vigour, Benedict wheeled and turned back toward the doorway, his coach, and anywhere that was far away from here.
“Are you leaving already, Lord Elebury?”
Benedict stopped in place and closed his eyes as Dunchester’s booming baritone echoed after him, casting a hush over the rest of the ball. A hundred different impulses warred within Benedict…but the war was not a long one. For the first time in his life, he found his better angels had flown off and taken his good judgement with them, leaving him only his wit and his bitterness.
“I’m afraid I am, Your Grace,” Benedict found himself saying in a voice loud enough to be heard by the most distant members of this accursed audience.
“A pity, that,” said Dunchester with a droll smile and a wink toward one of his equally bilious companions. “We have seen so little of you of late. Or your family. I had extended an invitation in hopes of offering you my condolences on the loss of your mother.”
With a sarcastic grin on his lips, Benedict met Dunchester’s gaze straight on. “I thank you, Your Grace. But from what I have seen, my presence is not required for such courtesies. You and the rest of the Empire can jolly well carry on talking about my family without me.”
Whispers broke out from all corners. Dunchester harrumphed, his white moustache quivering in indignation and confusion.
Before he could speak in reply, though, Benedict bowed deeply and continued, “And as it seems that you lot believe that I no longer belong in polite society, I shall do us all a favour and find some low, filthy pit by the side of the road to crawl into. More fitting for one such as I, surely, even if it does deprive a pack of jackals of their fresh meat. By your leave, Your Grace.”
The outcry that surrounded Benedict was even more incensed than before…but now it was different. Benedict felt a rush of pride rather than suspicion; he had made this happen, and somehow that made him feel powerful. Indeed, as he carried himself out the door of the now-scandalized ballroom, Benedict faintly walked on air, his steps light as he was propelled out of there by a dark sort of joy.
“Hang the lot of them,” he hummed as he skipped to his carriage and out of civilized society, hopefully forever.
* * *
“Father?” Benedict called into the cavernous study of the Duke of Preston. “Are you in here?”
It really does grow more and more like a tomb every day…he mused. Though large and well-appointed enough to befit a duke, over the last several months, his father had turned the study into more of a crypt than a place of business and correspondence. The windows were never opened anymore, the shades rarely drawn, and the Duke seemed almost eager to entomb himself in its dark recesses.
Beginning with embalming himself, of course, thought Benedict when he heard the clink of glass in reply to his call.
“What’s that? Benedict, is that you?” echoed from the elegant chair where the Duke had recently been given to sleeping…or falling unconscious at various points during the day, at least. This outcry was followed by the sound of sloshing liquid, then muttered curses.
Benedict sighed. Why did I even bother to come speak with him? The Duke had been sliding into a sorry state of despair for some time now, but it had grown even more dramatic when his wife’s infidelity had been discovered, and still more so when she took ill. Now that it had been nearly three months since she had passed away, Benedict had given up any hope of his father crawling his way out of his sepulchre on his own.
“Here now, step over this way, lad, into the…why’s it so bloody dark in here? Get that layabout butler of ours to light the lamps in here, won’t you? About time someone around here does his job, don’t you think?”
Wordlessly Benedict lit a taper from the embers in the fireplace and lit a lamp on the table beside his father. The warm orange light revealed a room in poor condition and a man who looked still worse. From the empty and half-empty bottles on the floor and the woolly look in the Duke’s eyes, Benedict could see his father was deep in his cups though it was barely past sundown.
“Good-for-nothing Weaver,” grumbled the Duke as he clumsily tried to shift his weight into sitting upright. Anger burned in his eyes, though as usual these days, it was unfocused, radiating from him in search of a target. “For God’s sake, what’s the point in employing servants if they’re never about to do what you ask? Weaver, where are you?” he bellowed, spittle flying from his lips.
“You dismissed Weaver some time ago, Father,” said Benedict softly, taking a seat opposite the Duke. “Mister Hollings has been performing his duties admirably, though.”
The Duke’s gaze fell hard onto Benedict, clamping eagerly onto this nearer target for his ire. “I know that, damn you, don’t you correct me like I’m some simpleton!”
“No, Father,” sighed Benedict. He cast his eyes down to the beautiful old carpet beneath their feet, now dappled with wine stains old and new.
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you!” The Duke was now leaning forward with renewed energy, his glass of wine forgotten.
