“Oh, I say, bad luck, Alderley! The bounder must have cheated to best you like that—but considering his origins, we shouldn’t expect anything less.” Dexter glared at the speaker. Viscount de Blanchard had a reputation for snobbery—among other, less palatable, traits, and, like most of the room, loathed Dexter for nothing more than his humble birthright. After all, what right had the grandson of a blacksmith to attend a society party? The man across the card table wore a gray pallor. And well, he might. For tonight, Dexter had relieved his enemy of his fortune. His plan was working. One final move and victory would be his. He cared little for the money. His eye was on the real prize—the woman standing demurely beside her father—the honorable Elizabeth Alderley. Honorable in title, if not in behavior. And when Dexter finally took possession of her, he’d use her title to further his business where titles drew investors as surely as carcasses attracted flies. He lifted his gaze, and Elizabeth’s eyes met his. Her eyes had been described as captivating, but they held a calculating expression as if continually searching for the outcome which best suited her, and to hell with anyone standing in her way. She curled her lips into a smile—red lips, which she scraped her teeth over to give them a swollen look she clearly imagined to be attractive to the opposite sex.
Foolish woman. Once she became Dexter’s, she’d discover who the true master was in their relationship. She had used her sexuality to increase his need for her, and he’d willingly played along, taking pleasure from her administrations. Elizabeth would make the ideal wife, for he’d never be at risk of falling in love with her. And he’d enjoy teaching her humility. All those nights she’d given him the cold shoulder to increase his desire, every instance of her flirtations with others to incite his jealousy… He would teach her what it was like to be on the receiving end of her games — then she’d find out how a true master of seduction operated. Her need would be his plaything. To toy with, to pay her back for how she’d tried to play him. And to pay her father back for the humiliation Dexter had suffered at that man’s hands—to see Alderley willingly give his precious daughter to the boy he’d once spat on in the dirt. “Mr.
Hart?” Their host’s voice returned him to the present. Dexter pulled out his pocket watch, making a great show of staring at it, then he yawned and snapped it shut. “I’m afraid I must be going. I had no idea how late it was.” He rose to leave. Elizabeth’s smile slipped, and she narrowed her eyes. He’d seen that look on her before—aimed at a servant she admonished, and, lately, directed at Dexter himself as her way of showing disapproval. She nudged Alderley, and the older man glanced up, a flash of irritation in his eyes. Dexter smiled to himself. If it were any man but Dexter Hart, Alderley would be glad to rid himself of his daughter.
At twenty-six, and on her fifth season, with a reputation for being a shrew, she was heading for spinsterhood. “Papa,” she prompted. “I have nothing else to wager,” Alderley said. “Everything else is entailed. The bastard’s cleared me out.” Dexter drew back his chair and stepped away. “Wait!” Alderley cried. “Give me a chance to win it back.” “What with?” Dexter asked. Alderley’s shoulders slumped.
“You cannot leave when I have nothing,” he said, a plea in his tone. “Have mercy, for pity’s sake!” Why was it that the worst bullies turned into sniveling wrecks when bested? A ripple of unease threaded through the room. Dexter glanced across to where Earl Stiles stood next to their host, a look of disapproval on his face. But neither man knew the root of the hatred between Dexter and Alderley. Neither knew the scars he bore as a result of the beating he’d sustained as a boy at that bastard’s hands. His back still itched at the memory of the lashes. Fifteen years was a long time to wait for vengeance on the man who had almost killed him. He closed his eyes, reliving the memory of the lash slicing into his flesh. Have mercy, sir! Mercy! To a filthy brat? You deserve all this and more! Dexter resumed his seat. “You beg for mercy, Alderley?” He sneered.
“I’ll do anything to win it back!” Alderley cried. Dexter leaned forward and drummed the table with his fingers. “There is, perhaps, one thing you might care to wager…” He hesitated, then shook his head. “No—it’s foolish of me to mention it.” Alderley’s eyes grew bright with desperation. The fish had caught sight of the bait. All Dexter need do was reel him in. “Tell me,” he said. Dexter picked up his brandy glass, took a slow sip, then set it down. The room fell quiet as every pair of eyes focused on him.
“Very well, Alderley,” he said. “One turn of the card. If you draw high, I’ll return your stake.” “And if I lose?” “You’ll give me your daughter’s hand in marriage.” An expression of horror crossed Alderley’s face. “M-my daughter?” “Yes.” Dexter savored his enemy’s horror. “Her hand, with your blessing, delivered to me in front of as many witnesses as I choose, to acknowledge your eagerness to welcome me into your family.” Elizabeth feigned surprise and gasped, but hunger glittered in her eyes. Their host barked an order, and a footman rushed forward and refilled Alderley’s glass.
