No Good Duke Goes Unpunished – Sarah MacLean

He woke with a splitting head and a hard cock. The situation was not uncommon. He had, after all, woken each day for more than half a decade with one of the items in question, and on more mornings than he could count with both. William Harrow, Marquess of Chapin and heir to the dukedom of Lamont, was wealthy, titled, privileged and handsome—and a young man blessed with those traits rarely wanted for anything relating to wine or women. So it was that on this morning, he did not fret. Knowing (as skilled drinkers do) that the splitting head would dissipate by midday, he moved to cure the other affliction and, without opening his eyes, reached for the female no doubt nearby. Except, she wasn’t. Instead of a handful of warm, willing flesh, William came up with a handful of unsatisfying pillow. He opened his eyes, the bright light of the Devonshire sun assaulting his senses and emphasizing the thundering in his head. He cursed, draped one forearm over his closed eyes, sunlight burning red behind the lids, and took a deep breath. Daylight was the fastest way to ruin a morning. Likely, it was for the best that the woman from the previous evening had disappeared, though the memory of lovely lush breasts, a mane of auburn curls, and a mouth made for sin did bring with it a wave of regret. She had been gorgeous. And in bed— In bed she’d been— He stilled. He couldn’t remember.

Surely he hadn’t had that much drink. Had he? She’d been long and full of curves, made just the way he liked his women, a match for the height and breadth that was too often his curse when it came to them. He did not like feeling like he might crush a girl. And she’d had a smile that made him think of innocence and sin all at once. She’d refused to tell him her name . refused to hear his . Utter perfection. And her eyes—he’d never seen eyes like hers, one the blue of the summer sea, and one just on the edge of green. He’d spent too long looking at those eyes, fascinated by them, wide and welcoming. They’d crept through the kitchens and up the servants’ stairs, she’d poured him a scotch .

And that was all he remembered. Good Lord. He had to stop drinking. Just as soon as today was over. He would need drink to survive his father’s wedding day—the day William gained his fourth stepmother. Younger than all the others. Younger than him. And very very rich. Not that he’d met her, this paragon of brideliness. He’d meet her at the ceremony and not before, just as he’d done the other three.

And then, once the familial coffers had been once again filled, he would leave. Back to Oxford, having done his duty and played the role of doting son. Back to the glorious, libidinal life that belonged to heirs to dukedoms, filled with drink and dice and women and not a worry in the world. Back to the life he adored. But tonight, he would honor his father and greet his new mother and pretend that he cared for the sake of propriety. And perhaps, after he was done playing the role of heir, he’d seek out the playful young thing from the gardens and do his best to recall the events of the night before. Thank Heaven for country estates and well-attended nuptials. There wasn’t a female in creation who could resist the sexual lure of a wedding, and because of that, William had a great affinity for holy matrimony. How lucky that his father had such a knack for it. He grinned and stretched across the bed, throwing one arm wide over the cool linen sheets.

Cold linen sheets. Cold wet linen sheets. What in hell? His eyes flew open. It was only then that he realized it wasn’t his room. It wasn’t his bed. And the red wash across the bedsheets, dampening his fingers with its sticky residue, was not his blood. Before he could speak, or move, or understand, the door to the strange bedchamber opened and a maid appeared, fresh-faced and eager. There were a dozen different things that could have gone through his mind at that moment . a hundred of them. And yet, in the fleeting seconds between the young maid’s entrance and her notice of him, William thought of only one thing—that he was about to ruin the poor girl’s life.

He knew, without doubt, that she would never again casually open a door, or spread sheets across a bed, or bask in the rare, bright sunlight of a Devonshire winter morning without remembering this moment. A moment he could not change. He did not speak when she noticed him, nor when she froze in place, nor when she went deathly pale and her brown eyes—funny that he noticed their color—went wide with first recognition and then horror. Nor did he speak when she opened her mouth and screamed. No doubt he would have done the same, had he been in her position. It was only when she was through with that first, ear-shattering shriek—the one that brought footmen and maids and wedding guests and his father running—that he spoke, taking the quiet moment before the coming storm to ask, “Where am I?” The maid simply stared, dumbstruck. He made to move from the bed, the sheets falling to his waist, stopping short as he realized his clothes were nowhere in sight. He was naked. In a bed that was not his own. And he was covered in blood.

He met the maid’s horrified gaze again, and when he spoke, the words came out young and full of something he would later identify as fear. “Whose bed is this?” Remarkably, she found her answer without stuttering. “Miss Lowe.” Miss Mara Lowe, daughter of a wealthy financier, with a dowry large enough to catch a duke. Miss Mara Lowe, soon-to-be the Duchess of Lamont. His future stepmother. Chapter 1 The Fallen Angel London Twelve Years Later There is beauty in the moment when flesh meets bone. It is born of the violent crunch of knuckles against jaw, and the deep thud of fist against abdomen, and the hollow grunt that echoes from the chest of a man in the split second before his defeat. Those who revel in such beauty, fight. Some fight for pleasure.