“Yes, Father.” Benedict’s fingers clenched into fists as his eyes roamed over his father’s familiar features. His dark hair, mud-coloured eyes and weak chin—not for the first time, Benedict was glad he took after his mother instead. At least he was not cursed to resemble such a cruel man as what his father had become.
If the Duke detected the hatred contained in his progeny’s gaze, he gave no sign of it. After warily meeting his son’s stare for a few moments, the older man nodded curtly and grumbled, “And stop muttering. Can barely hear a bloody word you’re saying.”
Then a pall of silence fell onto the father and son. Unable to look at his father any longer without losing his temper, Benedict allowed himself to idly look around the shadowy study in hopes of distracting himself. So many of the ornaments and items of furniture in the room once carried treasured memories—the Oriental folding fan his father had brought home from his travels, the painting of his mother’s great-grandfather in antique plate mail, the little wooden statue of a dog Benedict had bought for himself at the market when he was just a boy.
Benedict scowled, his mouth twisting in a grimace. Now all that was soured by thoughts of his mother’s scandal and his father’s descent into drunkenness. Even these once comforting sights left him feeling empty and resentful of the happiness that had been stolen from his family.
The Duke loosed a colossal yawn, then leaned forward in his seat and squinted at the clock hung over the mantelpiece. After blinking and considering what he was seeing, he sat straighter and pointed an accusing finger in the direction of Benedict.
Now the storm truly breaks.
“Here, now!” snapped the Duke as Benedict looked on, mouth pressed into a tight line. “It’s not yet eight o’clock! You’ve barely left for Dunchester’s ball. What are you doing back here so early?”
“There was hardly any point in my going at all, Father. It was just as I told you it would be—there’s no forgiveness for the likes of us, no sympathy. All anyone could see was someone to make sport of, someone whose lustful mother brought shame upon—”
“What’s that!” roared the Duke as he stumbled to his feet and trudged close enough to Benedict that he could feel his withering breath on his face. “My only son, confronted with a few whispers by his peers, and he scuttles off in fear? Too weak-willed to do your duties to your family, eh? Or too ashamed of your grieving father to do as you’re told?”
“Father, I wasn’t afraid,” Benedict protested, still keeping his seat in the shadow of his father. “But to hear them say those things, to see the way they looked at me…it was more than anyone should have to bear, Father. You know how hard it has been for all of us these last months. It’s too soon, I tell you. The ton will forget someday when they have found some other sport, but they have not yet—”
Benedict may as well have been speaking to a wall. His father clutched his hair between his fingers and gave a low moan, drowning out his son’s words as he looked off into the distance. “The shame, oh, the shame of having a disloyal son! Oh, I only thank God your poor mother died before she could see her child let his family fall into ruin before standing up to his own cowardice!”
“Me?” Benedict was on his feet in a flash, his face mere inches away from his father’s sneering visage. “As if she would survive another day if she saw her husband behaving like a pathetic sot!”
The Duke’s face flushed redder still. His mouth gaped stupidly for a moment before he wagged his finger in Benedict’s face and shouted, “You dare speak to your father like that?”
“Why not?” Benedict replied, matching the Duke’s aggressive posture. The floodgates were open now, and there was no staying the deluge. “Perhaps someone should have been speaking sense to you sooner. It would have helped things keep from getting so bad in the first place if her husband had paid attention to something besides his own damn entertainment for a change. Maybe it would have even kept her from running off and finding a man who—”
Benedict was stopped mid-sentence by his father’s hand lashing out and slapping him hard across the face. He gasped at the pain and looked with fury at the Duke, whose eyes were red and wild.
“I won’t hear another word from you! Not on that subject, not ever,” snarled the Duke as he swung out his arm in another vicious backhand. Benedict dodged the second blow with little difficulty, but he felt his blood boil as though his father’s fist had connected this time. He reeled, staggering backwards as his father advanced on him.
“You pathetic disappointment of a son,” the Duke growled, his demeanour growing ever more threatening. “As if a faithless wife weren’t enough for one man to take, now I must put up with a devilish child as well….”
A strange look passed across the Duke’s face. For an instant, Benedict could only recoil, thinking he was about to unleash a savage beating on him. But then the Duke collapsed to the floor instead, a foul belch issuing from his lips. Benedict straightened, looking down on him with as much pity as disgust.
