Authors: Grace Callaway
Tags: #Romance, #historical romance, #regency romance
Her Wanton Wager
(Mayhem in Mayfair, Book 2)
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Her Wanton Wager
Copyright © 2012 by Grace Callaway
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Shrouded in fog, still as death upon the dark water, the ship lay in wait.
As dawn's chill seeped through the boy's thin rags, he fought off a shiver and kept the snarl fixed upon his face. Inside, he was trembling worse than a leaf.
Whatever happens, show no fear. Be brave. Look strong.
Ten years in the stews had taught him what happened to the weak. Once, he'd been foolish enough to hope for mercy, and now he was paying the price.
"Step lively now, or you'll feel the lash of this 'ere whip!"
The guard's warning prodded him to fall in line with the other convicts. He stumbled up the gangplank to the ship, irons clanking heavily against his ankles. He kept his head down; he couldn't look at the looming hell that was his future. The hulk's fetid breath wafted over him, and his insides lurched. Misery—he knew it by stench. Had lived and breathed it in the flash house he'd called home.
"Move on," the guard shouted.
Heart thudding, the boy realized he'd reached the ship's entrance. His feet wouldn't move; for some reason, he couldn't make them.
"What 'ave we 'ere? A troublemaker?" A hand wrenched him up by the scruff, and the boy found himself staring into the guard's cruel eyes. "Well, 'ere on the hulks there's a place for guttersnipe like you—to the Tiger's Den!"
The boy struggled, lashing out futilely with his arms and legs while the other prisoners roared with laughter. The guard dragged him aboard the ship and to a trapdoor crisscrossed with chains. Releasing the padlock, the man shoved him toward the gaping hold.
"No!" Despite his earlier vow to be brave, the plea was wrung from the boy's lips. He couldn't return to the darkness, he couldn't. "Please, sir, have mercy—"
With a rough thrust, the guard sent him down the steps into the shadows. Frantically, the boy tried to climb back up toward the door, but the square of light disappeared with a slam. The chains clanked, sealing him in. Trapping him in the stinking black bowels. Memories of darkness spiraled around him: the ash-choked stacks, the master's chamber. A sob wedged in his throat.
"What's this? Fresh meat to feed the tigers, eh?"
A rasp, and then the shadows below parted to a horror dream. In the trembling light of a match, monsters emerged from the cramped pit below, gathering at the base of the steps, hunger gleaming in the slits of their eyes. Dizzy with panic, the boy banged his fists against the door. "Let me out. Please let me out—"
A hand grabbed his elbow, and he screamed, kicking out blindly as he was dragged down the steps. A slap snapped his head back. Rust exploded in his mouth.
"Shut up, you l'il bugger." His captor had a snake-like face and oozing, blistered lips. "Else I'll tear your tongue out an' eat it for supper, you 'ear me?"
A low voice cut in. "Leave off the boy, Sykes."
"Or else what?" Through a haze of horror, the boy felt Sykes' fingernails biting into his arm. "I got to the pretty brat first, so shove off."
A figure separated from the shadows. A huge man, bearded and menacing. "Let 'im go," he said in tones rumbling as thunder, "and I'll spare your neck."
Sykes hissed, and the boy saw something flash in his hand. "Get out o' my way before I gut you like a fish."
"'Ave it your way, then." The man made a beckoning movement.
Blade raised, Sykes went at him. The man dodged the first swipe easily. Paralyzed, the boy watched as the two grappled while the other convicts formed a ring around them, chanting for blood. Sykes gave a wild swing, and the crowd roared when the blade nicked his opponent in the arm. The bearded man sidestepped the next attack, turning so quickly that Sykes plunged off balance. He caught Sykes's arm and wrenched it; the knife clattered to the ground.
"Don't 'urt me. The boy's all y-yours. Swear it on my mother's grave," Sykes whimpered, his face contorted with pain.
"Get out o' my sight," the other man said with quiet menace, "before I change my mind."
With a shove, he released Sykes, who clambered away. Grumbling at the lack of bloodshed, the other prisoners disbanded into the shadows. The boy shrank back as the man approached. All he could see was the thicket of whiskers, and he remembered another man. Another hell.
"You alright, lad?"
Blinking, breathing fast, the boy could not find his voice.
"You ain't daft, are you? You won't last long, if you are." The man's lip curled in disgust. "Sykes's not the only one in 'ere with a taste for—"
At that moment, the boy caught a flicker of movement behind the broad shoulders. Words burst out of him on instinct. "Behind you!"
The man pivoted. Two brutes faced him this time. Quick as lightning, the man reached to his boot. Steel glinted in his hand.
"Now I've a thirst for blood," he snarled. "One at a time or both at once?"
A blur of silver, the thump of bodies colliding. When the brawl was over, both challengers lay gurgling upon the dirt. Even in the dimness, the boy could see the dark pool spreading beneath them. Breathing heavily, the bearded man rose to his feet. The other criminals cheered as he spat on the ground, the blade dripping in his hand.
The boy froze as another night took hold of him. As another knife flashed in his memory, a terrifying and beautiful arc in the darkness. The master falling, gushing from the chest. And all he felt was relief. Relief and trembling hope as he'd begged Nicholas Morgan, the boy holding the knife that had freed them both,
Don't leave me here. I'm scared. Take me with you, Morgan, please.
"This'll hurt, lad."
The voice jerked the boy back. Past and present melded into one as he stared up at the predator who'd cornered him. The bearded man, not the treacherous Nicholas Morgan who'd knocked him senseless and left him to burn alongside the master's corpse. 'Twas Morgan's crimes that had landed him in this hell—
everything was Morgan's fault
. Anger rushed through the boy, a current so powerful that it walled off fear. As the knife drew near, he made a silent vow.