For the moment when an opponent collapses to the floor in a cloud of sawdust, without strength or breath or honor. Some fight for glory. For the moment when a champion looms over his beaten and broken adversary, slick with sweat and dust and blood. And some fight for power. Underscored by the strain of sinew and the ache of soon-to-be bruises that whisper as victory comes with the promise of spoils. But the Duke of Lamont, known throughout London’s darkest corners as Temple, fought for peace. He fought for the moment when he was nothing but muscle and bone, movement and force, sleight and feint. For the way brutality blocked the world beyond, silencing the thunder of the crowd and the memories of his mind, and left him with only breath and might. He fought because, for twelve years, it was in the ring alone that he knew the truth of himself and of the world. Violence was pure.

All else, tainted. And that knowledge made him the best there was. Undefeated throughout London—throughout Europe, many wagered—it was Temple who stood in the ring each night, wounds rarely scarred over before they threatened to bleed again, knuckles wrapped in long strips of linen. There, in the ring, he faced his next opponent—a different man each night, each one believing Temple could be bested. Each one believing himself the man to reduce the great, immovable Temple to a mass of heavy flesh on the floor of the largest room of London’s most exclusive gaming hell. The draw of The Fallen Angel was powerful, built upon tens of thousands of pounds wagered each evening, on the promise of vice and sin that called to Mayfair at sunset, on the men of title and wealth and unparalleled worth who stood shoulder to shoulder and learned of their weakness from the rattle of ivory and the whisper of baize and the spin of mahogany. And when they had lost everything in the glittering, glorious rooms above, their last resort was the room that lurked below—the ring. The underworld over which Temple reigned. The Angel’s founders had created a single path of redemption for these men. There was a way those who lost their fortune to the casino could regain it.

Fight Temple. Win. And all was forgiven. It had never happened, of course. For twelve years, Temple had fought, first in dark alleys filled with darker characters for survival, and then in lower clubs, for money and power and influence. All the things he’d been promised. All the things he’d been born to. All the things he had lost in one, unremembered night. The thought crept into the rhythm of the fight and for a barely-there moment, his body weighed heavy on his feet, and his opponent—half Temple’s size and a third of his strength—landed a blow, forceful and lucky, at the perfect angle to jar the teeth and bring stars to the eyes. Temple danced backward, propelled by the unexpected cross, pain and shock banishing thought as he met the triumphant gaze of his unnamed opponent.

Not unnamed. Of course he was named. But Temple rarely spoke the names. The men were merely a means to his end. Just as he was a means to theirs. One second—less—and he had regained his balance, already feinting left, then right, knowing his reach was half a foot longer than that of his foe, sensing the ache in his opponent’s muscles, understanding the way the younger, angrier man fell victim to fatigue and emotion. This one had much to fight for: forty thousand pounds and an estate in Essex; a farm in Wales that bred the best racehorses in Britain; and a half-dozen paintings from a Dutch master for whom Temple had never cared. A young daughter’s dowry. A younger son’s education. All of it lost at the tables above.

All of it on the line below. Temple met his opponent’s gaze, seeing the desperation there. The hate. Hatred for the club that had proven to be his downfall, for the men who ran it, and for Temple most of all—the centurion who guarded the hoard thieved from the pockets of fine, upstanding gentlemen. That line of thinking was how the losers slept at night. As though it were the Angel’s fault that loose purse strings and unlucky dice were a disastrous combination. As though it were Temple’s fault. But it was the hate that always lost them. A useless emotion born of fear and hope and desire. They did not know the trick of it—the truth of it.

That those who fought for something were bound to lose. It was time to put this one out of his misery. The cacophony of calls from the edges of the ring rose to a fever pitch as Temple attacked, sending his opponent scurrying across the sawdust-covered floor. Where he had once toyed with the other man, his fists now delivered unsympathetic, unwavering blows, connecting in a barrage of hits. Cheek. Jaw. Torso. The other man reached the ropes marking the edge of the ring, tripping backward into them as Temple continued his assault, taking pity on this man who had hoped he might win. Had hoped he might beat Temple. Might beat the Angel.

The final blow stole the strength from his opponent, and Temple watched him collapse in a heap at his feet, the din of the crowd deafening and laced with bloodlust. He waited, breath coming harsh, for his opponent to move. To rise to his feet for a second bout. For another chance. The man remained still, arms wrapped about his head. Smart. Smarter than most of the others. Temple turned, meeting the eyes of the oddsmaker at the side of the ring. Lifted his chin in a silent question. The older man’s gaze flickered over the heap at Temple’s feet, barely settling before moving on.

He raised a gnarled finger and pointed to the red flag at the far corner of the ring. Temple’s flag. The crowd roared. Temple turned to face the enormous mirror that stretched along one side of the room, meeting his own black gaze for a long moment, nodding once before turning his back to the reflection and climbing between the ropes. Pushing through the throng of men who paid good money to watch the fight, he ignored the reach of the grinning, cheering multitudes, their fingers clamoring for a touch of the sweat-dampened skin turned black with ink that encircled his arms —something they could brag about for years to come. They’d touched a killer and lived to tell the tale. The ritual had made him angry at the beginning, then proud as time marched. Now, it left him bored. He threw open the heavy steel door that lead to his private rooms, allowing it to swing shut behind him, already unraveling one long strip of linen from his aching knuckles. He did not look back when the door slammed closed, knowing none on the floor of the fight would dare follow him into his dark, underground sanctum.