“Begone from my sight,” said the Duke from his half-prone position. “I am sick at the sight of you. You look too much like—like that hateful witch of a wife. If I see you darken my sight again, I…I will tear you limb from limb. I sw-swear I will.”
But by then, he was speaking only to himself and to the carpet that pressed against his face. His wish had been granted—Benedict was gone.
* * *
It was not always like this. He was a great man, once, Benedict thought darkly. At least, I always thought so.
Indeed, apart from his propensity for occupying his time at balls rather than tending to the affairs of his noble domain, the Duke of Preston had always been held up as a model of upstanding character and good behaviour. Many were the times Benedict had counted himself fortunate for having a father who was caring and not unkind, unlike so many of his peers.
That’s all gone, now. Vanished as though it were just a dream. Gone to wherever Mother has been taken, I expect. It struck Benedict like a blow about the head that he was all but an orphan now. Worse, really, as a child whose parents have died could usually be sure of their eternal reward in the hereafter…or at least inherit whatever they had left behind. Instead, he felt he must be a meaner creature altogether, with a wanton mother and a father who had grown cruel and tyrannical.
Benedict sneered at the London streets that rolled by the carriage window. The neighbourhood was familiar to him—too familiar, he knew. And though he was still too beset by hurt and rage to be able to assemble a coherent idea of what he was to do with himself now, he was certain of the fact that he had to be as far as possible from his home and any other person or place that might know him.
Where does a man go when he cannot return home? Benedict asked himself, fingers stroking the gentle cleft in his chin. Surely there must be somewhere the common people go to forget their problems…but where?
“Ho there, driver!” Benedict called out the window in a fit of inspiration.
A moment passed, then two. Benedict repeated his call louder, then the voice of the man atop the carriage replied, “Who, me, my lord?”
“Aye!” Benedict shouted. Recognising the voice of his house’s stalwart old driver, he called again by name. “Lionel, do you know anywhere a man can get a drink? A public house, perhaps?”
The steady tattoo of horseshoes on cobblestones filled the air. After a time, Lionel shouted down to him in an uncertain voice, “There’s the St. George Club in Surrey, my lord. Your father has often been there on business, and—”
Benedict winced. “No, nothing like that. Not anywhere around here, in fact. Don’t you know somewhere where I won’t have to worry about being recognised?”
Another long minute passed before the driver answered in a halting voice, “I…might know somewhere, my lord. A public club of sorts. Merrick’s, it’s called. But it’s hardly the kind of place the son of a duke would be safe or comfortable, and tends to attract entirely the wrong sort of—”
“That sounds ideal! To Merrick’s, Lionel. With all haste!” Benedict smiled as the reins cracked and the carriage lurched forward, carrying away from all he had known and hopefully to something far better.
The rest of the carriage ride was like a blissful dream. Benedict saw familiar landmarks recede into nothing, replaced with increasingly ugly old buildings and uglier people. Eventually, the carriage ground to a stop and deposited him in front of a wide, squat building with a faded wooden sign. Over Lionel’s ongoing protestations, Benedict skipped through the door, tossing a groat to the vicious-looking bald man standing by the entrance. Benedict felt charged with excitement at the break in his routine and giddy with the abandonment of his cares and obligations. He could not remember the last time he had felt so energetic.
The man behind the bar was as large as he was ugly and did not stop wiping down a spot on the old wooden bar even as he examined Benedict carefully with his single remaining eye. One wonders how the rest of the bar manages to stay so colourfully dirty if the man is so dedicated to cleaning…
“An ale, barman. Or a wine, perhaps. Anything you have that’s stronger than milk will suffice,” Benedict chirped as he sat at the bar.
The barman’s expression grew sourer still. He looked Benedict up and down once more, still unmoving from his place a few paces away, then silenced a chorus of giggles from a drunkard at the end of the bar. “Think you might’ve gotten some bad directions, my lord,” he growled. “The opera’s a few miles down the—”
Benedict silenced the man by slapping a guinea on the bar and sliding it in the bartender’s direction. The man’s good eye widened at the sight, then took in Benedict warily. “That’s for never calling me ‘my lord’ again,” Benedict said with a smirk. “And there will be more where that came from as long as no one here calls me anything but ‘Benedict.’ Or ‘sir,’ if you must.”
The one-eyed bartender slyly picked up the coin, and after bouncing it up and down in his hand, it vanished into a pocket. “Well, in that case…” said the barman with a wicked grin, then he proceeded to pull an ale from a nearby keg. “But I’ll have you know this is a respectable place, sir. Whatever it is you’re lookin’ to spend your time on, no rough business of any sort round here—strictly high-class custom.”
