It was a typical spring evening in London.
Damp, foggy, and exquisitely miserable. The sort of weather that should have made any reasonable gentleman consider staying nicely tucked by the fire. Or better yet, immigrating to India with all possible speed.
Of course, English gentlemen were a rare breed.
While they might be incapable of tying their own cravat, or removing their boots without a small legion of servants, they would not so much as bat an eye at braving the most formidable weather.
Earthquake, flood, or monsoon, nothing was allowed to interfere with the nightly round of entertainments.
Especially when that entertainment included a few indulgent hours spent at Hellion’s Den.
Once a coffee shop that had catered to the various artists spattered about the capital, the narrow, decidedly shabby building had been purchased by Hellion Caulfield and Lord Bidwell to create an exclusive gambling club.
Since its opening last year it had become a favorite gathering for the gentlemen of society.
Dandies, rakes, rogues, and a sprinkling of hardened gamblers were stuffed into the smoky interior.
And then there was Rutherford Hawksley.
No one could claim him a frivolous dandy, nor did rake or rogue entirely suit him.
Oh, he was handsome enough to make any woman forget to say no. Quite often they forgot to say anything at all. Drooling and swooning was by far the more likely response.
His features were lean and perfectly carved. He possessed a long, aquiline nose, a broad forehead, and high cheekbones that gave a hint of exotic beauty to his countenance. His eyes were an indigo blue and surrounded by a fringe of black lashes. And if he were not blessed enough, he possessed a set of dimples that could flash with devastating results.
But while women had always and would always lust after him, and more than a few knew the pleasure of his intimate touch, the past months had wrought a change in the once devil-may-care Hawksley.
No longer did he tease and charm his way through society. No longer did he shock London with his madcap dares. No longer was there a ready smile and hint of laughter in the astonishing blue eyes.
Instead there was a hard edge to his features and a hint of ruthless determination about him that kept the women casting longing glances from a safe distance and wise gentlemen stepping out of his path.
On this evening he was attired in his familiar black with his long raven hair pulled into a queue with a satin ribbon. In the muted candlelight a diamond flashed on his ear with cold beauty and the scar that ran the length of his jaw was thrown in sharp relief.
Seated at a private table, he sprawled in his seat with elegant ease. An ease that did nothing to disguise the air of lethal power in his lean form.
He looked precisely what he was.
Coiled danger ready to spring.
Unfortunately, Lord Pendleton, who was currently in the chair across the small table, was far too infuriated to appreciate the risk of baiting the young nobleman. In one short hour he had lost three hundred quid. Not such a terribly large sum, but one he could ill afford to hand over. Especially since his harridan of a wife had threatened to tell her father of his gambling habits.
The clutch-fisted old gudgeon was bound to pull the purse strings even tighter.
God rot his soul.
Tossing his cards onto the table, he glared into Hawksley’s unfashionably dark countenance. His annoyance was not lessened by the fact that the . . . the dastard was utterly impassive despite the stack of vowels piled indecently before him.
“You seem to be in the luck yet again, Hawksley,” the older man growled.
“So it would seem.”
“Some might even say unnatural luck.”
Hawksley narrowed his gaze. He had sensed his opponent’s frustration early in the game. The fool had been well outmatched, but like most noblemen he had been too proud to admit his incompetence. For such a gentleman it was far preferable to blunder along, somehow hoping that lightning might strike and avert the inevitable disaster.
Rather like clinging to a horse as it tumbled off a cliff.
As a rule Hawksley was content to toy with such prey and move on when they began to twitch. Why bleed a poor bloke dry? It only provoked an ugly scene. And besides which, there was always a ready supply of dupes anxious to hand over their allowance.
On this evening, however, he did not possess the luxury of time.
During the past fortnight he had devoted his nights to shadowing a certain Lord Doulton through the fashionable balls, routes, and assemblies of London. Not to mention the less fashionable brothels that clogged the Dials. It had left precious little opportunity to earn his livelihood.
Now he was without money, without credit, and his rent was due. He needed a bit of the ready if he weren’t to be tossed into the streets of the stews. A fate that did not suit his current plans.
And the blustering Pendleton had been the perfect pigeon.
Folding the vowels in his slender fingers, Hawksley tucked them into the pocket of his jacket.
“I prefer to think of it as skill rather than luck,” he drawled.
“Skill?” The older man’s face was becoming an ugly shade of pink, as if his cravat were choking him. “I could name another word for it.”
“Take care, Pendleton. My temper is rarely dependable and I should take great offense if you were to cast aspersion on my honor.”
“Arrogant pup, I shall say whatever I damn well please.”
Hawksley smiled his cold smile. “Only if you happen to be anxious for a dawn appointment.”
There was a moment of shock at the blunt warning. “Are you threatening me?”
Hawksley shrugged. He was in no mood to soothe the twit’s wounded pride. He had the man’s money. Now he wanted him to leave.
“Merely clarifying your options, Pendleton. You can accept your loss and walk away with a bit of dignity, or we can meet tomorrow on the field of honor.”
The pink countenance became puce and then an intriguing shade of purple.
For a crazed moment the older man seemed on the brink of utter stupidity. Thankfully the moment passed and he awkwardly rose to his feet.
“Fah, you aren’t worth the cost of a bullet.”
Hawksley had devoted a lifetime to disappointing and aggravating others, and the insult slid off without drawing so much as a wince.
“That seems to be a common conclusion among most who know me.”
“Bloody sharp,” Pendleton muttered even as he backed away with something just short of an all-out run.
Hawksley did not even bother to watch the rather amusing retreat. Instead he silently sipped at his whiskey as he contemplated what to do with the remainder of his evening.
It was too late to pick up on the trail of Doulton. And in truth, he was weary of the fruitless effort. He could always move on to another gambling hell. His luck was in and he could always use the blunt. That, however, held little appeal as well.
