London, August 1844, Lyon’s Gentlemen’s Club, downstairs
“You know why I’ve come, Lyon.”
“I know you’re wasting your time.” Nicholas Lyon waited, hoping the man would accept his fate and retreat. “My answer hasn’t changed.”
The man spat the word under his breath, but Nick heard the whispered curse. He’d been called as much before, and far worse.
“There are advantages to being a monster,” he told his visitor.
Nick had come to think of his villainous reputation as a unique brand of freedom. He did as he pleased, and no matter how badly he behaved, no one could ever claim surprise or disappointment.
Of course, the gasps of horror and curious stares when strangers caught sight of his mismatched eyes— one green, one blue—and the jagged scar bisecting the left half of his face were vexing.
Strangers assumed his deeds would match his mien. But down here in the darkness, in the bowels of the gambling emporium he’d built, his looks weren’t what men feared. They feared how much they needed him. They feared his refusal. Yet they still came. Impulse drove gamblers downstairs again and again, an endless march of loss-prone noblemen petitioning for cash.
In the belly of Lyon’s Gentlemen’s Club, Nick discovered the bliss of being master of his own domain. To exert control, he simply replied with an unbending no.
Two letters. A single breath. So much power.
Let those he refused think him cruel. Once he made a decision, he never yielded, no matter how much they bellowed.
The aristocrat currently hovering at the front of Nick’s desk looked as if he might combust.
Cheeks flaming a splotchy red, Lord Calvert clenched pudgy bejeweled fingers into fists until his knuckles cracked. He didn’t argue or demand, as others did. Instead, he stood in grim silence. Until a noise burst free. A whine that built to a roar, like the unholy wail of a dying beast.
Nick recognized the sound. He’d felt the same bellow of agony claw its way up his own throat a time or two.
Loss. Disappointment. Devastation.
He understood misery, but his determination didn’t falter. When it came to business, Nick’s instincts rarely failed him.
“A hundred pounds,” the nobleman wheezed, barely able to speak past clenched teeth. “Seventy-five?”
“We aren’t negotiating.”
“You’ve ruined me, Lyon.” Balding head bowed, Calvert sucked in a ragged breath and exhaled as if the
effort hurt. “Give me a chance to win back what I’ve lost.”
“You’ve ruined yourself.” Nick pulled out a drawer, gesturing at the row of neatly arranged documents inside. “I hold an alphabet of your vowels. What else could you possibly have to barter?”
He didn’t intend for Calvert to answer. Whatever the nobleman offered, he wouldn’t extend more credit.
Here, in an unadorned room next to his private quarters, Nick acquired true wealth. Players called it the Lyon’s Den.
When gamblers needed ready cash, he offered loans at moderate interest with a requirement for collateral. That was where real bounty was to be found—in artwork, antiquities, and the unentailed pieces of property that aristocrats wagered and lost. Like a pirate hoarding his loot, Nick had assembled a sizable portfolio of assets in five years.
He couldn’t say which he relished more. Owning rambling country estates he’d never visit or ruining arrogant noblemen.
“Take this.” Calvert wrenched a ruby ring from his index finger. “No loan. Just pay me what it’s worth.” Nick never shifted his gaze from the man’s desperate eyes. “I don’t want your baubles.” Who did the nobleman think he was? Some pawnbroker from the East End stews?
As the viscount’s bloodshot gaze registered a flicker of shock, his demeanor shifted. He stretched tall, settling back on his heels. Whiskered chin notched high above drooping jowls, Calvert sneered. “How dare you turn your nose up at my family’s history? This ring was given to my ancestor by Queen Elizabeth herself.” Sniffing in that haughty way every aristocrat had perfected, he added, “I know where you come from, Lyon. Your own father thought you were a by-blow. What would you know of honor and nobility?”
“Not a damn thing.” Nick shot the man a tight grin and shrugged off the slight. “I don’t care about your history, or mine.” Rising from the chair behind his desk, he faced the viscount, feet planted wide. “In this room, in my club, your title means nothing. And my answer remains the same. No more loans.”