The old man took it and drained it in a single gulp, then spluttered, his face growing red with rage. “How dare you!” Dexter shrugged. “You’re under no obligation, Alderley. I care not either way.” Alderley glanced at his daughter and narrowed his eyes. “I’m prepared to be generous,” Dexter continued. “If you lose, I’ll return a portion of your funds in recognition of your daughter’s worth. Shall we say five hundred guineas?” He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, letting the idea sink in—that he’d just offered to buy Alderley’s daughter as if she were a commodity. The trait which served him best in business was patience. The winner in any business deal was the party with less need for it.
With countless creditors snapping at his heels, Alderley was at a disadvantage. Dexter merely needed to wait for him to acknowledge it—to himself and the whole company. Alderley stared at the table for a full minute. Then he lifted his head and met Dexter’s gaze. The expression in his pale blue eyes was that of sly triumph. “Very well, Hart,” he said. “We have a deal. One turn of the cards. Highest wins. I’ll wager my firstborn child’s hand in marriage.
” Something about his expression gave Dexter a feeling of unease, as if Alderley had the advantage. “Not yet, Alderley,” he said. “Your pledge must be legally binding.” “I hardly think we can draw up a marriage contract tonight,” Alderley scoffed. “We can draw up a promissory note that both parties can sign,” Dexter said. “If we can find two men willing to act as witnesses.” Alderley nodded. “I’ll agree, provided the note places an obligation on us both. If I lose, you must promise to honor the marriage. In turn, I shall march the bride down the aisle myself and hand her over with my full blessing.
” “Of course.” Dexter turned to their host. “Lord Strathdean, would you be so kind as to act as witness?” Their host nodded. “Alderley should choose the other witness,” he said. “Very well,” Alderley said. “I choose Stiles.” By the time the note had been drawn up and handed to Stiles for safekeeping, the music from the room next door had stopped, and the other guests had entered the drawing room. Alderley was playing into Dexter’s hands. As a professed man of honor, he couldn’t rescind his offer if he lost. Not with the eyes of half the ton on him.
Alderley reached for the cards. “A new deck, if you please,” Dexter said. “I want this to be a fair game. Honor demands it.” “What do you know of honor!” Alderley hissed. “A damned sight more than you.” “Steady on, Hart,” Strathdean said. “There’s no call for that kind of talk with ladies present.” A footman passed him a new pack of cards, and he shuffled it, then cut the deck. “Alderley, you first.
” The older man picked a card and looked at it. A slow smile crept across his face, and then he placed it face-up on the table. “The queen of diamonds,” Strathdean said. “Now you, Hart.” Focusing his gaze on Elizabeth, Dexter picked a card and dropped it on the table. He had no need to look at it. The look of glee on Elizabeth’s face, and the whispers threatening through the room, told him all he needed to know. “The ace of hearts.” “Let me be the first to congratulate you,” Alderley said. Why was the bastard smiling? Dexter rose and extended his hand toward Elizabeth.
“Miss Alderley, would you do me the honor…” “Wait!” Alderley said. “What are you doing?” “I believe I’m now engaged to your daughter.” “That’s right,” Alderley said, a smile on his face. “My first daughter.” Elizabeth turned to her father. “Papa, surely you cannot mean…” “I have another daughter,” Alderley said. “Have you taken leave of your senses, old chap?” Strathdean asked. “I’ve known you for over twenty years. You have two children—a son and a daughter.” “I have three children,” Alderley said.
My natural daughter is my firstborn. Her harlot of a mother blackmailed me into recognizing her as my own.” “Surely, you’re jesting!” Stiles said. “I’m perfectly serious,” Alderley replied. “And now I can reap my reward in lieu of the expense of her keep. Thank the devil I’ll no longer have to waste any more funds on her.” Elizabeth had gone pale with rage. “Papa!” she cried. “Tell them you’re jesting! I’ll marry Hart to preserve your reputation. I am happy to sacrifice myself—for you.
And nobody need mention that bastard again!” A volley of tutting resonated around the room at her coarse expression. Hypocritical creature! It was she who’d suggested the scheme to extort her father’s funds in order to secure his overt blessing on their marriage. Yet now, she was playing the martyr! “Elizabeth, I won’t throw you away on that uncouth brute when I have someone far more expendable,” Alderley said. He turned his gaze to Dexter. “You wouldn’t dream of going back on your word, would you, Hart? Imagine the damage it would do to your reputation! What other contracts might you be willing to break?” The man was right. In a roomful of men—existing and potential investors—Dexter had signed a pledge. There was no going back without losing his reputation. And for a banker, reputation was everything. Alderley struggled to his feet and held out his hand. Though Dexter longed to slice it off with a steak knife, he had no choice but to take it.
“It was a pleasure doing business with you, Hart,” he said. “I trust you’ll find satisfaction with your purchase. I’d call it the perfect match, but would argue that even the bastard daughter of a viscount ranks above the grandson of a blacksmith.” *** “Celebrating already, Hart?” Dexter looked up from his brandy. His friend Harold Pelham stood before him, a broad smile on his face. No, Dexter was most certainly not celebrating. His plans to marry himself and his siblings to titles had been destroyed. Dorothea was too old to consider a respectable union that didn’t stink of desperation. Delilah had fallen pregnant out of wedlock. As for Daisy—that horse had already bolted.
