Read Never Love a Scoundrel Online
Authors: Darcy Burke
Tags: #historical romance, #regency romance, #regency historical romance, #darcy burke, #romance, #romance series, #beauty and the beast
flat out the most hilarious and awesome person I know.
Without you my vocabulary would be free of such bon mots as shenanigans, nitcrittery, and that other word I won’t write here that ends with balls.
London, September 1818
woman draped across the table winked. A slow smile lifted Lord Jason Lockwood’s mouth as he winked back. The Cyprian at the center of his drawing room was lovely and inviting, precisely what she ought to be in order to entice a paying customer. And though Jason wasn’t one of them, there were plenty about.
As he turned away, she pouted her dissatisfaction. How far he had come from the days of his first parties, when the demimondaines had regarded him with a measure of fear and a smattering of revulsion—at least when they looked at his scarred face. The rest of him, they’d proclaimed to a one, was superb.
He turned from the drawing room, still smiling. There was nowhere he’d rather be than at a vice party in full swing, and nothing he’d rather do than host it. His own personal pleasure would come later.
Everyone wore masks, save the courtesans he invited to please his guests. A few inclined their heads in his direction, and he returned the gesture. Come and be entertained, but preserve your identity. Such was the unwritten contract of Lockwood House parties. There were some who disdained anonymity, but they kept entirely to the gaming room.
Mask or no, Jason knew precisely who attended his parties. One didn’t gain entrance without revealing the little card emblazoned with a black L. A few young bucks attempted to sneak in now and again, but Jason’s retainers were nothing if not vigilant.
He moved through a small sitting room where couples—or even trios—gathered together in shadow, sampling each other’s wares before they decided to adjourn upstairs. Some gentlemen came to find pleasure with a demimondaine, but others brought their own female entertainment—and sometimes from their own class. It was one of the reasons secrecy was paramount.
But above all, his parties allowed people to be who they wanted to be whilst safely under the veil of concealment. It had once been the only way Jason could obtain companionship, before he’d established a reputation that had ensured women—at least of the Cyprian class—sought his favor.
The gaming room was the brightest lit in Lockwood House during a vice party. Men, and a few masked women, played at cards, dice, and billiards. The mood was lively, though it could become serious as the hour grew late and the wagers deepened.
Jason sauntered amongst the tables and began to notice something odd. Several people looked up from their cards or dice and cast a lingering glance at him as he passed. A few of them leaned close to their neighbors and exchanged words he couldn’t hear. By the time he’d made his circuit and leaned against the wall to watch the next round of vingt-et-un, he felt distinctly uneasy. The sensation rankled him—there ought to be nowhere else he felt more comfortable than his own house during a party whose attendees wholly appreciated his generosity.
What the devil was going on?
Jason left the gaming room in search of his valet. He would know what was afoot, or if he didn’t, he’d find out. He signaled a footman in the foyer. “Send Scot to my office.”
The footman nodded. Jason’s butler and Scot’s twin, North, arrived just as Jason was pouring himself a glass of whisky.
North closed the door after he entered. “My lord, I heard you were looking for Scot. May I be of assistance?” He was as stoic and unflappable as Scot—or “The Scot,” which was his original nickname—was animated and outspoken.
Jason turned toward North. “I should’ve sent for you as well, but I asked for Scot since he typically knows everything. What’s going on tonight? People are looking at me . . . strangely.” It had been years since anyone had regarded him with a sense of guarded interest or worse—fear. Or, worst of all, pity. And that was because Jason was careful to avoid Society, where he was bound to receive all of those sentiments and more.
North’s mouth twitched slightly, but not with amusement. If Jason had to guess as to his butler’s suppressed emotion—and he often did—he would say he looked uncomfortable. “I’ve heard a few rumblings. I was trying to glean more information before alerting you.”
What dastardly deed would Jason be charged with now? The more staid members of Society liked to imagine that he was an utter scoundrel with the basest of desires, and that he fulfilled the base desires of others at his sin-laden parties (that part, at least, was true), and of course, that he was as mad as King George. “Out with it.”