Benedict looked about him with wonderment. “Shabby” hardly did the room justice. The floor was stained a motley of reds and browns and riddled with holes besides. What glasses he could spy from his seat at the bar were chipped and filled with liquid of questionable valour, and the motley assortment of cutthroats and half-soused harlots were as mean and nasty as any characters he had read about in novels.
Benedict smiled. It was absolutely perfect.
“I can see that. Well, then, pour me an ale and open an account for me, barman,” said Benedict with a roguish grin spreading deliciously across his face.
He cast a quick glance towards the heavens, then brought it back down to his own comfortable purgatory with satisfaction. “I suspect I shall be spending a great deal of time here.
The Price of Friendship
Benedict grimaced as he surveyed the bloody scene in front of him, a freshly filled wine glass in his hand.
I can hardly believe such a thing is possible, but these public balls seem to be even more deathly dull than the ton’s society affairs. Indeed, apart from some uncharacteristic activity coming from a group of shabby drunks who had somehow made their way to this event, socialising was just as repellent to Benedict as it had been since his misadventure at Dunchester all those long Seasons ago.
Though there was that enticing-looking woman with the head of black curls…Benedict recalled with idle curiosity.
He looked idly around the room from his position against the wall but caught no sight of her among the dancers. A shame, he thought. Something about her was most intriguing—it’s been so long since any London woman has held my attention for more than a few moments. Not that that kept him from carousing like there was no tomorrow.
Benedict sipped his wine and smacked his lips at the taste of the stuff. It really is remarkable how quickly one becomes used to different circumstances, he reflected as he took another sip. Father would not deign to allow this swill to be used as dishwater, yet compared to the bilge I have been drinking at that awful Merrick’s, this may as well be the nectar of the gods.
As he drained the last dregs of his wine with gusto, out of the corner of his eye, Benedict caught sight of a pair of skinny women in stiff blue gowns staring at him. His first instinct, as ever, was to approach them and engage in a spat of flirtatious banter…but an unwelcome, judgmental air hung over the women. He resisted the urge to turn to look at them, but as he heard faint, stifled titters exchanged between them, he could not help but turn to glare in their direction.
Wonderful, he thought as he choked on his own bitter sarcasm. I have been back in polite society—or something passingly close, at least—for less than an hour and already I am the subject of idle whisperings.
“Is there something on my face?” Benedict growled at the onlookers. The women scattered like birds, chirping variously with indignation and hilarity at the interaction.
Benedict grunted in frustration and proceeded toward the table with the refreshments—more importantly, with the wine. A man can’t even be left in peace to drink his fill, he thought with a glum shake of his head. I knew I should have stayed in my happy little gutter. The ton will never forget…not after my last performance at Dunchester. He found himself shouldering past other revellers on the way, hearing further whispers or obsequious greetings. He ignored them both the same.
Taking up a vaguely promising bottle from the table, Benedict raised it to refill his glass when he caught sight of a haggard-looking older man on the other side of the refreshments. Benedict had always thought he had a real talent for reading people, and the story told by the face of this man was a sad one, beyond a doubt. He looked to be not as old as Benedict had first suspected, and his posture was as straight as his limbs which were both lithe and strong…but the lines on his face and whispers of red around his aristocratic nose revealed time spent at the bottom of a bottle. Furthermore, the man’s clothing was expensive-looking but in poor repair, and the whiskers on his face suggested a sloppy man with little regard for how he was perceived. Benedict shook his head and chuckled. This must be another dissolute son of a noble house. Funny, in its own tragic way.
But something caught Benedict’s eye just then. No…he thought, feeling his breath catch in his throat.
Benedict swallowed and lowered the wine bottle. When the other man mimicked this action, though, it became undeniable that this grim visage was, in fact, Benedict himself in a large gilt mirror he had not noticed. Benedict rubbed his cheek, marvelling at how red and tired his eyes appeared. Though to the best of his recollection, it had only been four years since his mother had died and he had left his father’s home to pursue a lifestyle of wantonness, those years weighed heavily on Benedict’s still-not-unhandsome features.
Then his gaze fell upon the partygoers around him. His eyes whipped from one to the other—each and every one of them seemed to be staring right at him, their expressions coloured with mocking humour, pity, judgment.