Not without invitation. The room was dark and quiet, insulated from the public space beyond, where he knew from past experience that men were rushing to claim their winnings, a handful helping the loser up, calling for a surgeon to wrap broken ribs and assess bruises. He tossed the length of linen to the floor, reaching in the darkness for a nearby lamp and lighting it without faltering. Light spread through the room, revealing a low oak table, bare save a neat stack of papers and an ornately carved ebony box. He began to unravel the bandage from the other fist, gaze settling on the papers, now unnecessary. Never necessary. Adding the second strip of fabric to the first, Temple crossed the near-empty room, reaching for a leather strap affixed to the ceiling, allowing his weight to settle, flexing the muscles of his arms and shoulders and back. He could not help the long breath that came with the deep stretch, punctuated by a quiet knock on a second door at the dark end of the room. “Come,” he said, not turning to look as the door opened and closed. “Another falls.

” “They always do,” Temple completed the stretch and faced Chase, the founder of The Fallen Angel, who crossed the room and sat in a low wooden chair nearby. “It was a good fight.” “Was it?” They all seemed the same these days. “It’s remarkable that they continue to imagine they might beat you,” Chase said, leaning back, long legs extending wide across the bare floor. “You’d think by now, they’d have given up.” Temple moved to pour a glass of water from a carafe nearby. “It’s difficult to turn from the promise of retribution. Even if it’s the barest promise.” As one who had never had a chance at retribution, Temple knew that better than anyone. “You broke three of Montlake’s ribs.

” Temple drank deep, a rivulet of water spilling down his chin. He swiped the back of his hand across his face and said, “Ribs heal.” Chase nodded once, shifting in the chair. “Your Spartan lifestyle is not the most comfortable, you know.” Temple set the glass down. “No one asked you to linger. You’ve velour and stuffing somewhere above, no doubt.” Chase smiled, brushing a speck of lint from one trouser leg and placing a piece of paper on the table, next to the stack already there. The list of challenges for the next night and the one after. A never-ending list of men who wished to fight for their fortunes.

Temple exhaled, long and low. He didn’t want to think on the next fight. All he wanted was hot water and a soft bed. He yanked on a nearby bellpull, requesting his bath be drawn. Temple’s gaze flickered to the paper, close enough to see that there were a half-dozen names scrawled upon it, too far to read the names themselves. He met his friend’s knowing gaze. “Lowe challenges you again.” He should have expected the words—Christopher Lowe had challenged him twelve times in as many days—and yet they came like a blow. “No.” The same answer he’d given eleven times.

“And you should stop bringing him to me.” “Why? Shouldn’t the boy have his chance like all the others?” Temple met Chase’s gaze. “You’re a bloodthirsty bastard.” Chase laughed. “Much to my family’s dismay, not a bastard.” “Bloodthirsty, though.” “I simply enjoy an impassioned fight.” Chase shrugged. “He’s lost thousands.” “I don’t care if he’s lost the crown jewels.

I won’t fight him.” “Temple—” “When we made this deal . when I agreed to come in on the Angel, we agreed that the fights were mine. Didn’t we?” Chase hesitated, seeing where the conversation was headed. Temple repeated himself. “Didn’t we?” “Yes.” “I won’t fight Lowe.” Temple paused, then added, “He’s not even a member.” “He’s a member of Knight’s. Now afforded the same rights as any of the Angel’s members.

” Knight’s, the newest holding of The Fallen Angel, a lower club that carried the pleasure and debt of four hundred less-than-savory characters. Anger flared. “Goddammit . if not for Cross and his idiot decisions—” “He had his reasons,” Chase said. “Lord deliver us from men in love.” “Hear hear,” Chase agreed. “But we’ve a second hell to run, nonetheless, and that hell carries Lowe’s debt. And he’s due a fight if he asks for it.” “How has the boy lost thousands?” Temple asked, hating the frustration that edged into his tone. “Everything his father touched turned to gold.

” It was why Lowe’s sister had been such a welcome bride. He hated the thought. The memories that came with it. Chase lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Luck turns quickly.” The truth they all lived by. Temple swore. “I’m not fighting him. Cut him loose.” Chase met his eyes.

“There’s no proof you killed her.” Temple’s gaze did not waver. “There’s no proof I didn’t.” “I’d wager everything I have that you didn’t.” “But not because you know it’s true.” Temple didn’t even know it. “I know you.” No one knew him. Not really. “Well, Lowe doesn’t.

I won’t fight him. And I won’t have this conversation again. If you want to give the boy a fight, you fight him.” He waited for Chase’s next words. A new attack. It didn’t come. “Well, London would like that.” The founder of the Angel stood, lifting the list of potential fights along with the stack of papers that had been on the table since before the fight. “Shall I return these to the books?” Temple shook his head, extending one hand for them. “I shall do it.

” It was part of the ritual. “Why pull the files in the first place?” Chase asked.

.

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