“May I join you?” Pelham asked. “It’s a free country,” Dexter growled. “A man can come and go as he pleases.” “Not in Whites.” Pelham settled into a chair. “Fortunately, some havens exist to give a man sanctuary from the rest of the world.” “Are you here to escape the world, Pelham?” Dexter asked. “Or do you seek sanctuary from your wife?” Pelham let out a laugh. “The secret to a successful marriage is each party having a haven in which to be themselves for a few hours, rather than one half of a couple. Of course, you’ll soon learn this yourself, won’t you, Hart? We should toast your good fortune.
” Dexter sighed. “News travels fast.” “Most men win cash in a wager,” Pelham said, “though Stiles won a horse last Season at the cast of a die. But I know of no man who managed to win himself a wife.” “I’d have preferred the horse.” Pelham laughed. “I’m sure you’ll ride the woman just as well. Though, if I’m permitted to be honest, I’d say you’d be hard-pressed to find happiness shackled to the honorable Elizabeth Alderley.” “I’m not marrying Elizabeth.” “Aren’t you betrothed to Alderley’s daughter?” “Elizabeth has an older sister.
” “There’s a brother in the army,” Pelham said, “but I know of no sister. Surely she’d have had her come-out by now?” “It seems Alderley has a natural daughter,” Dexter said. “You jest.” “Unfortunately, not.” The humiliation at being bested still stung. Alderley had played a longer game than Dexter thought him capable of, revealing his piece on the chessboard when least expected. “It seems he tucked her away in some obscure little village,” Dexter said, “to be brought into play when he had use of her.” “Have you met her?” “No,” Dexter said. “With luck, I’ll never have to.” “You’d be excused if you refused,” Pelham said.
“Alderley’s on shaky ground if he takes out a lawsuit.” “It’s a matter of honor,” Dexter said. “I signed an agreement in front of some of the most prominent men of London society to wed Alderley’s eldest child. With a business founded on reputation, I cannot risk breaking the promise I gave my signature to.” He drained his glass. “My only hope is that she’ll do me the honor of jilting me at the altar.” Pelham let out a laugh. “That would increase your eligibility tenfold, my friend. Next to a title and a substantial income, there’s nothing more attractive to a lady than a man with a broken heart.” “Then I’m safe,” Dexter replied, “for I have no heart—at least not for a woman.
” “I almost feel sorry for her,” Pelham said. “Don’t,” replied Dexter. “If she agrees to this marriage, then she’ll prove she’s as avaricious as her sister.” And he would take pleasure in teaching her what happened to women driven by avarice. Chapter Two “I don’t understand!” The child pouted and folded his arms. Meggie knelt beside him and placed a hand on his arm. “It’s quite simple, Thomas,” she said. “The bishop moves along the diagonal—see? So if you place your knight within his eye line, then my bishop can take your knight.” She picked up the knight and moved it across the board. “But, place him here,” she said, “then not only does he threaten the queen, but he’s safe from being taken by other pieces.
That’s the beauty of the knight, you see. Because he moves differently to the other pieces, he can capture them by deception and wit, rather than an outright attack.” “Like the knights in the story of King Arthur, which you taught me last week?” “Yes!” she said. “Clever child!” The door opened, and a simply-dressed woman with iron-gray hair walked in. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Preston,” Meggie prompted. Nine little voices struck up in unison. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Preston!” “Thank you, children,” Mrs. Preston said.
“That’s enough lessons for today. But before you go, what do you say to Miss Alder?” “Thank you, Miss Alder,” the children chorused, and they filed out of the schoolroom. Meggie tipped the chess set into a box. “I’ll never understand why you insist on teaching the children that game,” Mrs. Preston said. “It’s too difficult for them.” “As with anything,” Meggie said, “it’s easier to learn the basics while you’re young. Thomas is a bright lad.” “But what opportunities will a child of his class have to play chess?” “Perhaps none,” Meggie replied. “But chess is a game of strategy, and as such, it can equip us for life.
Learning the moves is simple. The complexity arrives when one begins to understand how all the pieces interact with an end goal. You must plan several moves, anticipating your opponent’s moves, and adopt counter-strategies if necessary.” She hesitated, the flash of a memory stinging at her heart. “It also teaches us the necessity of sacrifice.” A look of sympathy crossed Mrs. Preston’s eyes. She took Meggie’s hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Dear child.” Mrs.
Preston began tidying the books and papers. “Oh, no,” Meggie protested. “Let me.” The old woman let out a sigh. Since yesterday, she seemed to have aged. “Is something the matter, Mrs. Preston?” Meggie asked. “I’m just a little concerned about Mr. Adams.” “Our landlord?”