Surely this has been enough socializing for another year, Benedict thought, realising he was already making his way to the exit and back toward freedom. He nodded, already having convinced himself of the rightness of this action. In this month’s letter, he could reassure his father that he was making an earnest effort to engage himself in civilization once more—Father does not need to know this is merely a public ball, away from the eyes and ears of the blasted ton—and thus keep his allowance flowing a bit longer.
* * *
Benedict smiled as he paused in front of Merrick’s and breathed in the familiar smells of the place.
It was no less wretched than when he had first been carried here four years earlier, but each loose cobble and streak of grime was as well-known to him as beloved friends. The same wooden sign, faded into blankness, swung in the same fetid breeze. The same urchins greeted him from their nearby alley, gleefully chasing the pennies he always threw their way.
And, as ever, the same gargoyle of a man perched beside the door, barely lifting his head as he raised his voice in a snarl.
Benedict did not break his stride as he chirped before the giant’s grunts could coalesce into words, “Put it on my tab, Wendell, won’t you? There’s a good man. Good evening to you.”
A ham-like fist hovered in front of Benedict’s chest, muscles knotted as the man held him in place without batting an eye. “Merrick says you still haven’t paid last month, nor the month before that,” snarled Wendell.
Feigning a look of exasperated remembrance, Benedict shook his head, patted the meaty appendage, and laughed lightly. “Thank you for refreshing my memory, my burly friend. I’ll speak with my father, the Duke, about it post-haste. Tell Merrick he can expect payment in full within the week.” He ducked under the massive arm to enter the club. And other than a final, resigned growl, the large man gave no response.
I had so hoped I could spend my time here incognito, Benedict thought with a twinge of regret. His adventures at Merrick’s remained as deliciously debauched as he had hoped, but his identity had remained a secret for little more than an afternoon. By the time Benedict had sobered up and remembered the promise he had extracted from the one-eyed bartender, they had already forged a friendship of liquor and debt.
Still, he couldn’t be too disappointed. Even when Benedict found himself scuffling in one of the club’s frequent brawls, few men dared lay a serious hand on him, knowing his identity. And, of course, even if his father’s letters were as scathing as they were infrequent, at least he could count on the rotten old bastard paying his debts. Not out of any paternal love, surely, but his father’s fear of inviting further scandal seemed to be just as efficacious for such things.
At least there is one benefit of being the son of a duke…
The club was busier than usual that night. Everywhere, the eye could see labourers in patched trousers happily squandering their wages on tankards of thick brown ale, boatmen punching one another into submission in happy camaraderie, and even the occasional harlot plying their honest trade among the merchants and thieves. Above it all, rose the blissful cacophony of shouting and singing, glass breaking and coins clinking against the bar.
“Over here, Benedict!” Benedict smiled. Long Robin and some of his other friends had already gotten started on the evening’s merriment.
“You lot couldn’t wait an hour before running up my tab, eh?” asked Benedict with a playful wag of his finger.
“Here, at least we saved you a seat,” said Long Robin in his gravelly baritone. “You might want to look before you sit, though, in case Samuels put a tack on it or anything.”
“I didn’t even!” protested the little teamster. Benedict took his seat and accepted the drink that was handed to him, laughing and shaking his head.
Before long, Benedict had swum his way into the happy depths of intoxication, and he found himself clapping Long Robin on the back as sweat beaded merrily on his brow. “I tell you, lads, you lot are the truest friends I’ve ever had.”
Laughter rippled around the table at this proclamation. “There’s a sad thing.”
“Poor Benedict must be worse off than we thought!” hiccupped Samuels.
“None of you chaps give a whit for where I come from or anything my family did years or…or centuries ago,” Benedict babbled, paying no heed to the other men’s words. “You don’t want me to be something I’m not, to keep up appearances. All you want from me is my friendship.”
This proclamation was met with an enthusiastic cheer from his fellows and a shower of liquor from cups crashing together. “To friendship!” they shouted as one.
“…And my father’s money, of course,” Benedict continued as laughter washed over him. “But hell, boys, so far as I can see that’s just the price of friendship. Everyone’s got their own price they exact from their friends—yours just happens to be easily paid in pounds and pence. And at least you’re honest about it!”
“Might as well be honest about something, eh, lads?” said Long Robin with a wink. The men broke once more into cheery laughter, and the tall man put his arm around Benedict’s shoulders, squeezing him tight as Benedict squirmed and cursed him convivially.