“It seems Mr. Ethan Jagger, calling himself Mr. Ethan Locke now, was seen at St. James this past Sunday in the company of Lady Aldridge.”
Jason stared at North as if the man had sprouted another arm. His bastard half brother had emerged from obscurity to escort a wealthy widow to church? “Why?”
“No one knows, my lord. Therein lies the mystery and why people are undoubtedly looking at you more . . . curiously this evening. As you can imagine, they are wondering where he came from, how he knows Lady Aldridge, and whether you and he are actually brothers.”
Jason scowled before taking a drink of whisky. “Why do they think we’re brothers? Because he gave himself some bastardized version of my name?”
Though Jason supposed that sounded better than FitzBenjamin, which would clearly indicate he was Benjamin Lockwood’s bastard. Jason would’ve credited Ethan with a sense of subtle class if he didn’t know better.
“They are saying you share similar physical characteristics.” North’s mouth took on a grim set. “But I’d say it’s the insistence of Lady Margaret Rutherford that you are indeed half brothers that has convinced people.”
Jason’s fingers clenched around the glass tumbler. “I should have guessed that old viper would have her hand in this.” Margaret was a harridan of the worst sort—a cannibalistic harpy who fed on the miseries of others by spreading rumors and gossip for no apparent reason other than to bask in her own moral, social, or financial superiority. Seven years ago she’d provoked his mother into a mental collapse from which she still hadn’t recovered. And though this gossip was ancient—a lifetime ago, people had speculated that Jason’s father had sired a bastard—it was new and exciting again with Ethan showing his face in polite society.
Not only did Jason have to deal with the reemergence of his half brother, he apparently had to square off with that vicious bitch, too. He took another sip from his glass and his eyes found the portrait of his father—their father—hanging over the mantel. Jason kept it there as a reminder not to be a self-serving prick.
Ethan didn’t have a copy of the painting. Perhaps that was why he’d turned out—if their verbal and physical brawl seven years ago was any indication—as selfish as their sire. And now that he was squiring a wealthy young widow about, Jason wondered if he’d also inherited their father’s penchant for skirt-chasing. Apparently Ethan was quite good at it too, since Lady Aldridge hadn’t been seen about town since her husband had died last spring. What had Ethan done to coax her out of her house? Dangled his “name” in front of her? Or simply employed his handsome face by smiling disarmingly? Something Jason could no longer do.
Jason glowered at North, who was well aware of the brothers’ history. “I suppose he’s trying to claim a place in Society? Maybe find a wealthy bride?” It made sense. Last time they’d met, Ethan had been a thief-taker. He seemed to do all right for himself, if his clothing was any indication. Jason had seen him now and again at pugilistic bouts over the years. Though they’d never spoken, Ethan’s fashionable attire had communicated plenty.
“Perhaps, my lord.” North’s forehead puckered only slightly. “Do you find his association with Lady Aldridge suspicious because of the circumstances of her husband’s death?”
The Earl of Aldridge had been found murdered on the banks of the Thames last spring. He’d been exposed as the leader of a theft ring that preyed on houses in Mayfair and fenced the stolen items. “It’s interesting, given Ethan’s occupation as a thief-taker. I think I’ll pay a call on Lady Aldridge.”
Both of North’s eyebrows arched. “You’ll go out?”
The man rarely looked surprised, and Jason took a fleeting moment to enjoy it before answering. “It’s not as if I never leave Lockwood House.”
The eyebrows fell to their normal location, and the reserved butler’s façade was in place once more. “Of course not, my lord, but you haven’t paid a respectable call in a very long time. Do you think it wise that you visit Lady Aldridge?” North was trying to be deferential and delicate, but they both knew what he was talking about.
Jason wasn’t welcome in much of polite society because of the way he chose to live, whereas his half brother, who couldn’t know the first thing about how to comport himself, apparently was. The corrosive anger he often felt with regard to Ethan pulsed through Jason. “You’re worried I’ll scandalize her ladyship with my presence?”
North’s features were smooth, unruffled. “I’m not worried, no, my lord. Indeed, I think you should go.”