“You bloody bastard.”
Nick’s smile stoked Calvert’s anger. The paunchy man lumbered forward as if to strike.
“Anything amiss here, gentlemen?” As usual, Aidan Iverson possessed impeccable timing.
Nick’s business partner and one-quarter owner of Lyon’s pushed the door open and stepped into the room. He stood several heads above most men, and when the bulky redhead planted himself next to Calvert, the aristocrat’s bluster withered.
“You’re banned.” No one could be allowed to threaten the only possession that truly mattered to Nick.
“May I call you a hansom, my lord?” Iverson’s deep voice was so smooth, his accent so polished, none would guess he’d grown up in London’s worst slum.
“The matter doesn’t end here, Lyon.” Calvert’s glare narrowed his eyes to menacing slits. “You may hold my vowels, but never doubt that I shall find a way to make you pay.”
Threats were as plentiful in Nick’s life as the gold coins stacked in Lyon’s vault. Desperate, defeated men like Calvert had no power. “No. You won’t.”
Nick nudged his chin at Iverson, who stepped forward to guide the nobleman from the room.
When they’d gone, Nick worked to steady his breathing, shaking out the tension in fists he’d clenched during the entire encounter. Bastard. By-blow. Those epithets—those lies—had defined him for too long.
Not anymore. His bloodline didn’t matter at Lyon’s. What he had, he’d earned. He held the purse strings and managed every gilded inch of the club. Proud aristocrats like Calvert who came and lost everything only made him richer.
Climbing the hidden staircase that led from his den to a private upper balcony circling the club, Nick swept his gaze around Lyon’s glittering marble-faced walls and took in the assembly of black-suited men crowding gaming tables.
Tonight, for the first time—perhaps ever—he wanted to stop and appreciate the moment. Not look head to where ambition always drove him or back on his wretched past. Tonight marked a milestone. Five years since Lyon’s opened its doors. Five years of unimagined success.
“I packed him off to his townhouse.” Iverson climbed the stairs to join Nick. “Has he truly lost everything you loaned him a month ago?”
“The club only makes money when members lose theirs.”
“Have a care, Lyon. A man like Calvert could cause trouble. What if he convinces his cronies to withdraw their membership or makes claims about dishonest play at Lyon’s?”
“Our tables are fair.” Nick had fought and struggled and occasionally told fictions to achieve success, but he insisted that Lyon’s run without fakery. The house did take a cut of every bet placed, but that was sensible business practice. One that provided healthy dividends for those who’d invested in the enterprise.
“Gamblers return no matter how often they lose. Men hope their luck might turn. There’s no need to twist the terms.”
“It needn’t be true if a man like Calvert repeats the claim often enough. He’s the son of a duke.”
“So am I.”
“You’re acknowledging it now?” Iverson shot Nick a bemused glance.
“Every mirror serves as a reminder.” There was no denying his damned black hair and pale blue eye. He was branded with his father’s likeness, but Nick rarely shared his history with anyone. Only Iverson knew. Many club members had no notion of his parentage. Or the juicier gossip that his father’s jealous delusions had convinced the old man that his second son was a bastard. He’d loathed Nick with white-hot malice.
“However much you enjoy watching these aristocrats destroy themselves, it doesn’t affect your father.”
“I enjoy filling the club’s coffers. Watching noblemen fritter away their fortunes is secondary.” Only
when they were associates of his father did Nick take perverse enjoyment in their downfall. “You disagree with my methods?”
“I never disagree with fattening the club’s accounts, but I like to turn my eyes toward the future and keep the past behind me, where it belongs.”
“As do I.” Nick would merrily banish most of his history from memory if he could.
He’d earned his bitterness fairly, but he hated admitting to it. At times he feared everything—all his ambitions, struggles, even his victories—led to Talbot Lyon, the late Duke of Tremayne.
Iverson approached a cart laden with drinks and delicacies. “Tonight of all nights, let us think more about the club’s prestige than its profits.”