Now, this is how an evening should be spent by a young man in his prime, thought Benedict with a satisfied sigh. Not posturing to try to climb the social ladder, not being hounded by every idle gossiper or relative with their own ideas of how you should behave. No, carousing and pursuing a life lived just for me—this is the life I want.
At the edge of his perception, something flickered in and out of his awareness. Benedict had experienced it before, but he had no way to describe the sensation. It was like something that glittered brightly just out of sight of the corner of his mind’s eye. All he knew was that it was somehow important and immeasurably sad. Usually, it came to him late in the night when he was lying awake in his bed, when he did not pass out from over drinking. Now, he found it extremely disarming to be visited by this feeling whilst among friends. It was sobering in all the worst ways, and threatened to sour his comrades’ laughter and encouragement in his ear.
Benedict shook his head with a scowl. He would chase away this sensation as he ever did. “This is the life,” Benedict said aloud before downing the rest of his beverage to a round of cheers from the other men.
A distant roar drew Benedict’s eye. Pouring through the door of the club was a rough-looking group of men, stirring up nearly as much of an uproar as Benedict’s own party. He grimaced, recognising the men not personally but likely as one of London’s many gangs of street ruffians.
But before turning back to his beer, something caught his eye. One of this band was much smaller than the others, slim as well as short, with a baggy coat and a hat pulled down over his face. And he was behaving differently than the others, neither shouting nor engaging in the same masculine shows of bravado as they all made their way to a table at the back of the club.
Something’s odd here, Benedict thought. He had had enough to drink that he did not notice he was staring openly at the small man. Even when the man looked up, seemingly detecting his stare, Benedict did not turn his eyes away. Something strange and compelling flashed in the man’s pale grey eyes.
Those eyes…Do I know him, somehow? Or…?
“Come on, Benedict, there’s a game of Hazard going in the back,” said Samuels, nudging Benedict in the ribs. “Stake me a toss, won’t you?”
Benedict jumped at the contact. “I…yes, but…wait, who is—?” he stuttered. But when he looked back, the group had retreated to their table, and the small man was mostly obscured by some of his taller friends, sitting with his back to the wall.
“What’s going on? See someone you know?” Samuels scoffed. “Wouldn’t think the son of a duke would know anyone around here. Apart from scum like us, of course.”
“Nothing. I just thought I…Never mind, it’s nothing,” said Benedict, rising from his seat and patting Samuels on the shoulder.
The dice game was as thrilling as ever, Benedict was happy to discover. Between the excitement of money changing hands and the enthusiastic cheers and cries of disappointment, he realised he had forgotten all about the mysterious small man in the other room and about his earlier woes. Naturally, this realisation brought with it a swift return of these troubles, one that once again left Benedict furrowing his brow and draining another drink.
As Samuels was reaching to collect his meagre winnings from his most recent throw of the dice, Benedict watched as a large man from the rowdy group of toughs, casually tossed his shoulder into Samuels’ as he was walking past to his table. Samuels pitched forward, scattering his coins across the floor and only just catching himself before his chin connected with the table. Benedict reached forward to help his friend collect himself, but the little man was already up on his feet.
“Here, now, watch where you’re going!” Samuels bellowed, his face instantly redder than it had already been from the liquor.
The man who had bumped him turned to face Samuels. He was a mean-looking sort, lean and wiry, with a long scar running down one unshaven cheek. He was also more than a head taller than Samuels. The man looked Samuels’ quivering frame up and down, glanced back at his friends, and chuckled, “Didn’t see you down there. Can’t imagine why.”
Benedict closed his eyes and stifled a sigh. Even when he was sober, Samuels did not respond to comments about his stature with an overabundance of grace or humour. Tonight he seemed in a hurry to justify Benedict’s fears—scarcely had the scarred man’s words left his mouth before Samuels shoved the man back against his table with both arms and threw off his jacket.
“Might want to be more careful, friend,” Samuels jeered, putting his fists up. “You might step in something more dangerous than you can handle.”
The man with the scar straightened, any humour gone from his face, and was joined by his two equally grim-looking friends, each bigger than the last. The other gamblers retreated, their game forgotten, as the three men advanced on Samuels. The small man only laughed maniacally as he took in the improbable odds before him.
Damn it all, Samuels…Benedict groaned. You really are mad, aren’t you?
