No Duke Will Do – Eva Devon

Lady Mary, only daughter of the Duke of Blackstone, was either going to do murder or be murdered. Of that, she was absolutely certain, sitting in a hired hackney outside of one of London’s most notorious gambling halls. Statistically, it was far more likely that she would be murdered than do murder there, but she had a very intense desire to see this meeting done. She peered at the colossal edifice. It was shockingly elegant. It had never occurred to her that such a place, which caused such calumny, would actually be beautiful. But the outside was irrefutably exquisite. With marvelous Corinthian columns, a stunning plasterwork facade, and a double red door waiting for customers to be admitted, it beckoned one in with a siren’s lure. The lamplights blazed outside as several gentlemen milled back and forth in various states of drunken stupor. And she did mean gentlemen. There were men in the most beautiful attire, worthy of any London ballroom. There were, of course, just a few feet down the street, loud shoutings of another sort of men, men she’d never been close to before in her life. And women, not ladies, she knew. Women. Women she’d never spotted in her entire life.

More delicately referred to as women of ill repute. Mary folded her hands, gloved in worn kid leather, in her lap, gaining courage. She needed it. All her life, she’d been forced to live in the shadows of her father’s decadence and dissipation. Now, she wasn’t going to take it any longer. Now, she refused to allow him to bargain her life away. So, lifting her chin, she opened the door of the hackney herself, bounded down to the dubious pavement, and was astonished when the hackney bolted off without even a backward glance. Drawing herself up, she walked forward. Her heart pounded fast in her chest as her sensible side demanded she turn back immediately. But she could not.

She ignored the several glances that came her way, and boldly strode through the entrance. Even the man at the door did not stop her, something she had been anticipating. The bright lights of the gambling club were that of candles, dancing everywhere. Somehow, she had thought it would be dark and seedy, but instead, gold filigree lined the walls and made the room dance with color. A giant chandelier sparkled in the center of the place, bathing the gamblers in a celestial glow. Several tables were put up all around the room, with various games—cards, dice, Faro—taking place. Ivory chips danced along felted surfaces, and gentlemen and even ladies cheered with happiness and joy. Glasses clinked. Trays of wine and champagne seemed to dance easily, carried by beautifully dressed footmen. She stopped, taking it all in.

She took in the deep perfume and musk of the excitement. And suddenly, she understood for a moment why her father was drawn to such a place night after night, ruining all the lives of those he loved. After all, life could be mundane. Even for a duke. There was nothing mundane about this place. Suddenly, a footman came up beside her. “May I assist you, miss?” She tensed at that, not correcting him to call her my lady, and turned to the young man. He was dressed impeccably in a dark green livery, his powdered wig carefully positioned upon his handsome head. “Indeed, you can.” She cleared her throat and declared, “I am here to see Mr.

Heath.” A wary look crossed the footman’s perfect face before he asked politely, “Do you have an appointment?” “I do not, but I’m certain he shall see me,” she replied confidently. A confidence she truly did not feel but was determined to project. “He does not see people who do not have appointments. Perhaps it is best if I fetch you a carriage and send you home immediately, for certainly, someone of your position should not be here.” At least someone seemed to think she was out of place, or was looking out for her. She was struck by the footman’s kindness. In fact, his brow was furrowed as he studied her. She knew exactly how she looked. She looked like a daughter of the ton.

She stood out like a sore thumb compared to all the ladies in the room, who were dressed in magnificent gowns of various bright colors, their hair coiled upon their heads, studded with jewels and ribbons. She must look like a dreary little violet in a room full of hothouse flowers. Still, she would not be deterred. “I am not going home, and I am not leaving until I see Mr. Heath.” The footman’s perfect lips turned in a frown. “Mr. Heath is. He does not like to be bothered unless it is incredibly important.” “Is a marriage proposal important?” she asked.

“A-A m-marriage proposal?” the footman stuttered, and then after a long silence, he continued, “Wait here please. Do not speak to anyone.” She nodded, happily willing to do as he asked. And so, she found a good spot in the shadows— well, what few shadows were tucked behind a column—and studied the plays. A guttural groan went up from one table, and a man dropped his head into his hands. He was beautifully dressed in silk, in a suit cut to perfection, embroidered with gold, and yet, his shoulders bowed. That was her father. Not literally, of course, but she could see it. The man must’ve just lost a considerable amount of funds. It was a shame many young men came to such a place and lost their life.