I will survive. One day, I'll be strong. Then I'll make them all pay.
The blade flashed. A cry sounded in his ears, and the inescapable darkness swallowed him whole.
It began as a day like any other for Miss Priscilla Farnham. Faced with the scintillating choice between marmalade or strawberry jam for her toast, she stared out the window of her cozy breakfast parlor and wished for something—anything—to happen.
The Perils of Priscilla
, an abandoned manuscript by P. R. Fines
Even sensible young ladies had cause to question their judgment on occasion. As she could not claim prudence as a personal virtue, Miss Persephone Rose Fines perhaps experienced bouts of uncertainty more than most—and the present moment proved a case in point. She approached the squalid tenement with wary steps. Through the gauzy veil tied to her bonnet (at least she'd taken the precaution of disguising herself), she assessed the pair of men loitering near the doorway. Her nape prickled as they barricaded her way to the stairwell.
"Lost, dove?" One of the ruffians leered at her. "Be glad to lend a hand."
"I've got more than a hand for ye," the other brute said. He made an indecent motion with his hips, causing his comrade to snicker. "One taste o' Spitalfields sport an' it'll spoil ye for the rest."
Though her pulse thudded, Percy drew her shoulders back.
Don't be a faint-hearted ninny. Think of Paul—of everything at stake. Prove yourself worthy of being a Fines.
Summoning up her courage, she said in brisk tones. "Step aside, if you please. I am expected upstairs, and if I don't arrive on time, my brother shall come looking for me." She paused before adding, "My very
brother who happens to be an excellent shot."
The louts grumbled, exchanging glances. Apparently she'd read them correctly as mongrels with bark but no bite, for they shuffled aside and let her pass. Relief filled her as she ascended the rickety stairway, the steps creaking beneath her kid boots as they had the first time her father had brought her and her brother here all those years ago.
Do not be afraid, children
, Papa had said.
You must see with open eyes where your own father came from. This is the world I escaped through sweat and perseverance; now you understand why I want better for both of you.
Sorrow darted like quicksilver through her heart. Four years had passed since her Papa's death, and she still missed him so. As she passed the floors of cramped quarters and wailing babes, she could hear his voice in her head:
If we Fineses were to have a fancy family motto, it'd be this: we never give up, and we always stick together.
Mama would have a fit of hysterics if she knew of Percy's current mission, but surely Papa would approve.
At the top floor, Percy followed her memory to the door at the end of the corridor. She blew out a breath and knocked on the peeling wood. When no reply emerged, she turned the knob; hinges squealed as the door swung open.
"Hello?" she called out in a hushed voice. "Paul, are you there? 'Tis me, Percy."
She entered the dingy room, biting her lip at the squalor. 'Twas a far cry from her family's well-appointed townhouse in Bloomsbury. Windowless and dark, this place reeked of old grease and fresh spirits. The furnishings consisted of a scarred table and a pair of chairs. A straw pallet lay in the far corner. She went over and, crouching, brushed her fingers over the wool greatcoat that looked to serve as a makeshift blanket.
Heat burned behind her eyes. Last year, her brother had suffered a disappointment in love when the lady he fancied had married another. Though Paul had forbidden any further talk of the matter, hiding his pain behind a debonair façade, she knew the loss of Rosalind Drummond had cut him deeply. His behavior had become more and more reckless, with the gaming and drinking and Lord knew what else (actually, she could hazard a good guess at his other activities—her brother was a rake, after all). Everyone in the family had been worried about him, but no one had guessed the extent of his profligacy.
Steps sounded behind her. She spun around to face the figure emerging through the doorway. With a shock, she saw the masculine face, familiar yet utterly changed. Bloating had distorted her brother's handsome features. His golden locks lay matted upon his pale forehead, and scruffy bristle covered the jaw. His shirt collar hung open with no cravat in sight.
For an instant, bleary eyes, blue as hers, widened. Then her brother took measured steps to the table and deposited the bottle he held in his hands.
Gin, she saw with a stab of worry.
His gaze fell short of meeting hers. "I see you remembered the place. I wasn't sure you would."
"The note you sent wasn't all that helpful," she said around the lump in her throat. "But I guessed straightaway that you had come here."
"I had to keep things cryptic. In the event that my message fell into the wrong hands." He sighed, looking at her now. "As you'll recall, I also instructed you not to find me."
Her chest tightened, but she replied in a light voice, "You blasted sapskull, when have I ever obeyed your instructions?" Unable to hold back any longer, she ran toward him and threw her arms around his neck. Her voice muffled against his shirt, she said, "What on earth has happened? Tell me everything, Paul."
He hesitated before his arms circled her in a brief but fierce hug. Then he set her aside and said in his usual mocking tone, "I'm afraid 'tis a dreary parable, sis. And, predictably, I'm the moral of the tale."
Percy sat across the grimy table from her older sibling, trying to digest what he had just told her. Despite the four year age difference, the two of them had always enjoyed a close connection. Some had even mistaken them for twins due to their shared coloring of golden hair and clear azure eyes. At the moment, however, Percy felt as if she was facing a stranger. This disheveled creature bore no resemblance to her rakishly elegant brother, nor would her brother ever utter such an appalling piece of news.
"I don't understand," she repeated. "What do you mean you
Instead of answering, Paul poured himself a drink and shrugged. It was meant as a casual gesture, yet she could see the rigid set of his shoulders.
"If I must be precise, 'twas a game of faro," he said. "I'd lost all my blunt that night, and in a foolhardy attempt to regain it, I wagered the only thing I had left. Unfortunately, I chose the losing card and, ergo, Gavin Hunt, illustrious owner of The Underworld, now holds my vowels promising him my shares of Fines & Co."