Iverson was right. He usually was. Like Nick, he’d turned the miserable hand he’d been dealt into unimaginable success. After a childhood scrabbling for every farthing, the man had earned a reputation as one of London’s cleverest investors.
“Neither of you need fret.” Rhys Forester, Marquess of Huntley, bounded up the stairs and beelined for the drinks cart, completing the trio of Lyon’s Club owners. “Our books are flush. As Nick well knows, since his nose is never out of them.” He gestured with a dismissive wave toward the pile of ledgers Nick had been working on earlier. “Good God, man, do you never cease working?”
“I discovered a miscalculation and needed to track down the error.” Nick loathed grit in the seamless workings of the life he’d constructed. His business matters were carefully regimented. Pleasures, when he sought them, were discreetly arranged. The club ran like clockwork because he took care with every decision and detail.
“Hire someone to keep the books.” Huntley frowned and shoved a hand through his already hopelessly mussed blond hair. “Save your energies for other pursuits,” he insisted with a suggestive smirk.
“And let someone else have all the fun?” Nick wouldn’t forfeit control of the club’s finances. He didn’t dole out faith in others freely. “Besides, I like numbers. I trust them. They’re uncomplicated and reliable.” And they never gave a damn if he looked or behaved like a beast.
“Suit yourself.” Huntley’s carefree expression turned mischievous. “I prefer music hall dancers and midnight soirees. And you’re in luck, gentlemen, because this evening I’ve arranged for us to partake of both.” He scooped up a glass of champagne, downed a bit, and raised the half-empty glass. “First a toast. Take some champagne.”
Iverson crooked one auburn brow and claimed a glass of sparkling wine. “I’ve never liked this stuff. It’s too bubbly.”
Huntley scoffed. “You could use a bit of effervescence in your life. You too, Lyon. You’ve both grown insufferably stodgy over the years.”
“Because we don’t dangle from chandeliers like madmen?”
“I fell from the chandelier, as you both well know. Personally, I blame the absinthe.” Huntley tipped back his glass and drained its fizzy contents. “Besides, I paid my price. I was abed for weeks nursing my injuries.”
“Doesn’t seem to have slowed you down.” Nick spent more time scanning The Times for news about commerce than attending to London’s gossip mill, but Huntley was on the tongue of every scandalmonger in town. Every story confirmed what Nick knew of Huntley’s recklessness.
“Where a man has a sturdy will, there’s always a way.” Huntley lifted a fresh glass of champagne. “Now a toast, to two of the most willful bastards I’ve ever known.”
Nick grinned at the men who, despite his vow never to trust anyone, had managed to become his friends.
He didn’t like to think on his days of picking pockets and scrounging for coin to provide shelter each night. Somehow, he’d managed to befriend the two men in London who didn’t care. Iverson understood deprivation, and Huntley judged others by their character, rather than the color of their blood.
“To many more years of success.” He raised his glass high and Iverson and Huntley followed suit.
“What shall we do next?” Huntley’s question was precisely the one Nick wished to address.
“More,” he said with a grin. “A larger club. Perhaps a new enterprise. What do you think of a luxury hotel in the heart of London?”
“You’re thinking too small.” Iverson leaned in, a glint in his eye. “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger.”
“Bridges? Steamships?” With great effort, Nick managed not to roll his eyes. “You’re going to try to lure me into backing one of your industrial projects.”
“The future belongs to creators, my friend.” Iverson’s voice deepened an octave and he began gesticulating as he warmed to the topic. “Not just any bridge. The longest bridge ever built in England. Not another steamship. The fastest to ever cross the Atlantic.”
“How does one earn a profit from a bridge?” Unlike Nick, Huntley fully claimed his aristocratic heritage, but his father’s dukedom was land rich and cash poor. He’d acquired his wealth through clever investment, much of it guided by Iverson.
“Trust me. There’s money to be made.” Iverson tipped back the remaining champagne in his glass and winced. “Though one could also argue for the legacy a man wishes to leave behind over a profit he can’t enjoy in a single lifetime.”
“You mean they’d name a steamship after me?” Huntley’s dark eyes lit with interest. “I rather like that notion.”