Surely, Richard Heath was the devil. If there was any such man alive, he had to be it, for he facilitated the ruin of young men everywhere and the sin of ladies. Surely, he was terrible. And he was the man her father wished her to marry, all to pay off £30,000 in gambling debts. An astronomical sum. And she was here to bargain with the man, for she was not going to be shunted off to be the wife of some terrible fellow for the rest of her life. No, she’d seen the way her mother was punished by her father, and marriage was an irrevocable link in which she would become a prisoner. “Come for a bit of rough, is that it, Lady Mary?” a deep but polished voice said from behind her. She shivered. It was a low rumble that had been smoothed out, she imagined with careful study.

Like the most terrifying of caresses, it slid over her body. Slowly, she turned. The man was well over six feet. He towered over her. And yet, somehow, he had managed to slip up behind her without her being aware of it. His coat was a black wool, cut to his broad shoulders. Shoulders so wide she could barely countenance it. He peered down at her with a hard face, no humor about him in that particular moment. But she spotted a slight sparkle in his eyes as if he was amused she had dared to find him. “I don’t know what that means,” she replied honestly.

“Come with me,” he returned, “And I’ll show you.” “I will come with you, but I’m not interested in any interaction beyond.” His dark brow raised in a slight challenge. “Well, you must have wanted to have some sort of interaction, Lady Mary, or you never would have arrived upon my doorstep. But now that you’re here, I suppose I shall see what it is exactly that you want, and what you can do for me.” “It is not what I can do for you,” she piped, her voice annoyingly high all of a sudden. “It is what you can do for me.” “Ah, but I am not in the business of doing things for others without something done for me in return,” he said as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Which would explain why my father—” “No,” he cut in. “Not here.

If you wish to discuss your father, let us go into my private office.” She narrowed her eyes. “I am not in the habit of going into private rooms alone with men.” “I’m sure you’re not in the habit of coming to gambling clubs off Covenant Garden either, yet here you are. Consider it something new for you. An edifying experience.” This entire outing was something entirely new. Something she could hardly believe she’d dared to do. But here she was. And so she gave a tight nod.

“Lead on.” He smiled at that. “You are not a bit of lace, are you, Lady Mary?” She huffed. “I am not, sir.” “Well, then,” he said. “Let’s see what exactly you’re made of.” And so, she followed his broad-shouldered form as he wound his way through the crowded club. He drew back a tapestry and exposed a slightly hidden panel door at the back. He opened it easily and ushered her into the dark corridor. She stifled a gasp at being so close to him.

Her body brushed against his slightly as she entered. She should have been horrified. She should have been repulsed, but she couldn’t be. He was far too handsome for that. Too intriguing. He, like the club, was not what she had expected. He was no heinous gargoyle. No, he was beautiful. Just like one of the paintings or statues her father had collected over the years in their great house in the country. It seemed wrong, that sin should be so beautiful, that the devil should come in such a guise, but here it was.

And perhaps that’s why so many were tempted, but she would not be enticed by Richard Heath, not as her father and all the people in this dratted, horrible place had been. No, she was here to come to an arrangement. Somehow, even though she knew she was the least experienced, she was going to come out the victor. Of that, she was certain. For, the alternative was unthinkable. “Come along, then,” he all but purred. “I’ll take you to my lair.” There was something dramatic in the way he said it, that made her laugh. It was no nervous laugh, either. But a full one, as if the audacity of the moment had overcome her and she’d entered new waters of tenacity within herself.

“Do you find me funny, Lady Mary?” he queried. “I think you are making fun of me,” she said. “And you do not expect me to recognize it.” “Make fun of a lady?” he drawled, his eyes widening with feigned innocence. “I could never do such a thing. You’re born to such a grand station, and I, I am so terribly low. I could never deign to tease you.” And at that moment, she absolutely knew he was bemused by her. He thought her absurd. Well, she was about to show him exactly what she was made of, just as he had suggested.

“I will not be laughed at,” she stated seriously. “Won’t you?” he challenged softly. “That’s the only thing I can see to do with you. For in this life, Lady Mary, a bit of laughing, is the only way to get through.” “I shall get through it with my dignity intact, if you don’t mind.” “Most ladies who come here do not leave with their dignity intact,” he warned. She shuddered at that. What was he suggesting? Was he going to have his way with her in his office? There was nothing menacing about him at that moment. She should have been afraid; she knew she was risking a great deal. He might indeed force himself upon her.

Richard Heath was a notorious man, but either she came here to bargain with him, or she’d be forced to lay in his bed every night. The idea was shocking, but it was also the truth. And as she peered at him, she wondered if the ladies who lay in his bed enjoyed it. It was a thought that never should have occurred to a young woman, but it did nonetheless, for that was what was proposed to her. Her father had made it absolutely clear that she would marry this man, whether she willed it or not. But she had other ideas.

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