The man Samuels had shoved reached out a ropey arm, and Benedict was on his feet before he could weigh his options or talk any sense into himself. The next thing he knew, he was swinging his fist into the chin of the man with the scar. The blow connected with a sickening crack that left Benedict’s hand singing with pain.
Everything moved at once. Benedict’s mind struggled to catch up with what was transpiring, though he was dimly aware he was dancing away from the counterpunch of a tall man with a lazy eye, colliding with a table, kicking a chair into the third man with an agility that surprised him. Samuels was there as well, wailing like a banshee. Benedict could not determine if it was a cry of victory or pain.
At some point, he realised two of the assailants were on the floor and the third was nowhere to be seen. Benedict felt himself for any injury and was relieved to discover none save a raw ache in his knuckles. Four years of living in a bottle does not seem to have dulled my athletic prowess, he thought with wonderment.
Then there was another sound like a thunderclap, and the room turned abruptly onto its side. Benedict had nearly figured out what was going on by the time he collided with the floor and was swallowed up by darkness.
* * *
“Come on, love, enough with all the misery. The job didn’t go as bad as all that, did it? If it did we wouldn’t have the money nor time to waste in this pit!”
Marie looked up into the bleary, red-streaked eyes of her father, Mark Devons. Though his hair had grown greasy and his beard unkempt, she couldn’t help but smile at those same smiling grey eyes that she’d known for her whole life.
“It’s not that, Father,” she said, reaching out to pat him genially on the arm. “Will and Jeb and I did just fine. It’s just that I’m…not much in the mood for celebrating, that’s all.”
Marie winced as the sound of breaking glass split the air. She pulled her cap down tighter over the curls that were piled on top of her head. I think I may have finally had enough of places like this, Marie thought grimly as she sipped her drink. Merrick may say his place is open to women in the modern style, but I don’t know any girl unwise enough to be seen here without a pimp watching over her. Not with men like Jeb and the rest of our gang out looking for some way to prove themselves.
Marie sighed and let her eyes drift up and above the ruckus taking place all around her. It wouldn’t be long before she never had to put up with such places again. Ammy and I will be safe at last, she thought, feeling a dreamy smile come to her lips. Gower’s Grove certainly has its problems, but those will be Father’s problems to solve with the gang. All we will have to worry about is keeping a proper shop, dealing with customers. We will live in a proper house, too, right above the shop. Before long, she will find a good country boy to marry, and I will…
“I don’t like that look of yours,” muttered her father. She blinked and looked at him with a curious expression. “You’re thinking about leaving again, aren’t you?”
Marie blinked. Drink may have dulled her father’s senses, but he was still a far savvier man than anyone else she knew.
Mark shook his head and coughed out a disappointed sigh. “It’s no good thing, you know, you leaving me alone here to take care of things. No one gets those boys behaving right the way you do, especially when I can scarcely remember all the accounts and debts from one day to the next.”
“We can’t very well stay here in London forever, can we?” she asked, feeling her temper flare. “Amelia deserves better than that, Father. She deserves a proper life—honestly, so do I. We’re your daughters, Father. This life isn’t right for us.”
“And what are we supposed to do after you leave to go play shopkeeper, then?” said Mark in a dejected voice.
“Father, you’ll do just fine,” said Marie as she leaned over and kissed Mark sweetly on the top of his head, trying not to notice how clammy his skin felt or how much thinner his hair had become.
He snorted, then raised his empty hands in front of her and fixed her with a sceptical look. Marie stifled a gasp, seeing clearly in the lamplight just how worn and wrinkled his hands were, and how badly they shook. “I wish I were as certain of that, daughter. I truly do.”
“I…” Marie could not summon another word in defence of her decision. Her imagination conjured a parade of horrific images before her weary eyes. She saw her father led off in manacles to the Tower of London, and Will with his hands struck off at the wrist by a guardsman. She saw the gang executed as thieves, and with them, any hope of survival for the people of Gower’s Grove. Suddenly, it seemed a very terrible and selfish thing she was intending to do.