Iverson chuckled. Nick laughed too, amusement and pride fizzing inside him like the bubbling wine he’d just downed. He’d achieved a milestone that had nothing to do with his name or his father’s legacy.
He pushed away the gnawing hunger that persisted underneath the joy. The constant craving for more. More wealth. More power.
A shout echoed up from the gaming floor below. Not the usual exclamation after a win or defeat. A man’s voice, high-pitched and angry. A moment later footfalls thundered up the stairs.
“We have a problem, boss,” Spencer, the club’s factotum, called to Nick as he reached the upper balcony. His bulk caused his every step to reverberate with a resounding thud.
“Who?” Nick shed his tailcoat, approached the balcony’s edge, and folded the garment over the balustrade.
Between them, he and Spencer had developed code words, euphemisms for those vexations that arose now and then in the running of a gentlemen’s club. A problem meant a member had lost control, whether from drunken excess or the madness that came on when luck frowned again.
Together they’d always dealt with dilemmas quietly, with delicacy. Men might admit to ruination in Nick’s private den, but aristocrats guarded their reputation among other members. A nobleman’s good name was every bit as valuable a currency as coin.
“A visitor insists on speaking to you, sir.” Before Spencer could say more, another shout echoed from the gaming floor. “He’s not a member.”
“Then tell him to call at another time.” Before Calvert, Nick had been petitioned by three other gentlemen seeking funds. He’d had enough for one evening, and he’d promised to join Iverson and Huntley to celebrate the club’s anniversary.
“Two of my men have him restrained, but I suspect you’ll wish to see him.” Despite how his polished accent lent every syllable elegance, Spencer never wasted words.
“Sir.” Spencer hesitated. “He says he’s come about your father—”
“My father is dead.”
“About your father’s estate, Mr. Lyon.”
Nick’s eyesight blurred. He heard his breath, rapid and wheezing in his chest like a rusty squeezebox.
He hadn’t thought of the estate in years. He did everything in his power to never think on the blighted place.
“He insists on seeing you, sir,” Spencer continued. “Says his name is Granville.”
Nick’s head shot up. He knew that name. A crony of his father’s who’d become a mentor to Nick’s older brother.
“Sir Malcolm Granville?” Huntley asked. “I went to school with his son. Shall I go and speak to him?”
Nick’s throat filled with bile, and he didn’t protest when Iverson nodded at Huntley, who headed downstairs to deal with their belligerent visitor.
“Do you think Granville’s come to say your brother is after money again?” Iverson asked quietly.
“He won’t find any here.” Nick swigged down another glass of bubbly wine to clear the bitter taste in his throat. “Knowing Eustace, he could spend more in one evening than most of the men downstairs wager in a week.”
In the sixteen years since his older brother had inherited the dukedom, he’d spent enough to nearly empty the ducal coffers. Nick wanted nothing to do his wastrel brother or the bloody estate that was the Tremayne legacy.
A few minutes later, Huntley returned and approached the cart of drinks, just as he had when he’d first arrived. His expression was the same mask of jovial nonchalance he always wore, but for the telltale tightness in his jaw.
“What did he say, Huntley?” Nick dreaded the answer. Any news of his brother wouldn’t be good.
“He said two letters were sent from your brother’s solicitor with no response from you.”
Nick drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly, trying to temper his agitation. “I no longer bother with opening any correspondence from him. Is that all he wanted? To complain on Eustace’s behalf that I haven’t opened my post?”
Huntley shoved a shaky hand through his hair. “I’m sorry, Nick. Recall that I’m only the messenger, will you?”
Every muscle in Nick’s body tensed. “Go on.”
When Huntley merely swallowed hard and stood gaping at them, Iverson stepped forward.
“What is it, man? Just tell us.”
Nick saw Huntley’s shoulders sag and his lips begin to move. Far off, he could hear the man’s voice, but it took long minutes for the words to register. For the horror of it to sink in—the past he loathed had come back with a vengeance.
“Your brother, Eustace, is dead. As of a week ago, you’re the Duke of Tremayne.”