He sipped more of the whiskey.
If he was being perfectly honest, nothing seemed to hold appeal. Oh, perhaps a luscious armful of willing woman. That usually managed to lift a man’s spirits. Unfortunately he had no current mistress and no desire to go to the effort of locating one.
Bloody hell. He leaned back in the seat. He was weary.
Weary and frustrated and so sick at heart that there were times when he wanted nothing more than to crawl into his bed and never leave.
The bleak thoughts were interrupted as a thin, rat-faced gentleman attired in a shocking pink coat and yellow waistcoat slid into the vacant seat across the table.
A faint smile, genuine on this occasion, tugged at Hawksley’s lips.
He had acquired any number of casual acquaintances since being tossed out of his father’s home and traveling to make his fortune in London. But there were few he actually considered a friend, and even fewer that he trusted.
Lord Bidwell, better known as Biddles, was one of those few.
Although now a properly married gentleman with the task of ensuring Hellion’s Den kept him disgustingly wealthy, Biddles had once been England’s most proficient spy. Intelligent, cunning, and possessing the sort of morals that allowed him to climb into the sewers with the best of them, he had done as much as Wellington to save England from defeat.
His retirement from the War Office had been a decided blow for his country but a blessing for Hawksley.
Never one to allow his talents to fall into waste, Biddles kept himself entertained by turning his attentions to those closer to home. There was nothing that occurred in London, be it in the most elegant ballroom or the seediest backstreets of the stews, that Biddles was not aware of.
Which was why Hawksley had turned to him the moment he realized he needed assistance.
“Ah, Hawk, you are in your usual charming mood, I see,” Biddles mocked as he raised a lacy handkerchief to dab at his pointed nose.
Hawksley shrugged. “I find it difficult to be charming when I am being accused of cheating.”
“Then you shouldn’t win so often, old chap. It makes gentlemen peevish.”
“It makes me peevish when I cannot pay my rent.”
The pale eyes narrowed as Biddles regarded him with a shrewd thoroughness.
Hawksley choked back a humorless laugh. He could write an epic on difficulties. A father who detested him. Bill collectors yammering at his heels. A title and duties hanging about his neck like a yoke. A murdered brother. Oh, and an investigation that had produced precisely nothing. Well, nothing more than a lingering headache and a bad taste in his mouth.
“No more so than usual,” he retorted in wry tones.
“You know I always stand prepared to offer assistance if you find yourself in need,” Biddles murmured.
Hawksley gave the faintest nod. He did know. And it offered him a comfort he rarely found these days.
“Not necessary at the moment, although I do appreciate the offer.”
Biddles gave a small smile. “I believe I have something you will appreciate even more.”
Hawksley lifted his brows. “Is she beautiful?”
“I fear it is not a woman.”
“A pity,” he drawled. “Now that I have a bit of blunt I could use some companionship.”
“A swift means of not having your blunt for long.”
He briefly thought of the luscious, dark-haired widow who had been on his scent for the past weeks. And the slender blond actress who had offered all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
Either would do.
“Ah, but what more delightful means of becoming a pauper?”
Biddles gave a soft laugh. “I must refrain from answering such a leading question. I am a married man, after all, and I prefer my head not to be placed upon the platter.”
“Where is your charming wife?”
The expression of sardonic amusement faded as a frown of annoyance marred the thin countenance. Hawksley noticed that frown quite often when men spoke of their wives. Only one of a dozen reasons he was not wed.
“She was decidedly pale this morning and I left strict orders that she was to stay home this evening to rest.” Biddles grimaced. “Of course, that only ensures that she will be gadding about to every assembly and ball in town. She possesses a remarkable dislike for orders.”
Hawksley sipped his whiskey, his lips twitching. “Perhaps you have not been stern enough in teaching her who is master.”
“Master?” Biddles tilted back his head to laugh with rich amusement. “I would suggest you not say such a thing in Anna’s presence.”
“You believe it would be my head upon the proverbial platter?”
“Without a shred of doubt.”
“That is the trouble with wedding a spirited woman.”
“Ah no, that is the pleasure,” Biddles corrected with a wicked glint in his eyes.
Hawklsey briefly thought of the actress again. She was spirited in all the right ways. And without the bother of a wedding ring. Unfortunately, he wasn’t entirely certain she was worth the effort or the money.
A thought that entered his mind far too often of late.
Bloody hell. Obviously, the sooner he ended this frustrating search for the truth, the better.
Another few months and he’d be a damn eunuch.
“I should be on my way. Pendleton is no doubt drinking himself into a rage in some corner and I have no desire to have to shoot him.”
Biddles glanced about the crowded room. “If you are not in a desperate hurry, I think you should join me in my office.”
“Office?” Hawksley grimaced. The word was enough to conjure up his father’s large study where he had regularly endured endless lectures, sermons, and an occasional beating. None of which had done the least good. “That sounds tediously dull.”
“Actually I think you will find it of great interest.”
Interest? Hawksley narrowed his gaze. “I suppose I could spare a few moments.”
Together they left the table and climbed the narrow stairs to the upper floor. Out of habit Hawksley glanced about to ensure he was not being watched. He had taken care to hide the fact that he was searching for his brother’s murderer, but he was never foolish enough to lower his guard.
Satisfied that the crowd below was suitably entranced by the turn of cards and rattle of dice, he allowed himself to be escorted into a barren room that was only notable for its lack of space.
Giving a lift of his brows, he glanced over at the desk and lone chair that managed to consume the small chamber.
“Not quite what I expected from the notorious Hellion,” he murmured, referring to Biddles’s partner, who had once been the most successful rake in all of England.
Daintily dusting off the edge of the desk, Biddles perched himself upon the worn wood.