Leaving the gang is the right thing to do, she reminded herself. …Isn’t it? I promised Ammy that I would leave, so she and I could open our shop as soon as it was possible. I can’t break my word to my little sister, especially when she’s already lost Mother and gone through so much. And of course, it’s not as though staying here with the gang feels any more right. Even if from time to time the work can be almost—
A loud crash from a few tables away drew Marie’s attention away from such sober contemplation. She saw Jeb and two of the other boys in the gang were swinging their fists at a well-dressed stranger with hair the colour of sand. Marie rolled her eyes and shook her head disdainfully. “I do wish they would stop behaving like this. Picking fights like this is going to get them in over their heads before they know it,” she muttered.
She looked away, wishing the fight could be over and praying they would not be removed from the club by force. But after a quiet moment, she could not help but glance over just in time to see Jeb crack the stranger in the back of the head with an empty bottle. Marie heard herself cry out in protest at such a disreputable attack, and when she saw Jeb grab the unconscious victim by the shirt and pull him off the ground to strike him again, she was on her feet and at Jeb’s side before she could breathe.
“What kind of way is that for a man to behave, striking a man when he’s already down?” Marie spat as she held onto Jeb’s collar. “Are you trying to kill him because he played your game with you a little too well?” The tall man was red-faced, sinews straining and muscles knotted with the lust for violence, but she shook him with one hand fearlessly, and it only took a second of those steely grey eyes fixed on him to persuade Jeb to drop the stranger and turn away in shame, muttering curses.
“Lord in heaven…”
Marie looked down to see Will bending over the unconscious stranger. His face had turned white as a sheet. “What is it, Will?” she asked, her stomach twisting into a knot. “Is he…?”
Will looked up at her and grunted in negation. “He’s alive, all right. But that’s not all he is. Jeb’s just knocked out the son of the Duke of Preston.”
Fighting to keep herself breathing, Marie felt the room sway worryingly around her. All her hopes, all her plans for the happy life she was going to provide for herself and her sister were shut away as though entombed in a stone tower. “Preston? H–how do you…are you sure?” she stammered, leaning on a nearby table to keep herself upright.
Will straightened and dusted off his jacket. Nearby other patrons of the club began to clear out, as sure of the danger to come as Marie herself was. “I heard his mate call him the son of a duke, and I heard the rotten boy of the bloody Duke of Preston spends his time in holes like this. Besides, look at the ring.”
“Right, lads, you’ve made a jolly mess of things here,” came a booming voice from behind Marie. The gang looked to their leader respectfully as Mark stepped forward and began barking orders. “Get it cleaned up, Jeb. There’s a good lad. The rest of you help him. We don’t want to put out poor Mister Merrick any more than we already have. Except you, Fogerty. I want you to run and grab the cart and horses. Quick-like, now, don’t dawdle.”
The gang snapped to follow his orders. Marie frowned. This excited affect in her father rarely boded well. “Father, what are you thinking? This isn’t—”
Mark put his hands on Marie’s shoulders and looked into her eyes with a winning twinkle she had not seen in her father in some time. “Marie, girl, what happens next is all up to you,” he said sweetly. “I need you to take the gent back to the hideout in Gower’s Grove. Ride the horses hard, try and get him back before morning. Make sure you tie him up before having Fogerty throw him in the cart, just in case he wakes up before that.”
“Why? What are we going to do, Mark?” Jeb blurted. Mark silenced him and sent him back to work sweeping up glass with a single look.
“We’re going to get our biggest pay-out ever,” said Mark to his daughter, his voice full of hunger.
“A Dangerous Game of Lust” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
As the daughter of a law breaking group’s chief, the daring Marie Devon has learned the hard way of life. Even though robberies and chase had been her second nature, something had always felt wrong… When her people kidnap the dissolute son of a Duke, Marie’s whole world turns upside down. While her burning desire for their prisoner begins to relentlessly grow everyday, will she be able to carry through this last crime, or will she risk it all for a chance at a forbidden romance?
Repelled by the corruption of London’s high society, Marquess Benedict Carlton has chosen to live like a rake, spending his days drinking and gambling. Little did he know that his world would soon change forever, when a group of thieves capture him as a hostage. What he never expected though, was to fall in love with his lustful captivator, the fiery daughter of the band’s chief, Marie. Will Benedict manage to strike a bargain with the gang in order to gain more time with his enticing captor?
Marie and Benedict both know that this world is not made for an outlaw and a nobleman to dream of a common future together, without condemning their loved ones to scandal and deprivation. Will they defy society’s constraining rules and fight for their unconditional love? Will they manage to forget their sinful past and surrender to their passionate desire?
“A Dangerous Game of Lust” is a historical romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.